The final chapter in the Carolinas Campaign and coincidentally in the Civil War in the East took place at Bennet Place (also known as Bennett Farm), near Durham, North Carolina over the space of ten days in mid to late April 1865.
After the Battle of Bentonville which took place in eastern North Carolina from March 19th to the 26th, the defeated Confederate Army of the South retreated to Raleigh, the North Carolina State Capital. Unable to secure the city, Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston ordered his army further west to Greensboro.
By April 13th, Confederate cavalry under Generals Wade Hampton III and Joseph Wheeler clashed with Union cavalry commanded by General Judson Kilpatrick in the area of Morrisville, North Carolina, about 20 miles south of Durham. The Confederate force was frantically trying to transport their remaining supplies and wounded by rail westward toward the final Confederate encampment in Greensboro.
Kilpatrick, an aggressive young commander, used artillery on the heights overlooking Morrisville Station and cavalry charges to push the Confederates out of the small village leaving many needed supplies behind. However, the trains were able to withdraw by the 15th with wounded soldiers from the Battle of Bentonville and the Battle of Averasboro.
After the engagement at Morrisville, Johnston sent a messenger through the Union lines with a message for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, the Union Army Group commander. In it Johnston requested a meeting with Sherman in order to discuss a truce between the armies.
Johnston had met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who wished to continue the struggle, even to disbanding the army and continuing with guerrilla warfare. It is believed that Johnston, like Robert E. Lee, was not interested in fighting on under that basis. Both men felt that the South would suffer greater if that occurred.
The two men met at Bennett Place on April 17th. Johnston was escorted by a detachment of about 60 troopers of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment, traveled east along the Hillsborough Road toward Durham Station. This unit had been in near continuous combat since June of 1862.
Sherman road west from Morrisville with an escort of about 200 cavalrymen from the 9th and 13th Pennsylvania, 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Like their Southern counterparts, the Union units all had a long list of battles fought both in the Eastern and the Western Theaters.
The two generals met near the farm of James and Nancy Bennett. It being the most convenient place with the most privacy, the two men availed themselves of the Bennett’s hospitality and sat down to discuss a truce.
James and Nancy Bennett were like many families who suffered tremendously during the four years of war. They lost three sons: Lorenzo, who served in the 27th North Carolina, buried in Winchester, Virginia; Alphonzo, who is currently unaccounted for in the family history; and their daughter Eliza’s husband, Robert Duke, who died in a Confederate Army hospital and is buried in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The first day’s discussion (April 17) was intensified by the telegram Sherman handed to Johnston, informing of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. They met the following day, April 18, and signed terms of surrender. Unfortunately, they were not only more generous than those that General Grant gave to General Lee but they also included non-military conditions that were not under the purview of a purely military surrender.
Sherman’s original terms matched those of that Grant gave to Lee but Johnston, influenced by President Davis, pressed him for political terms, including the reestablishment of state governments after the war. The authorities in Washington immediately rejected them. Sherman notified Johnston that the truce would expire on the 26th if there was no formal surrender in the interim.
Johnston responded by agreeing to the purely military terms and signed the surrender document on April 26th. The surrender disbanded all active Confederate forces in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, totaling 89,270 soldiers, the largest group to surrender during the war.
After the surrender, Sherman issued ten days’ rations to the hungry Confederate soldiers, as well as horses and mules for them to “insure a crop.” He also ordered distribution of corn, meal, and flour to civilians throughout the South. This was an act of generosity that Johnston would never forget; he wrote to Sherman that his attitude “reconciles me to what I have previously regarded as the misfortune of my life, that of having you to encounter in the field.”