After the Battle of Bentonville General Joe Johnston retreated with his defeated army to Raleigh, the state capital and then to Greensboro, North Carolina. It was here that Johnston met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis to discuss further actions.
Meanwhile, Sherman had advanced to Raleigh which fell to his army on April 13th. The day before, seeing that Raleigh’s capture was imminent, Governor Zebulon B. Vance crafted plans to surrender the city, with the hope of sparing it from the destruction suffered by other southern capitals captured by Sherman’s army.
Vance appointed commissioners to carry a notice of surrender to Sherman’s headquarters. Among them was former governor David L. Swain. The commissioners delivered the notice but were delayed overnight. Unaware of the delay, Vance left Raleigh and gave additional instructions for the surrender with Raleigh’s mayor William Harrison.
At the southern edge of Raleigh, Harrison and others met Union cavalry commander General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. While Swain waited at the Capitol, they offered the surrender of Raleigh, promising no military resistance in exchange for protection of the city. The agreed-upon terms were almost undone by a lone Texas cavalry officer who fired on Kilpatrick’s men. In the scuffle that followed, Kilpatrick’s men captured and hanged the officer. When order was restored, Union soldiers occupied and secured Raleigh.
Davis wanted to continue the struggle but Johnston demurred when he was informed of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston dispatched a courier under a white flag to ask General Sherman for a meeting between the lines at a small farm known as Bennett Place near present-day Durham, North Carolina. Johnston, escorted by a detachment of about 60 troopers of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment, traveled east along the Hillsborough Road toward Durham Station. Sherman was riding west to meet him, with an escort of 200 men from the 9th and 13th Pennsylvania, 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry.
Over the course of two days, April 17th and 18th, Johnston and Sherman negotiated the surrender of the Army of Tennessee and all remaining Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. It was the largest surrender of the war, totaling 89,270 soldiers. President Davis considered that Johnston, surrendering so many troops that had not been explicitly defeated in battle, had committed an act of treachery.
The difficulty in reaching a surrender agreement lay in part in Johnston’s desire, influenced by President Davis, for more than the purely military surrender that Major General Sherman offered. Sherman’s original terms matched those offered by Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Johnston along with General John C. Breckinridge, also serving as Secretary of War for the Confederacy, insisted on resolutions of political issues, including the reestablishment of state governments, return of some weapons to state arsenals and civil rights after the war.
Sherman, in accordance with Lincoln’s stated wishes for a compassionate and forgiving end to the war, agreed on terms that included these political issues.However, Sherman’s terms of surrender were more generous than Grant had given to Lee and the cabinet had rejected them with the concurrence of the new President, Andrew Johnson. Union officials in Washington, angry over the recent assassination of Lincoln on April 14, outright rejected them, several of whom, including Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, vehemently and publicly criticized Sherman for agreeing to the terms. Grant personally met with Sherman to discuss the situation with him.
Upon learning that the original terms had been rejected, Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston to disband his infantry and escape with his mounted troops. Johnston disobeyed these orders and agreed to meet with Sherman at the Bennett Farm again on April 26, 1865. In the largest surrender of Confederate troops during the war, Sherman and Johnston signed new surrender terms identical to the generous ones that Grant had extended to Lee.
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.” Johnston, himself, was paroled on May 2nd.
Johnston’s Narrative of Military Operations, published in 1874, was highly critical of Davis and many of his fellow generals, continuing his grievance about the unfairness of his ranking as a general and attempting to justify his career as a cautious campaigner. The book sold poorly and its publisher failed to make a profit.
Although many Confederate generals were critical of Johnston, the memoirs of both Sherman and Grant put him in a favorable light. Sherman described him as a “dangerous and wily opponent” and criticized Johnston’s nemeses, Hood and Davis. Grant supported his decisions in the Vicksburg and Atlanta Campaigns.
Joseph E. Johnston died on March 21, 1891 after having stood bare-headed in cold and rainy weather at the funeral of his old foe and later friend William T. Sherman where he was an honorary pallbearer. When he was urged to put on his hat he replied: “If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.”