Monday, March 30, 2009
My Visit to Bennett Place
While in the Raleigh Durham area last Saturday, I had some time between visiting family and meeting some friends for dinner so I visited Bennett Place State Historic Site. The site is convenient to I-85, just northwest of Durham. At first I had a little difficulty finding the site due to my misinterpretation of a North Carolina Civil War Trails sign, but I located it easier coming from I-85.
Bennett Place is where General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his troops to General William T. Sherman, which basically ended the war in the Eastern Theater. I was aware of that when I arrived, and I also knew there had been some controversy over the surrender agreement, but I hadn't realized that the generals actually met on three different occasions before an agreeable surrender was hammered out. Here's a little of that story.
After Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia he turned north up into South Carolina, captured Columbia, and then continued north into North Carolina. Sherman's troops fought Johnston's men at Averasboro and Bentonville and then captured Raleigh. Johnston had learned of Lee's surrender at Appomattox and sought out Sherman to learn what terms Sherman could offer. The two generals met under a flag of truce at the Bennett (sometimes spelled Bennitt) farmhouse near Durham Station. At this April 17, 1865 meeting Sherman showed Johnston a telegram that described President Lincoln's assassination. Johnston was stunned and feared the problems Lincoln's death might cause for the South's future, but neither general was aware of the significance the assassination would have on their negotiations. Sherman and Johnston decided to meet again the following day to work out the details.
On April 18 the generals again met in the Bennett farmhouse and Johnston proposed an extremely liberal surrender that included the dispersal of the armies after surrendering their weapons, recognition of the state governments, restoration of political and civil rights, and a general amnesty. Sherman during the negotiations was heard to say something to the effect, "just who is surrendering to who", but in the end agreed to the terms. Sherman's acceptance of the terms of surrender drew a firestorm of criticism from Radical Republicans in Washington who were vengeful after Lincoln's death, and also because the surrender covered political issues that Sherman didn't have the authority to negotiate. The surrender was voided and Sherman was told to agree to terms similar to Grant's terms to Lee at Appomattox.
Sherman and Johnston met for the third and final time at the Bennett house on April 26. Johnston had been advised by Jefferson Davis (who was on the run) not to accept new terms, but Johnston knowing that continuing the war would cost more lives agreed to meet Sherman. The terms of this meeting resulted in a "military surrender" that ended the war for Confederate troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Upon arriving at Bennett Place, I was glad to be welcomed by such a nice staff, and I enjoyed the well appointed visitor's center. The visitor's center has a small but very interesting museum that interprets not only the military side of the war in North Carolina, but also how the war effected the civilians of the state, such as the Bennetts. In the museum I found a great quote from a North Carolina soldier John K. Walker on one of the exhibits: "if I was in your place I would advise Levi no to come to this Regiment...I don't think it is very healthy charging breastworks." Maybe my being in Petersburg (home of earthworks) makes this humorous to me.
Unfortunately a special event on the day I visited had to be cancelled due to the weather. They were going to have a field planting demonstration, but due to the rain the past few days the fields were in no condition to be worked or planted...as witnessed by my shoes after touring the grounds. The Bennett farmhouse burned in 1921, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the 1960s (the chimney is original). Other structures that interpret the Bennett's yeoman existence is a kitchen, a smokehouse, and a water well with sweep.
Bennett Place is a wonderful state historic site. Please stop by and visit their facilities and learn about the "other," and larger, surrender. Admission is free and so is the education you will receive. See their website at http://www.bennettplace.nchistoricsites.org/