The tension in the dimly lit room is thick as Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston – or at least the actors portraying them – negotiate the end of the Civil War.
“I’m afraid the terms that Grant gave Lee at Appomattox are all I can offer,” says Sherman, the Union general who stood in the room exactly 150 years earlier.
Johnston, who commanded about 90,000 Confederate troops, seems resigned. “I believe that’s the best we can do here,” he replies.
The negotiations portrayed this weekend at Durham’s Bennett Place State Historic Site have taken a back seat to the Appomattox, Va., surrender in the history books.
Sure, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia two weeks earlier, but Johnston commanded more troops. And he faced pressure from Confederates who wanted to keep fighting.
Had the Bennett Place negotiations failed, “there’s a question of when the war would have ended,” said Keith Hardison, director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites. “This was where the country decided to reunite.”
The re-enactment this weekend at Bennett Place marks the last major event in the Civil War Sesquicentennial – the series of 150th anniversary events that’s kept re-enactors and Civil War buffs busy for the past four years.
In Durham, about 400 re-enactors camped out amid the tall pine trees of the Bennett family’s farm – the site of negotiations due to its location between a major road and rail line. The Confederates pitched their tents a healthy distance from their northern counterparts.
Saturday’s rainy weather meant fewer visitors to the camps but didn’t deter re-enactors who spend several weekends a year outside in period-appropriate tents and costumes.
“It’s not bothering us, but it definitely cuts down on the tourism,” said Vernon Wingo of Conway, S.C., who portrays a Confederate private.
While Bennett Place drew far fewer re-enactors than the Appomattox anniversary two weeks ago, Wingo says smaller events “generally treat you better.”
“I think this event is extremely important,” he said. “We’re talking about the lives of thousands of people.”
Beer and firearms
Like many re-enactors, Wingo will have a slower schedule in the coming months with the sesquicentennial done. And while some older re-enactors are planning to hang up their wool uniforms after the 150th, Wingo said he’ll keep up the hobby that’s occupied his weekends for the past decade.
“This is like Boy Scouts with beer and firearms,” he said. “This is an opportunity to help educate the public about what the war was about and how people lived.”
And for Bennett Place, the anniversary is a chance to draw attention to the site, which is often overlooked by Civil War tourists.
“This is the most ambitious event planned here in recent years,” Hardison said. Thousands of visitors are expected over the weekend, he said.
More soldiers were at the site this weekend than the 100 or so troops there in 1865. Johnston and Sherman left their armies behind, and many Confederate soldiers learned of the surrender in the Greensboro area.
That’s why visitors to the re-enactment won’t see skirmishes. The important action took place inside the simple log farmhouse where the two generals hashed out the terms of surrender.
The Bennett Place staff has re-created those talks, giving about 20 visitors at a time an intimate look at the men and their major concerns.
History doesn’t have an exact transcript of what was said, but historians used authentic summaries of the main sticking points. “We’re trying to take a condensed slice of what went on and give people a feeling for the particulars of what was discussed,” Hardison said.
That includes the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, which took place in the weeks between the Appomattox surrender and the talks at Bennett Place. The tragedy in Washington, D.C., meant the two generals didn’t discuss the political elements of the war’s end.
On Sunday, visitors will get one last chance during the sesquicentennial to see those negotiations re-created. And they’ll get to see an event that took place near Greensboro: Johnston’s final address to the defeated Confederate troops and the stacking of arms as soldiers turned in their weapons.
Want to go?
What: 150th anniversary of the Civil War surrender at Bennett Place
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: 4409 Bennett Memorial Road in northwestern Durham
Parking: Available offsite for $5 at Triangle Day School, 4911 Neal Road, and other nearby locations
Sunday highlights: Surrender negotiations begin at 11:30 a.m.; Confederate soldiers turn in their weapons at 2 p.m., followed by a farewell address from Gen. Joseph Johnston
For more information: bennettplacehistoricsite.com