On April 26, 1865 Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman negotiated the largest surrender of the Civil War at Bennett Place near Hillsborough, North Carolina.
At the dawn of 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of having all Union forces in the field act in concert was coming to fruition. In the East, despite suffering unprecedented casualties under horrific battlefield conditions during the Overland and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaigns of 1864, Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac had General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg, Virginia. In the West, Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Ohio, had shattered General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during Hood’s desperate Franklin-Nashville Campaign in late 1864. In the Deep South, Major General William T. Sherman’s combined forces from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia had cut a sixty-mile-wide swath of destruction across Georgia during his March to the Sea and captured the port city of Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864.
One week later, Grant ordered Sherman to “make your preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay. Break up the railroads in South and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can.”
The prospect of Sherman marching his armies north from Savannah and punishing the Carolinas as he had Georgia, prompted many Southerners to begin questioning President Jefferson Davis’ competency as commander-in-chief of Confederate forces. Opposition to Davis’ leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865 when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. After being nominated by Davis, Lee assumed the new position on February 6.
Meanwhile, Sherman had departed from Savannah with nearly sixty thousand battle-hardened veterans on February 1, 1865. He divided his forces into two wings. The Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, was on the right and the Army of Georgia, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, was on the left.
Initially, Sherman met little resistance. On February 3, 1865, 1,200 Confederate soldiers, commanded by Major General Lafayette McLaws, unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Slocum’s wing from crossing the Salkehatchie River at the Battle of Rivers’ Bridge. Nearly unopposed for the next two weeks, Sherman’s soldiers moved north and laid hard hands on South Carolinians in their path. By February 17, Sherman occupied Columbia and on the same day the Confederate garrison at Charleston evacuated that city as well.
As Sherman moved north nearly unabated, alarmed Southerners called for Lee to do something to stop the Union marauders. Lee redeployed the remnants of the Army of Tennessee to bolster the Confederate forces in the Carolinas. On February 22, 1865, the General-in-Chief ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” Lee went on to order Johnston to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” On the same day, Johnston advised Lee that “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman. The remnant of the Army of Tennessee is much divided.” Johnston’s assessment was correct. In reality, Johnston’s army was a paper tiger, as he commanded few fit soldiers. Nonetheless, Johnston was determined to delay Sherman as best he could.
Despite engagements at Monroe’s Crossroads (March 10), Averasboro (March 16), and Bentonville (March 19-21) that produced no clear victors, Johnston was unable to check Sherman’s progress. On March 23, Sherman reached Goldsboro, North Carolina where he was joined by Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, which had marched inland after capturing Wilmington in late February. The addition of the Army of the Ohio swelled the size of Sherman’s forces to nearly 90,000 soldiers, compared to roughly 30,000 men under Johnston’s command in North Carolina. On March 27, General Grant summoned Sherman to his headquarters at City Point, Virginia to meet with President Lincoln. Anticipating the imminent fall of the Confederacy, the three men discussed procedures and terms of surrender for the Rebel armies remaining in the field.
Sherman returned to Goldsboro on April 11, 1865, planning to move on the North Carolina state capital of Raleigh. The next day, he received word that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Sherman moved on and occupied Raleigh on April 13.
Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis eluded capture when federal troops occupied the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia and traveled to Greensboro where he met with General Johnston on April 11. Initially, Davis believed that the South could continue the war if Lee could unite his Army of Northern Virginia with Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. When word arrived that Lee had surrendered, Davis reluctantly authorized Johnston to initiate negotiations with Sherman.
On April 14, 1865, Johnston sent a message to Sherman requesting a meeting to discuss ending hostilities. The two generals agreed to meet near Durham Station midway between Greensboro and Raleigh on April 17. As Sherman was preparing to board the train to make the trip at about 10 a.m. on the appointed day, a telegraph operator handed him a dispatch announcing that President Lincoln had been assassinated. Sherman swore the operator to secrecy and then proceeded to his meeting with Johnston.
Upon arriving at Durham Station, Sherman traveled west along Hillsborough Road on horseback with an entourage of Major General Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division. At about noon he encountered Johnston’s party roughly four miles outside of Durham Station. The two generals shook hands while still astride their mounts. When Sherman asked if there was a place where they could meet in private, Johnston suggested the nearby home of James and Nancy Bennett. (Researchers later discovered that the correct spelling of the name was Bennitt, and that the family had lost two sons and a son-in-law to the war). The two generals would use Bennett Place on three occasions to negotiate an armistice.
First Negotiation on April 17, 1865
In his memoirs, Sherman described the beginning of their first meeting:
As soon as we were alone together I showed him the dispatch announcing Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, and watched him closely. The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead, and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee, or the officers of the Confederate army, could possibly be privy to acts of assassination; but I would not say as much for Jeff. Davis, George Sanders, and men of that stripe.
