Then as now, when Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., most Northern residents marked the event as the end of the Civil War.
But there were still four Confederate operation theaters in the Southeast, Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma Indian Country. What was to become of them?
Curiously, even though Lee was the commander-in-chief, when Grant asked him to arrange the surrender of all the Confederate armies, Lee refused and said he didn’t have the authority.
All four centers eventually surrendered in an awkward process that stretched from April to June 1865. Visiting my daughter and her family in Durham, N.C., this August gave me the opportunity to visit the largest of the “other” surrender locations – Bennett Place State Historic Site in Durham.
It was at a small table in the family room of the cabin of James and Nancy Bennett where Confederate Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered 89,000 troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to Union Major Gen. William T. Sherman. By comparison, Lee surrendered less than 15,000 troops at Appomattox. Like all of the Civil War surrenders, the Bennett Place activity was not without some drama.
Johnston and his cavalry escort were coming from Greensboro to meet Sherman and his cavalry escort traveling from Raleigh on April 17, 1865, when the groups met on the Hillsborough Road. Johnston mentioned passing a farmstead and suggested they meet there.
James and Nancy Bennett and their widowed daughter Eliza Bennett Duke and Eliza’s two children graciously cleared out of the main house and moved to the kitchenhouse a few feet away but not before serving a pitcher of buttermilk to the generals, at least that’s what family legend says.
Sherman immediately set a grim back drop for the talks when he showed Johnston a secret telegram the Union general received from U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton detailing the April 14-15 assassination of President Lincoln. Sherman kept the news from his troops lest they riot and burn down Raleigh.
Indeed, when the Yankees did find out about it a few days later a mob tried to vandalize Raleigh buildings, but Union Gen. John Logan (who later established Memorial Day) marshaled some troops to quell the rioters and save the North Carolina capital from the same fate as South Carolina’s capital, Columbia.
While the two generals talked amiably inside the Bennett house, two generals standing outside almost came to blows. Union Major Gen. Judson Kilpatrick and Confederate Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton rehashed the war in loud voices. Hampton probably bested the hot-tempered Kilpatrick because the Confederate’s cavalry surprised some Yankee troopers earlier in the year, forcing Kilpatrick to flee his camp in his nightshirt.
Meanwhile, inside the house, Sherman suggested a surrender based on the generous terms of Appomattox – soldiers receive paroles and are free to return home after surrendering their muskets; horse troops can keep their mounts; officers can keep their sidearms; and the Union would provide rail and water transportation if desired. Johnston and Sherman agreed to meet again the next day.
At the next day’s meeting at the Bennett Place (presumably with a fresh pitcher of buttermilk), Johnston surprised Sherman by bringing along Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, who ironically was a former vice president of the United States and an experienced veteran of numerous legislative debates in Congress.
Even Sherman admitted Breckinridge’s negotiating skills got the better of him. At one point, the scruffy red-haired Union general complained Breckinridge would have him write a letter of apology to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis as part of the surrender.
Breckinridge suggested Johnston and Sherman agree to not only a surrender of troops, but a wide-ranging political arrangement as well involving the restoration of state governments. Incredibly, Sherman agreed.
Needless to say, when Sherman telegraphed those terms to his superiors in Washington, D.C., the capital erupted. Sherman was denounced by some as a traitor, and Stanton sent Gen. Grant to North Carolina to relieve Sherman of command. Grant did go to Raleigh, but let Sherman finish the negotiations under new parameters – namely the Appomattox terms with a few minor additions about providing food rations to the Confederate soldiers. The new terms also included an ultimatum. If Johnston didn’t agree, the Union army was to resume hostilities within 48 hours.
Johnston defies his president
Johnston faced a serious dilemma. He was sitting in Greensboro, N.C., with most of his remaining troops, but breathing down his neck was Jefferson Davis himself. Davis and some of the Confederate cabinet had fled Richmond by train and traveled south where they stopped in Greensboro. As an original Southern planter firebrand, Davis wanted to continue the war and form a government-in-exile. He had agreed to preliminary talks with Sherman, but now he wanted Johnston to disperse his army into the mountains to fight a guerrilla war.
Johnston refused and rode east again to the Bennett farm on April 26 where he signed the acceptable surrender document. That took an act of courage on Johnston’s part, but it was also an act of common sense. His army was shrinking by the day from desertions, and a local Greensboro mob that included women and children had stormed an army depot looking for food and clothing.
Davis continued to travel south by rail and wagon. He never did surrender and was captured May 10, 1865, by Union cavalry in Georgia and imprisoned for two years. He died in 1889 unrepentant and still insisting on the South’s right to secede.
Sherman went on to replace Grant (who was elected president) as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He turned down the Republican presidential nomination in 1880. He and Joe Johnston became close friends and were leaders in the national reconciliation movement.
When Sherman died on Feb. 14, 1891, in New York City, Johnston was an honorary pallbearer. Johnston removed his hat in the cold rain for the graveside ceremony, caught pneumonia and died 35 days after Sherman.
Decline of the Bennett farm
The Bennetts and their farm did not fare so well. In fact, the Civil War wrecked what had been a prosperous, entrepreneurial farm family. Before the war, the Bennetts operated a linen mill on the nearby Nebo River, sold liquor and farm produce, hauled freight and housed travelers on the Hillsborough Road.
After the war James Bennett was so destitute he had to become a sharecropper to pay his debts. The Bennetts lost two sons and a son-in-law to the war. James died in 1878, and Nancy and Eliza moved into the rapidly growing Durham, newly prosperous from the Duke family’s cigarette industry.
The historic site illustrates some of the depravations Southerners experienced during the war as the North tightened its grip on supply routes. Mary Maher, a guide at the Bennett farm, showed some of the substitutes for common products including thorns used for metal pins and acorns boiled for coffee. Postage stamps marked the increasingly desperate situation. Maher said glue for stamp backs immediately disappeared at the onset of the war so residents used molasses to stick their postage to the envelopes. Then molasses fell into short supply so Southerners actually sewed their stamps on the envelope.