Bennett Place – Civil War History

Sign commemorates the Meeting of the Generals at Bennett Place.

The largest surrender of the U.S. Civil War is quite possibly an event you never even heard of. It was an impactful, decisive move, when Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William Tecumseh (named after the Shawnee Chief) Sherman on April 26, 1865. This story was intentionally kept out of history books, but thankfully the staff, volunteers, and friends of Bennett Place State Historic Site are keeping the history alive for us.

Bennett Place visitor center is just outside of Durham, North Carolina and it was easy for me to find, with ample parking, a Visitor’s Center, and a beautiful museum and gift shop. The museum is free and a small donation is requested if visitors wish to have a tour of the grounds outside.

Here follows my best attempt at telling the story of the significance of Bennett Place. I apologize for any mistakes or glaring omissions. If you are not interested in U.S. Civil War history, go ahead and just look at the pictures.

Michael Gray tells us about the Witness Tree, cut on the property, and determined to have been a sapling on the day of the surrender. Thus, it was a witness to the events. The tree is down now, but the stump survives, and Mr. Gray can point it out to you.

Union Army General Sherman had recently torn through Georgia at the end of 1864, wreaking a path of destruction on his way to capture the city of Savannah. As soon as he was done with that, he told his people to get ready to wreak some havoc in the Carolinas. Confederate Army General Joseph E. Johnston had a much smaller force with soldiers who were not in the best condition, but he made preparations to try to hold back Sherman.

On location at Bennett Place State Historical Site, there is a very nice (and free!) museum.
Artifacts, photos, and documents help tell the story of this Civil War surrender.

The U.S. President Lincoln called Sherman to Washington for a discussion in March, and they talked about conditions of surrender of the Confederate forces, which they agreed was imminent. Sherman returned to his troops on April 11, 1865 and moved them toward the North Carolina state capitol of Raleigh, The next day he received word that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. This confirmed his impression that the war was all but over for the South.

In the meantime, the “President” of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, was heading for a meeting with General Johnston with hopes that uniting with Lee’s army they still had a chance of success. On the way, however, he heard about Lee’s surrender. When Davis met with Johnston, he insisted that the Confederate army could still prevail, but authorized the general to begin negotiations with Sherman. General Johnston sent a message to General Sherman, asking for a meeting.

As Sherman was getting ready to leave for the meeting, a telegraph operator handed him a message: Lincoln had been assassinated! Knowing the war was very close to an end, and not wanting to disrupt progress toward its end, but also not knowing who he could trust, Sherman swore the telegraph operator to secrecy and proceeded to the meeting.

The location of what used to be the main road, and the Bennitt’s farm to the left. Today’s modern highway was routed around this spot, in order to preserve it.

The two generals met cordially and shook hands while still mounted. Sherman asked for a place to meet in private, and Johnston suggested a farm he had just passed, that he referred to as the Bennett’s farm (Turns out their name was actually spelled Bennitt, but too bad for them, as they are immortalized with the wrong spelling now. I can totally relate, as most people in my life get the spelling of my last name wrong, and many of them misspell the first as well.)

The museum shows a 17-minute documentary film that tells the story of Bennett Place.

Imagine the poor Bennett/Bennitt family that day! Their farm was along the main road between Raleigh and Hillsborough, but they were out in the country and life was generally quiet. First thing they see is a cavalry of 30,000 men trot by with General Johnston. Then, an hour later they see the combined armies of 90,000 men come in, surround their farm, and begin to dismount! The family vacated the house and went to the separate kitchen building to wait while the Generals did their thing. The museum movie says they “gave their permission,” but did they have a choice? Although, the family had lost two sons and a son-in-law to the war and were probably devastated. They may have wanted to support a resolution.

The farmhouse in front, and the kitchen in back.
On the left, the kitchen where the family waited during the General’s meeting, a shed in back, and a garden to the right.

In private, Sherman produced the telegram and watched Johnston closely. It was a test, and Johnston passed it. He was shocked and offended by the news. With this, Sherman knew he could trust the other general to negotiate honestly.

The two men came to an agreement, and though his President was dead, Sherman followed his instructions, which had been, “Give them the most liberal and honorable of terms.” Johnston offered to surrender his entire army right then if he was assured of rights and protections. Sherman only had authority to negotiate military surrender, not conditions of peace, but he was worried that if he didn’t agree, Johnston’s army would escape into the forest and begin guerilla warfare. So the two Generals worked out a peace plan.

Inside the Bennet house, where the Generals made their negotiations in private.
The house is made to look like it would have in 1865.

Once he saw the very generous terms, President Davis agreed, but the new President Johnson in Washington, a city in an uproar over the assassination, did not. Sherman was in trouble for overstepping his authority. It was only the friendship between Generals Sherman and Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant that prevented Sherman from being relieved of his position. Grant sent him back to re-negotiate and told him what the terms would be. When Davis (still harboring delusions of grandeur) heard that the surrender terms had been rejected by Washington, he ordered all his troops to disband and begin guerilla warfare. But Johnston knew it was over. He ignored Davis’ order and agreed to the new terms. Thank goodness for Johnston. His surrender of 89,270 Confederate soldiers (all of the troops in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas) was the largest surrender by either side during the Civil War.

