Fifty years after the dedication of Bennett Place State Historical Site, historians and history buffs will gather for a full two days of storytelling and re-enactments, commemorating those last days of the Civil War.
Three years after its dedication, on the 100th anniversary of the historic meeting between two generals, Ernest H. Robl relayed the story.
When thunder rumbles across the darkened sky, it is not difficult to visualize the scene 100 years ago: two men meeting in this simply furnished room; one coming as the victor, the other coming in defeat.
The date was April 26, 1865; General Joseph E. Johnston had come to surrender the last major remnant of the Confederate army to Union General William T. Sherman at the farm home of James Bennett, located outside of what is today Durham.
Unlike many other historic sites which have been absorbed into metropolitan areas, the Bennett Place site has remained isolated out in the country, though only a mile outside the Durham city limits.
Except for a nearby telephone line and a paved road, providing easy access, not much has changed around the site. There are no other buildings in sight, and great pains have been taken to retain the authenticity of the surroundings, imparting a particularly strong sense of history.
Sherman had moved into North Carolina early in the March of 1865 with 60,000 men; Johnston, with less than 30,000 men, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Sherman from moving north to join Grant in Virginia, resulting in an encounter at Bentonville 18 miles southwest of Goldsboro, on March 19 through 21.
During this time Sherman exchanged messages with Grant and President Lincoln concerning terms for the surrender of the Confederacy.
On April 14, 1865, General Sherman received a message from General Johnston , asking for a personal conference , and at noon on the 17th the two opposing generals met at the Bennett Place, a point located midway between the army lines. The two adversaries approached the farm home simultaneously from different directions on the Hillsboro road; while still mounted, they greeted each other courteously and shook hands.
Upon entering the house, Sherman showed Johnston a telegram he had received that morning, informing him of the assassination of President Lincoln. This message came directly from Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war.
Unable to agree on terms, the two generals attempted to work out a compromise. Sherman offered Johnston terms similar to those Grant had give Lee at Appomattox -- simple military terms -- but Johnston wanted political as well as military terms. These terms were to include guarantees to restore the rights and privileges of the people of the South.
After a period of discussion both generals withdrew to confer with their aides -- Sherman to Raleigh and Johnston to Hillsboro.
The two generals met again the next morning with Johnston asking that Confederate Secretary of War Breckenridge be allowed to participate in the negotiations. After a brief conversation, Johnston presented a plan which he had prepared; Sherman then wrote out a list of terms which both men agreed upon.
Though a promise of general amnesty was included, Sherman hinted to Breckenridge that Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet should escape before the terms could be challenged in Washington.
Even though approved by Jefferson Davis, the terms agreed upon at the Bennett Place on April 18, 1865, were immediately rejected when they reached Washington. Resumption of hostilities was ordered by the cabinet.
General Grant arrived unexpectedly in Raleigh on April 24, but merely instructed Sherman to continue negotiating. Disobeying orders from Jefferson Davis, Johnston arranged for a final meeting at the Bennett house on April 26.
At that time General Johnston agreed to a simple military surrender: side arms, baggage and horses were to be retained by officers; other arms and public property were to be turned over to the United States. In addition to the official terms, individual men were required to promise in writing not to resume hostilities.
Johnston's surrender at the Bennett Place also brought about the later surrender of two smaller Confederate armies, completely ending the war.
After passing from owner to owner, the Bennett Place fell into neglect, and was almost destroyed by fire in 1921. The land and the remains of the buildings -- the main house in which the surrender and negotiations had taken place, and a cookhouse -- were donated to the State of North Carolina in 1923. -- The N&O 4/25/1965