Confederate-era ball to benefit Bennett Place State Historic Site in Durham

04/22/2014 12:45 PM

04/23/2014 10:42 AM

These parts haven’t seen the like in years – not since ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen in gold-braided uniforms reeled and waltzed by firelight.

It’s all coming back – well, some of it, at least – Saturday night, when the Bennett Place State Historic Site throws a Grand Blue and Gray Ball at the old Murphey School, now known as the Shared Visions Retreat Center, in Orange County.

Period attire is suggested, but 21st-century semiformal dress will do, said Diane Smith, a historic interpreter at the site. And if you’re not familiar with the Virginia Reel, Carolina Promenade, Spanish Waltz and the like, the moves and steps won’t be too hard to pick up.

“We don’t want dances that are so complicated people are twisting and turning and don’t have any fun,” Smith said.

The ball is a first time feature of the site’s annual commemoration of the largest Confederate surrender of the American Civil War: April 26, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston made peace with Union Gen. W.T. Sherman at the James Bennitt farmhouse near what was then Durham’s Station.

Bennett Place is holding the ball to raise money for remodeling its on-site museum in time for the surrender’s 150th anniversary next year. Besides ticket sales, the event includes a cash bar and silent auction for sports memorabilia, Civil War paintings and tours, antique jewelry and so forth.

Since April weather is too fickle to plan for dancing outdoors, and the historic site, near U.S. 70 Business Route in western Durham, doesn’t have room to accommodate a ball inside, the event is being held at the 1920s-era school, now renovated as a retreat center, in the country about 3 miles west of Bennett Place.

The Murphey School is thought to stand along the route Johnston rode from his headquarters in Hillsborough to meet Sherman, who was riding west from Durham’s Station. Saturday night plans are to turn the electric lights down low and illuminate with candles, while soldiers tenting outside add firelit ambiance, Smith said.

“Make it as atmospheric as we can,” she said.

In keeping with that intention, dance music is being supplied by a period string band and a dancing master is going to be on hand teaching ball-goers how to dance like they did back when.

According to the museum fund website,, Bennett Place has raised about $38,500 toward its $50,000 goal, and the website has diagrams of the new layout for exhibits on the Bennitt (when and why the spelling changed remains unknown) family, life in the antebellum Piedmont, the homefront during the Civil War and the surrender’s aftermath for the Bennitts’ home area.

Johnston’s surrender ended hostilities in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and took almost 90,000 Southern troops out of action – more than three times the number in the Army of Northern Virginia that Robert E. Lee had already surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.

This weekend’s commemoration theme is “Many Roads to Surrender,” with National Park Service historians speaking on the Confederacy’s five major capitulations: Appomattox and Bennett Place, and those following at Citronelle, Ala., New Orleans and Doaksville, Okla. – where Cherokee Gen. Stand Watie surrendered his battalion of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Osage Confederates 75 days after Appomattox.

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