["To Prepare for Sherman's Coming": The Battle of Wise's Forks, March 1865 by Wade Sokolosky and Mark A. Smith (Savas Beatie, 2015). Hardcover, 12 maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:237/288. ISBN:978-1-61121-266-2. $27.95 ]
The 1865 Carolinas Campaign has attracted a rather full library shelf of fine modern studies but one important aspect of it, the Union operation launched from the North Carolina coast with the dual object of capturing Goldsboro and linking up with William T. Sherman's advancing host, has been comparatively neglected. The key battle at Wise's Forks (or Wyse Fork) has been the subject of two recent but obscure publications (a 2008 self-published battle study by Timothy Auten and a 2006 compilation of source material and illustrations edited by Tom Edwards and William Rowland) but neither work approaches the research, descriptive depth, and adept analysis of Wade Sokolosky and Mark Smith's "To Prepare for Sherman's Coming": The Battle of Wise's Forks, March 1865.
By the time Sherman's army reached the heart of the Old North State in March of 1865 it was at the tail end of a long march and badly in need of refit and resupply. The goal was to meet General John Schofield's newly assembled Union army at Goldsboro, where it was hoped that the town's rail link to the coast would be already repaired and ready to unleash the flow of Union logistical abundance. It didn't quite go as planned, with Schofield's columns from Wilmington and New Bern slowed by support problems of their own as well as a revitalized and reinforced Confederate resistance coordinated by Department of North Carolina commander General Braxton Bragg.
Why Schofield's army moved so slowly is clearly explained by Sokolosky and Smith. To begin with, Innis Palmer, the Union general tasked with laying the groundwork for the operation, dawdled for weeks so by the time Schofield and his chief lieutenant Jacob Cox arrived the whole operation was badly behind schedule. To add to this, the units arriving by ship to join the expedition did so without their wheeled transport. The lack of a wagon train would wed the entire command to the railroad between New Bern and Goldsboro, a stretch that was extensively damaged during the war. This in turn meant that Cox's transport-starved divisions could advance only as quickly as the railroad could be rebuilt.
Nevertheless, by the end of the first week in March the Union army was nearing the Neuse River and the town of Kinston. Bragg's defenders included NC Junior Reserves bolstered by Robert Hoke's Army of Northern Virginia division and a steady trickle of Army of Tennessee remnants under D.H. Hill. The ensuing March 7-10 Battle of Wise's Fork is recounted in exquisite detail in the book. On the 7th, two of Cox's divisions, those of Palmer and Samuel Carter, timidly brushed up against Confederate fortifications positioned behind Southwest Creek. The authors criticize the Union failure to seize at least one creek crossing on that first day, a result which would have unhinged the entire Confederate position. Instead, Palmer and Innis's divisions bedded down at sites neither mutually supporting nor adequately picketed.
On the 8th, Bragg went on the offensive, gashing the defenders and effectively destroying an entire Union brigade. Unfortunately, Bragg spoiled the fruits of his victory by sending half of his strike force on a fruitless flanking march to the north. In the meantime, Cox's third division (his best one under Thomas Ruger) arrived on the field and assumed its place in the Union center between the railroad and the Wise's Fork crossroads. With both flanks refused and the army digging in along a rise fronted by a swollen creek, the Union position was strong and Cox would use his advantage in interior lines to good effect during the rest of the battle.
Bragg continued his offensive on the following day but Hoke's attack against the Union right flank was aborted [according to the authors, the sources have little to say about this mysterious event]. On the 10th, Hoke surprised Cox by hitting the Union far left flank. The danger was only momentary, however, and reinforcements from the center assisted by federal artillery positioned atop the high ground surrounding Wise's Fork helped break up the Confederate attack. In the afternoon, Hill's Army of Tennessee contingent attacked the enemy center and was also repulsed. Denied quick victory, Bragg fell back into the North Carolina interior, his units detached and sent to join Joe Johnston for the climactic Battle of Bentonville.
The book's battle narrative is impressive, a product of the authors's expert knowledge of the available source material and the ground upon which the battle was fought. Supporting the text is an excellent set of maps created by master cartographer George Skoch. Some scholars have questioned the wisdom of Johnston supporting Bragg's offensive but Sokolosky and Smith recognize that Schofield's army represented the most immediate threat to the already precarious Confederate strategic position in North Carolina. Time was running short and the margin for error was very thin but even with a number of missed opportunities Bragg's army was able to halt Schofield's advance for four critical days, when every moment was precious to Johnston's feverish attempt to concentrate enough troops to deal a substantial blow to Sherman. The authors argue persuasively that the Wise's Fork battle possessed a strategic importance that belied its modest size and death toll.
The appendices contain orders of battle as well as detailed investigations into numbers and losses. Wise's Forks is one of many Civil War battles with multiple names and what's missing is an explanation of why the authors went with Wise's Forks, instead of the more typical Wyse Fork, but that's a minor point.
In its exhibition of all of the essential elements of the modern Civil War battle study, To Prepare for Sherman's Coming is a flawless book. It is mandatory reading for serious students of the Civil War in North Carolina as well as those with a more general interest in the final military campaigns of the war.