Despite the failure to follow through on the original agreement, Johnston didn’t hold it against Sherman. The two men became close, lifetime friends.

Michael Gray tells visitors about the history and the buildings on this property.
Past the kitchen (center, with the chimney), you can see the front door of the Bennett house.

It was not the end of the war, but it heralded the end. More surrenders followed. With pride, I note that it wasn’t until June 23, 1865 that Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered, making him the last Confederate general to lay down his sword. Some of us Cherokees, to this day, are stubborn to a fault. 🙂 President Andrew Johnson declared peace a year later.

The major surrenders of the Confederate army that ended the Civil War.

But remember I told you the story was intentionally kept out of history books? I got some insight from my awesome tour guide, Michael Gray, who had heard it from a history teacher who had been on one of his tours. The following story rings true, but I can’t verify a word of it.

After a grueling 9-month siege at Petersburg, Confederate General Lee had retreated and abandoned the place in hopes of uniting his army with Johnston’s in North Carolina in order to mount a new attack. But Union soldiers pursued him and surrounded Lee and his army at the Appomattox Court House. Lee fought hard, but when he realized he was vastly outpowered and outnumbered, he was forced to give up. This would be considered an honorable surrender by many. Johnston, however, was not under attack, and met Sherman gentleman-to-gentleman. Furthermore, when his own President Davis, ordered him to begin guerilla warfare, he rolled his eyes and said, “We’ve lost man, get a grip!” (ok, not really, but sort of) That surrender was not considered honorable by defenders of the South.

In the United States, many, many student textbooks are catered to Texas’ tastes. By law, school districts in Texas must only purchase from a state-approved list, and Texas – being a gigantic state – is a huge, profitable market. U.S. textbook publishers will do anything to meet criteria and get on that approved list. And it wouldn’t make any sense to make a second set of textbooks, so schools across the country end up getting books edited to meet Texas standards. To this day there are fights with Texas about what they want in textbooks because it makes an important difference in how our future generations are educated.

Apparently, Texas made clear a threat, “We do not want the South to be tainted by the dishonorable surrender of Johnston. Instead, we want to celebrate our tenacity by lauding the final battle of Lee. If your student textbooks describe Appomattox and imply the Civil War ended there, we will buy your textbooks for our schools. If you include information about what happened at Bennett Place, we will probably choose to buy textbooks somewhere else.” Money talks. And generations of American kids learned about Appomattox and nothing else. Certainly I never heard until very recently in my life that there ever WAS a Cherokee Army General! But also, I had never heard of the surrender at Bennet Place until Thursday.

One last thing: the Unity Monument.

At the site is the Unity Monument, dedicated in 1923. It is meant to celebrate the “indissoluble union” of our country, a united north and south. Tour guide Michael Gray also described the materials, which come from locations across the country, further enforcing the unity theme. Consistent with the story about erasing the surrender from textbooks is the reaction to this monument by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who refused to participate in the dedication. They felt that it was a monument to defeat.

9 thoughts on “Bennett Place – Civil War History

    1. Oh, that is so kind of you to say, Yvette. I work hard to find things like this when I know in advance where I will be traveling. This was a partial surprise because I knew it was a “historic place” and had something to do with the Civil War, blah blah…but didn’t take the time to learn anything before I arrived. So I got the whole story from the tour guide, Mr. Gray. That made it fun.

  1. It’s a very interesting story of how history can be tainted by personal slants. They have been doing that since story telling began. Not everyone wants to hear the truth of what really happened. It’s so rare that two honorable men could come to a reasonable agreement. Wish we had more honorable men. Good job on informing us of this very true story

    1. You are so right that history has been skewed since the day humans started recounting what happened. I appreciated this opportunity to learn something about the Civil War – one more part of U.S. history that I barely know anything about. Sherman’s tactics reminded me of those of Ghengis Khan, because both of them were brutal in order to win. Then they treated the defeated people with great generosity and assistance – understanding that they now needed these people who were enemies yesterday to be loyal servants tomorrow. I do value both Sherman and Johnston for recognizing the whole picture, and for stepping outside their small moment and behaving in a way that would help the future of the country. I have a hard time believing that many of our elected representatives in Washington would put the country’s needs ahead of their own desire for power.

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Derrick. I also found all of this fascinating. I don’t keep many of the details of the Civil War in my head, for whatever reason. It seems so vague and distant to someone who has lived on the West Coast all her life. But this war remains present in the hearts of many people in my country – mostly among communities in the southeastern states – and I am glad for the opportunity to learn more. Being on the site, seeing the location of the old road, seeing the actual room inside the house where the two generals sat and talked it out …that really made it become real for me. I felt like I could imagine myself on that spot in 1865.

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