After discussing the impact of the President’s death, Sherman informed Johnston that he was prepared to offer terms of similar to those that Grant gave Lee at Appomattox Station. Johnston, in turn, expressed a desire to move beyond military terms of surrender and “to arrange the terms of a permanent peace,” including political provisions to end the war, including the restoration of citizenship for Southerners. While Sherman had no authority to engage in peace negotiations, he was eager to end the war. Furthermore he feared that failing to accede to Johnston’s wishes might scuttle the hoped-for surrender and result in Johnston’s forces melting into the countryside and transforming the war into a guerrilla conflict of undetermined duration. Thus, Sherman agreed to draft a truce based on political as well as military conditions.
Second Negotiation on April 18, 1865
When the two generals resumed negotiations the next day, Johnston informed Sherman that he had the authority to surrender all Confederate troops in the field and end the war if Sherman could assure the political rights and privileges of Southerners when the Union was restored. Guided by instructions expressed by President Lincoln during a meeting with Grant and Sherman three weeks earlier to “Give them the most liberal and honorable of terms,” Sherman proceeded to draft a “basis of agreement” that offered far more liberal and overarching terms than those that Grant extended to Lee at Appomattox Court House. Specifically, Sherman proposed that:
- “The Confederate armies now in existence to be disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenal,”
- “Each” Confederate “officer and man to execute and file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide by the action of the State and Federal authority,”
- “The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments” in the South,
- “The re-establishment of all Federal Courts” in the Southern states,
- “The people and inhabitants of “the Southern states” be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of person and property,
- “The Executive authority of the Government of the United States not to disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, abstain from acts of armed hostility, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence,”
- “In general terms – the war to cease; a general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command, on condition of the disbandment of the Confederate armies.”
Each man understood that the agreement included non-military stipulations that far exceeded their authority. Thus, they pledged themselves to “promptly obtain the necessary authority, and to carry out the above programme.”
Johnston had little trouble obtaining Jefferson Davis’ approval of Sherman’s magnanimous terms. Sherman, however, ran into a buzz saw. In the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, Washington officials were not in a conciliatory mood. Led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (who publicly accused Sherman of treasonous ambitions in the New York Times), the Johnson administration rejected the agreement and dispatched General Grant to North Carolina to broker a new deal. Grant traveled to Sherman’s headquarters on April 24 to personally inform his subordinate of the decision. Out of deference to his old friend, however, Grant did not supplant Sherman as the Union’s representative. Instead, he ordered Sherman to meet with Johnston again and negotiate a new agreement akin to the military surrender Lee signed at Appomattox Station.
When Jefferson Davis learned that Washington had rejected the original accord, he ordered General Johnston to dissolve his command and melt into the countryside to engage in guerilla warfare. Johnston, however, accurately recognized the futility of further resistance. Striving to avert more bloodshed, he ignored Davis’ directive and agreed to meet with Sherman at the Bennett farm again, on April 26, the day the ceasefire was scheduled to end.
Final Negotiation on April 26, 1865
When the two generals reconvened at noon on April 26, Sherman informed Johnston that he was authorized to offer only the same terms that General Lee agreed to at Appomattox Station. Johnston responded that he found those terms unsatisfactory because they made no provisions for helping his soldiers return to their homes. Left to their own resources, some of Lee’s soldiers had formed roving gangs that pillaged the countryside as they tried to find their way home. Understandably, Johnston did not want the same fate to befall his men. While Sherman may have been sympathetic to Johnston’s concerns, his hands were tied by the instructions he received from Grant.
With the negotiations at an apparent impasse, Sherman invited Major General John Schofield to join the discussions in hopes of providing a fresh perspective. Schofield was slated to remain in North Carolina after the surrender to oversee compliance with the terms of surrender. The gambit paid off when Schofield suggested drafting two documents instead of one. The first document, which specified the terms of surrender, enabled Sherman to follow his orders because it was nearly identical to the agreement signed at Appomattox Station. The second document, which Johnston and Schofield signed, contained “supplemental terms” that outlined logistical details for transporting Johnston’s soldiers to their homes after the surrender.
Because the supplementary agreement was strictly military in nature, Grant, Stanton, and President Johnson quickly approved the compromise arrangement. Johnston’s surrender of 89,270 Confederate soldiers was the largest surrender by either side during the Civil War. The agreement ended hostilities in the East, but it did not end the war. The Confederacy still had several forces in the field, but its fate had been sealed. On May 4, 1865, General Richard Taylor surrendered the Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana; on May 10, Union soldiers captured Jefferson Davis; on May 26, General Kirby Smith surrendered his Trans-Mississippi command; on June 19, representatives of the Five Nations of Southern Indians (who were fighting for the Confederacy) surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel Asa Mathews at Doaksville, in the Choctaw Nation; and on June 23, Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered his battalion of Cherokee soldiers, making him the last Confederate general to lay down his sword. On August 20, 1866, over one year later, President Andrew Johnson signed a Proclamation—Declaring that Peace, Order, Tranquillity [sic], and Civil Authority Now Exists in and Throughout the Whole of the United States of America.