Confederate Surrender at Bennett’s Place (April 17-26, 1865)

Written By Mathew Shaeffer

In early-April 1865, Virginia fell to the Union with the capture of Richmond and Petersburg. Union General William T. Sherman, who desperately wanted to be a part of Lee’s surrender, proceeded with the last part of his Carolinas Campaign and marched to Raleigh, North Carolina. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston moved his forces in position to guard Raleigh against the attack. The Confederate cavalry mounted resistance on the road from Goldsboro to Raleigh and the small skirmishes slowed the advance of the Union forces. Sherman did not learn of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865) until April 11.

On April 12, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance sent commissioners to meet Sherman and discuss the end of hostilities. After delays caused by both Confederate and Union forces, the message reached Sherman, and he agreed to meet with North Carolina government officials. However, because of the delays, the members of government in Raleigh fled the capital. The mayor of Raleigh, William H. Harrison, prepared to surrender the city, hoping the capital building and museum would be spared. On April 13, 1865, Sherman took control of Raleigh and wrote letters granting Vance safe passage and requesting his return to the city. Skirmishing continued between the Union and Confederate cavalry throughout April 13, but the City of Raleigh was not held accountable or punished.

On April 14, 1865 Sherman visited with Thomas Bragg: Braxton Bragg‘s brother, a former governor of North Carolina, and a close friend of Sherman’s from before the war. Sherman inquired about Braxton’s welfare and informed Thomas that Raleigh was unmolested. In Greensboro Johnston met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and convinced him to authorize the suspension of hostilities.

Later on April 14, Sherman received a letter under the flag of truce from General Johnston seeking an end to the war. Sherman agreed to suspend hostilities and meet with the Confederate General. After delays caused by Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry and Confederate President Davis leaving Greensboro, the generals agreed to meet at Durham’s Station, North Carolina. Kilpatrick argued Johnston could not be trusted and would try to escape, but Sherman believed in the sincerity of the Confederate commander. News of the meeting created anticipation among soldiers from both sides on April 15 and 16. On April 17, as Sherman was getting ready to leave for Durham’s Station, a message arrived informing him of President Lincoln’s assassination. Sherman swore the telegraph operator to secrecy so as to not jeopardize the morale of the soldiers or the peace talks. Later that day, Sherman rode out to meet with Johnston and his generals.

The meeting took place at the Bennett Farm House outside of Durham’s Station. Sherman and Johnston discussed the surrender inside the farmhouse with no witnesses. Sherman shared the news about Lincoln’s assassination with Johnston and Johnston expressed that Lincoln’s death was the greatest possible calamity to the South. Sherman offered Johnston the same terms of surrender given to Lee. However, Johnston believed the purpose of the meeting was to cease fighting and allow the civil authorities the time needed to end the war. He suggested the terms of a permanent peace should be arranged and the agreement should surrender all the Confederate forces still in the field. Sherman eagerly agreed because he wanted to end the war. He was also worried Johnston’s soldiers might continue fighting a guerrilla war.

The two discussed terms of peace and Lincoln’s desire to restore the Union. Johnston wanted to include a general clause of amnesty to protect the soldiers and governments in the South, including Davis and his cabinet. Since no decision could be made on the first day, the two generals returned to their sides for the night and agreed to meet at the same place on the following day. That night Sherman informed his troops about the assassination of Lincoln and of Johnston’s disappointment at Lincoln’s death. Before the announcement, Sherman made precautions to safeguard the city of Raleigh against reprisals. During his speech, Sherman told the soldiers that it was the first day of truce talks with the Confederates. In the city of Raleigh, rumors began circulating that Union troops were going to sack the city. However, Sherman’s precautions prevented any destructive acts to befall the city. Only one fire was started on the night of the April 17, and it was an accident in an abandoned workshop.

On April 18, 1865 Sherman and Johnston met again at Bennett’s Farm to finalize the terms of surrender. Johnston informed Sherman that he had the authority to surrender all Confederate forces in the field. Sherman and Johnston discussed the political rights of the surrendering soldiers. Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation of 1863 provided complete amnesty to all officers and men below the rank of colonel. The terms offered by Grant to Lee pardoned all officers, even the highest ranking. Uncertain about the legal specifics, Johnston included General John Breckinridge, who had a legal and political background, in the discussions. Sherman initially opposed his inclusion because Breckinridge was a civil official of the Confederacy and agreed only after being assured that Breckinridge would act solely as a major general.

