General Sherman considered two options for the impending campaign in North Carolina: to continue north through Charlotte, Salisbury, and Greensboro, and invade western Virginia or to feint in the direction of Charlotte while turning his main body eastward toward Fayetteville, North Carolina (Barrett 1956; Cox 1882; Oates 1981).
Federal successes along the coast, General Sherman’s need for resupply, and the less restrictive ground to the east made the latter more attractive.
The course of action selected was to turn eastward and march on the intermediate objective, Fayetteville. The maneuver would threaten both Raleigh and Goldsboro and be conducted in cooperation with thrusts inland by Federal forces from the coast. From Fayetteville, General Sherman would move northeastward toward his main objective, Goldsboro, and link up with Federal forces moving in from the east and southeast.
Fayetteville, located at the highest navigable point of the Cape Fear River, would allow resupply from and communication with Federal forces in Wilmington.
Also, a large number of Confederate troops were west of the Cape Fear River awaiting an indication of General Sherman’s intentions. If Federal deceptions worked, General Sherman could beat the Confederates to Fayetteville, seize the bridges over the Cape Fear River, and trap the Confederates on the western side. If the Federal force didn’t reach Fayetteville first, they could still arrive in time to catch the Confederates in the vulnerable position of crossing the river.
From the coast, Federal forces under the command of Major General John M. Schofield, U.S.A., would move inland from their respective bases toward Goldsboro. Moving northward from Wilmington were Major General Terry and the X Corps; pushing westward from New Bern were Major General Jacob D. Cox, U.S.A., and the XXIII Corps.
To deceive the Confederates, General Sherman continued northward with his four Corps toward Charlotte. General Sherman’s force was organized in two wings; the left consisted of the XIV and XX corps and the right the XV and XVII Corps. Sherman’s Cavalry Division, commanded by Brevet Major General Kilpatrick, operated well forward, as if scouting a route to Charlotte. Once this demonstration had its effect, General Sherman planned to turn abruptly eastward, drawing his cavalry back in to screen his left flank.
At Fayetteville, General Sherman intended to raze the Federal arsenal and rendezvous with supply laden gunboats sent up the Cape Fear River from Wilmington.
The New Times March 1865:
General Johnston had few options. Lieutenant General Hardee’s 6,000 man Corps was in close proximity to General Sherman’s 60,000 man force and could delay it for a short time, but could be expected to do little else against such overwhelming odds.
Besides, with Confederate troops in short supply, the possible loss of Hardee’s Corps was unacceptable. Elements of the Army of Tennessee were moving into the state, but even these additions left the Confederate force greatly inferior. When all expected forces were present, General Johnston could expect his men to number no more than 30,000.
General Johnston’s hope for success was to concentrate as much force as he could muster against one wing of Sherman’s Army. Compelled by terrain or the execution of a feint, General Sherman’s wings were at times beyond immediate supporting distance of one another. If General Johnston could predict this occurrence, he could attack one wing and destroy it, thus evening the odds.
Using the cavalry of Lieutenant General Wheeler and Major General Matthew C. Butler, C.S.A., General Johnston planned to delay Sherman while he organized his forces.
With the Confederate Cavalry delaying and providing information on General Sherman’s movement, General Johnston should have enough time to put his plan into action.