I visited the historic Bennett Place, in Durham, North Carolina, this past July. Run by the state of North Carolina, it is a historic site that you need to visit if you are in the area. I was fortunate to arrive at the Bennett Place right when they were opening. I introduced myself to Diane Smith and Jeremiah Degennaro, both historic interpreters at the site. Diane was scheduled to provide a tour to a group of youths, but arranged for Kent Hinkson to provide me a tour. While I had some knowledge of the Bennett Place, the tour was much more interesting with my personal tour guide. I quickly learned that Kent is an expert on the Bennett Place and the historic conferences held in the Bennett’s small house between CSA General Joseph E. Johnston, Major General John C. Breckinridge and US Major General William T. Sherman.
With the surrender of CSA Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, the only remaining hostilities in the Eastern Theater were in North Carolina. While Grant was battling Lee at Petersburg, Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was desperately trying to hold Sherman’s armies at bay in North Carolina. Much was at stake as Johnston wanted to contain the Federal armies and keep them from uniting with Grant in Virginia. Sherman’s pursuit of Johnston was essentially a two front affair and resulted in the battles of Averasborough (March 16) and Bentonville (March 19-21). After these battles, Johnston’s headquarters was near Greensboro and Sherman’s was near Raleigh. After Lee’s surrender on April 9, Johnston knew the end was drawing near. Sending a courier to Federal troops at Morrisville, Johnston requested a meeting with Sherman, between the enemy lines, to discuss a truce. They would converge on the Hillsborough Road at the Bennett farm on April 17. Much of their first day’s conference was colored by Sherman’s disclosure that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two days before. Sherman was prepared to offer similar terms to what Grant provided Lee little more than a week earlier. However, Johnston was insistent “to arrange the terms of a permanent peace.”(i) These terms included items which were considered “political” in nature. Ultimately wanting peace, Sherman would agree to much of what Johnston proposed the next day. The two generals signed the memorandum and sent it to their governments.
When President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. government received the surrender terms cheer in the surrender turned to outrage. There were cries through Washington City, and the North, that Sherman was a traitor for negotiating such liberal terms with Johnston. Several items were at the center of the firestorm: 1) Arms and ammunition were to be returned to the southern states after being reported to the Chief of Ordnance at Washington City; 2) The states and their officers were to be recognized by the Federal government; 3) The reestablishment of all Federal courts in the southern states; 4) The southern peoples rights to property as defined the the U.S. Constitution; and 5) General amnesty for southern soldiers and officers.
These items, rightfully so, were viewed by the U.S. Government as political items to be determined by the legislature and approved by the president. Simply put, Sherman overstepped his authority as a military officer to negotiate anything beyond the surrender of Johnston’s army.
Ulysses Grant was quickly dispatched to North Carolina where he met with Sherman. He explained to Sherman that he was only to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate army on terms mirroring the surrender he had negotiated with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. If Johnston would not agree to such terms, Sherman was to attack Johnston immediately. On April 26 Sherman met again with Johnston at the Bennett Place. Johnston, being instructed by president Jefferson F. Davis, was to accept no such surrender. Wanting to end the war, Johnston went against his instructions and accepted the agreement. The surrender was signed the same day. With the surrender of the Army of Tennessee, all hostilities ceased in the Eastern Theater. While there were still pockets of Confederate forces, the Civil War was essentially over.
The Bennett Place is a wonderful historic monument. North Carolina has done a terrific job restoring the site. It is a national treasure. When you find yourself in the area of Raleigh-Durham, make sure to plan a trip to the Bennett Place. Site manager, John W. Guss, and his staff, are friendly and will make your visit a memorable one.
(i) See the Bennett Place website for more information.