After discussing the potential questions, Sherman began writing a set of terms. He paused only once to get himself a drink of whiskey. The contract Sherman wrote provided the Confederates citizenship and property rights as long as they laid down their arms, returned home peacefully, and lived within the confines of the law. Both parties agreed to the terms and signed the peace agreement. With the agreement signed, Sherman began fulfilling his promise that he would defend southern rights and help the South rebuild.

Debate exists whether Sherman’s peace terms followed Lincoln’s plan. Those claiming Sherman acted on his own argue that the terms were far more comprehensive than anything Lincoln would have offered; the terms recognized insurgent state governments, paid off the Confederate war debt, and maintained rights to slave property. Sherman maintained that he went into the peace proceedings without any guidelines or guidance by the official government. Unsurprisingly, Sherman’s terms were rejected in Washington, and he was ridiculed for being overgenerous. Lincoln’s instructions to Grant had been to discuss only the surrender of the military and not to deal with political questions. However, Sherman was unaware that Lincoln had rescinded the order to allow the Virginia legislature to meet and was under the impression that the federal government recognized any government that stopped rebelling.

Sherman immediately implemented a cease to Federal hostilities and, with the help of Johnston, communicated the ceasefire to Major General James H. Wilson in Georgia and Major General George Stoneman in western North Carolina. From April 19 to April 24, 1865, large numbers of the Confederate troops deserted believing the war was over. On April 23, 1865, Sherman received Washington’s decision when Grant personally showed up in Raleigh. Grant informed Sherman that his terms were rejected, and he was only authorized to provide the same terms given to Lee. Grant was to take over command and had an order directing Federal troops to not obey Sherman.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had the committee unanimously reject Sherman’s peace accord and accused Sherman of wanting to take over the government. Grant, Sherman’s friend, was present at Sherman’s meetings with Lincoln and knew that Sherman had acted with sincerity to end the war. Sherman sent communications to Johnston discussing the rejection of the terms and also wrote letters to Stanton and Grant informing them that he believed the use of local governments would be the best method of reintegrating the South.

On April 24, 1865, Sherman received The New York Times and saw the War Department published an article with Stanton’s signature claiming Sherman deliberately disobeyed Lincoln’s order directing him to discuss only military matters—something Sherman was unaware of at the time—and accusing Sherman of accepting a bribe to allow Davis to escape. Stanton’s claims further infuriated Sherman and further fueled his distrust of politicians and the press.

Johnston received Sherman’s letters and sent word to Davis. Davis responded that the infantry should temporarily disband and reform later and the cavalry should escort Davis as he fled the South. Johnston deliberately disobeyed the orders and sent word to Sherman that they should meet again to discuss terms of the surrender. Sherman and Johnston met again at Bennett’s farmhouse on April 26. Initially Sherman and Johnston had difficulty coming to terms. Johnston was worried that without adequate provisions the disbanding Confederates would turn into marauders and robbers.

The problem was solved when General John McAllister Schofield pointed out that he would become the departmental commander after Sherman left and would take care of problems related to disbanding the army. Sherman and Johnston agreed that Johnston’s soldiers would assemble at Greensboro, deposit their military supplies, and return home. Schofield added six supplemental terms, and the agreement was signed by Johnston and Schofield but not by Sherman. Grant was pleased with the terms and returned back to Washington. The terms were accepted by Washington officials and officially ended Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign and the hostilities in the South. After being reprimanded for his friendly stance toward the South, Sherman spent his time helping with the economic situation surrounding Raleigh. He issued orders ceasing all foraging and ordered commanders to loan captured horses, mules, wagons, and animals to the locals to support farming efforts.

The pronouncement of Sherman’s initial terms of surrender by Stanton caused criticism of Sherman in the press throughout America. However, Sherman’s soldiers fervently defended their commander and came close to insurrection. The people in the South also recognized Sherman’s noble intentions, and during reconstruction Sherman would be one of the most respected and reliable northern officials. Sherman left Raleigh on April 29, 1865. To help defuse the potentially destructive situation created by Stanton, Washington officials staged a grand victory review in the streets of Washington D.C. To the surprise of the new administration, Sherman’s parade was larger than Grant’s.