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 You probably think the last surrender of the Civil War took place at Appomattox Court House. Not so, there were several others as Confederate troops further south and west surrendered. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did not want the war to end with Appomattox. By early-April 1865 it was apparent that the Civil War was drawing to a close. General William T. Sherman and his Union troops had finished their march to the sea and were now marching through the Carolinas. Columbia, South Carolina was burned in mid-February and in mid-March Sherman’s objective in North Carolina became clear; he was headed to Goldboro to linkup with 30,000 additonal Union troops moving west from the coast.  Goldsboro was important as it openned the door to Raleigh and the important rail lines going north (the rail line that supplied the besieged Army of Northern Virginia). Sherman hoped to move north rapidly and join in the expected surrender of  General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Two general who helped write the final chapter of the American Civil War. 

General Joseph E. Johnston was in charge of the Confederate effort to thwart Sherman.  The last major battle of the Civil War and the largest ever fought in North Carolina would be at Bentonville where Johnston attempted to ambush Sherman’s troops. He failed to stop Sherman and moved his troops east. In early April, Richmond and Petersburg fell in Virginia and Sherman knew he had limited time to finish his Carolinas Campaign if he were to participate in Lee’s surrender. But that surrender came quickly on April 9, 1865 and Sherman found out about it on April 11. President Davis felt the war should go on. Finally convinnced by his cabinet that a guerrilla war would just prolong inevitable results, Davis agreed that General Johnston should contact General Sherman and discuss peace terms.

Unity Monument, dedicated in 1923 as a symbol of national unification. The two white columns
represent the Confederacy and the Union and are joined at the top with a unity bridge. 

General Sherman had met with General Grant and President Lincoln in early March to discuss possible surrender terms, so he was prepared for surrender talks. Still, Sherman expected a final battle for Raleigh. It never happened. Confederate troops and the governor left Raleigh and on April 12 a group of promient Raleigh citizens pleaded for Sherman to spare Raleigh from destruction.  Sherman agreed and his troops entered the city on April 13. Headquarters for the troops was the governor’s mansion. The next day Sherman received a message under a flag of truce requesting a cesssation of hostilities so that civilian authories could negotiate for peace. Sherman agreed to meet Johnston halfway between their two locations, Hillsborough and Raleigh. That was near a small station on the railroad line: Durham’s Station (current day Durham). Just as Sherman was leaving for Durham’s Station on April 17, he received word of Lincoln’s assassination. He did not want to imperil the peace talks, so he swore the telegraph operator to secrecy.

The two generals met in an area of open fields and woodlands and concluded they needed a building to meet in that would allow privacy. Johnston had passed a cluster of houses, so the two, accompanied by calvary, went there looking for a meeting place. The first homeowner approached would not allow a Yankee in his home, so they continued on to the farm of James Bennitt (later spelled Bennett). The Bennitt family had lost two sons and a son-in-law in the war. The family retreated to the nearby log kitchen building to give the generals privacy.  Sherman described the meeting as:

They met [flag bearers carrying flag of truce], and word was passed back to us that General Johnston was near at hand, when we rode forward and met General Johnston on horseback, riding side by side with General Wade Hampston. We shook hands, and introduced our respective attendants. I asked if there was a place convenient where we could talk in private, and General Johnston said he had passed a small farm-house a short distance back. . . . We soon reached the house of a Mr. Bennitt, dismounted, and left our horses with orderlies on the road. Our officers, on foot, passed into the yard, and General Johnston and I entered the small frame-house. We asked the farmer if we could have use of his house for a few minutes, and he and his wife withdrew into a smaller log-house, which stood close by.     

General Sherman shared the secret telegraph with General Johnston, changing the tone of discussions. Johnston felt that Lincoln’s death “was the greatest possible calamity ot the South.” Sherman offered Johnston the same terms that Grant had offered Lee. However, Johnston felt their goal should be a suspension of hostilities so that civilian authorities could work out an end to the war. No decision was reached on the 17th and both returned to their respective sides. A second meeting occurred the next day at the same place. Johnston told Sherman he felt he had authority to surrender all Confederate field troops. Sherman offered terms similair to those offered by Lee to Grant, but more generous. There was debate later on whether those terms followed the plans outlined by Lincoln. When the surrender terms arrived in Washington, Secretary of War Stanton and Congress felt they were too generous. Washington rejected them. Sherman and Johnston met again on April 26 and worked out terms closer to what Grant had given Lee. Washington accepted those terms.

Lee had surrendered the 28,000-man Army of Northern Virginia. Johntson surrendered 90,000 troops in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. President Davis very much wanted the war to continue, even as a guerrila action. He was not alone among Confederates. Had the Bennett Place surrender not occurred, Appomattox Court House could well not be where most Civil War histories end.

Bennett Place Today

Museum display of items that might have been in the farmhouse.
Drop-leaf table, Bennett family pitcher, spool chairs, and portraits of Eliza and Lorenzo Bennett.

After the war the site was spurned by North Carolinans, who were not fond of the surrender. A new owner in 1919 had the idea of a park, but the house, except for its stone chimmney, burned to the ground in 1921.

 
  Confederate frock coat in museum.

In 1923 a member of the North Carolina General Assembly obtained an agreement to erect a Unity Monument on the site in exchange for a 3 acre grant. The monument was to mark national unity (between Sherman and Johnston), as opposed to clebrating a surrender. Prior the Civil War centennial, interest peaked in Bennett Place.

The museum includes weapons

A condemened house that was very similair to the Bennett hosue was moved to the site and restored, along with a separate kitchen house, and smokehouse. Later, a visitors center was constructed on the site, with an auditorium and museum. The site is located within the city limits of Durham, very close to Interstate 85. 

 

Author: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. Photogrpahs by author.


 

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