While Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 is considered the emblematic end of the Civil War, the vast majority of the Confederacy’s forces had yet to lay down their arms.
The largest troop surrender of the war was negotiated days later in a farmhouse near what would become Durham, North Carolina. Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston disobeyed Confederate President Jefferson Davis and agreed to the terms that saved the state from further destruction and ended the conflict in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
The farmstead, which still stands today in northeast Durham and is on the National Register of Historic Places, has come to be known as Bennett Place. It originally belonged to James and Nancy Bennitt; at some point the site took on the more common spelling of Bennett.
By March 1865, Union Gen. William T. Sherman had entered North Carolina and brought with him the infamous “total war” tactics that had laid waste to South Carolina and Georgia. These tactics included destroying industry, infrastructure and civilian property along with military targets throughout the South.
In a last-ditch effort to stop Sherman’s drive through North Carolina, Johnston gathered 20,000 troops to surprise Sherman near the community of Bentonville in Johnston County and to cut him off before he could join other Union forces in Goldsboro.
The Battle of Bentonville, fought from March 19 to March 21, was the largest land engagement of the war in North Carolina. But the Confederacy was unable to stop Sherman’s 60,000-man army.
It was at this point, UNC-Chapel Hill history professor William Barney says, that Johnston realized there wasn’t much sense left in continuing the fight.
On April 9 in northern Virginia, Lee surrendered his forces to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. After receiving the news from a messenger during church on Sunday morning, Davis packed up what was left of the government and fled to Greensboro, North Carolina.
“By 1863 Lee had become the embodiment of the Confederate cause,” Barney said. “So much like during the (American) Revolution, if Washington’s army was still on the field then there was still hope. And that was the case with Lee’s army.”
Barney said that even though Davis believed the South could keep fighting, word of Lee’s surrender prompted him to allow Johnston the chance to negotiate peace arrangements with Sherman.
On April 17, Johnston and Sherman met at the Bennitt’s farmhouse.
Sherman told Johnston at that meeting that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two days earlier in Washington. Nevertheless, Sherman offered a set of terms that both Johnston and Davis were in favor of.
The terms promised a welcome return to the Union, free of political punishments, as long as the Confederate states’ legislatures officially acknowledged the Union and the military laid down its arms, Barney said. But, as it turned out, Sherman was out of line in offering these terms.
Barney speculates that Sherman’s well-known conservatism was to blame for his desire not to further punish the South. He said that not only did Sherman believe the decision to allow slavery should be left up to Southerners, but he was also the only Union general who didn’t allow black troops to fight in his army.
UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Harry Watson said Sherman’s ties to the South prior to the war likely also contributed to his actions during the negotiations at the Bennitt’s farmhouse.
“Despite his destruction of civilian property and so on, he really did not want to bring social and political revolution to the South,” Watson said. “He was actually the president of the institution that later became LSU before secession, which at that time was a military academy.”
Barney says that when word of Sherman’s proposed arrangements reached Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was furious. He then instructed Sherman to return to Johnston at their next meeting with strictly military-based terms, similar to the ones Grant gave Lee in Appomattox.
When Davis heard the new terms, he ordered Johnston to disband the infantry and escape with the mounted troops. Watson said that Davis either hoped to create an exile government in Mexico, or to disband the army and engage in guerilla warfare throughout the South.
Barney said that Johnston, fearing that continuing the war would result in nothing but senseless death, disobeyed Davis and on April 26 signed the surrender of 89,270 soldiers.
James and Nancy Bennitt settled on their 325-acre farm with their three children 19 years prior to Sherman and Johnston’s meeting there. During the years of the war, they lost both of their sons as well as their daughter’s husband.
By the time James Bennitt died in 1876, Nancy Bennitt and her daughter, Eliza, had moved away from the farm for a fresh start in the new community of Durham. In 1921, the abandoned farmhouse caught fire and the only thing left standing was its stone chimney.
Two years later the farm was named an official historic site and the Unity Monument was dedicated there on its grounds. In the 1960s, the buildings that can still be found there today were reconstructed by local preservationists using Civil War sketches and early photographs.
Today, the site’s historic structures, visitor center, gift shop, and nearby nature trails and picnic areas are open to the public Tuesday through Saturday.