On the sixteenth of March, 1865, as the Confederates withdrew from their first and second defensive lines, two-thirds of the Union Fourteenth Corps joined the Twentieth Corps' advance. The Fourteenth Corps was assigned the sector of the Union line assaulting and attempting to envelop the Confederate right. General Hardee, commanding the Confederates, was assisted by cavalry General Joe Wheeler in meeting the threat. The Union brigade most involved in the action was the First Brigade of General Morgan's Division, commanded by Brigadier General William Vandever. Civil War author Mark Smith described the combat as follows:
"Keenly aware that Sherman was massing his army to assault his undefended right flank, Hardee asked Wheeler to position his troopers on that right flank in order to extend the Confederate line all the way to the Cape Fear River. Wheeler readily agreed and rode off to comply with the request.
"While Wheeler positioned his troopers, Vandever's Federal brigade also moved into position to assault the unprotected Confederate right flank. Initially, everything went according to plan. During the early stages of their advance, Vandever's troops encountered very little resistance as they moved across the open fields. However, they unexpectedly encountered a deep ravine that lay directly in their line of attack. The 40 foot-deep ravine had nearly vertical walls that ran west toward the Cape Fear River, meaning that Vandever's men could not bypass it. However, if the Federal plan was to succeed, these men would have to find a way to cross the ravine. Vandever sent two companies from the 16th Illinois and three companies for the 17th New York forward as skirmishers. They scrambled down into the ravine and attempted to negotiate its far bank with little success. Most of them ended up stuck in the bottom of the deep ravine, unable to climb the steep walls. The blue clad soldiers had to grab onto roots and rely on the assistance of other men in order to struggle to the top of the other side of the ravine. A private of the 10th Michigan recalled the extreme hardships faced by his regiment in the ravine. 'We could only descend by the help of bushes which grew from either bank,' he wrote, 'swing down from point to pont, crossing a stream at the bottom, and again drawing ourselves up by the shrubbery on the opposite side.' This long, arduous process took time, meaning that the Federal effort to turn Hardee's right soon ground to a screeching halt.
"While Vandever's troops struggled in the ravine, Wheeler's horsemen erected hasty barricades in the field on the north side of the ravine. Wheeler's line rested only a few hundred yards away from the ravine, and extended to the banks of the Cape Fear River. A twenty-yard buffer of woods provided the only cover available to those Union soldiers trapped between the ravine and Wheeler's line. As Vandever's skirmishers clawed their way out of the ravine and exited the wood line, Wheeler's dismounted horsemen unleashed a devastating volley into their ranks. The stunned Union skirmishers fell back to the cover of the woods. 'Volley after volley was sent and returned,' recalled a member of the 17th New York nicknamed 'Old Rock.' The firing was so heavy that the 17th New York was ordered to lie down and find shelter.
"In the meantime, the situation in the ravine grew tense. Vandever's skirmishers realized that they were pinned down and that they could not retreat across the ravine without being captured or killed. They had only one option, which was to find any available cover and return fire. As casualties mounted, Morgan realized that any further attempts to continue the advance would bring about a senseless waste of life, so he ordered Vandever to abandon any further thoughts of assaulting across the ravine. To make matters worse for the 17th New York, daylight faded, and 'it grew chilly and rained heavily,' noted a New Yorker. 'We abandoned our line leaving only a skirmishing party under command of Captain James B. Horner.' Union losses at the ravine were heavy. Vandever lost 66 men killed or wounded, while his 17th New York Infantry lost 32 officers and men, including its regimental commander, Lt. Col. James Lake."