Bennett Place Manager John Guss has described the state historic site as “the Rodney Dangerfield of Civil War history” – referring to the comedian whose catchphrase was, “I don’t get no respect.”
The Confederacy’s largest surrender of troops during the Civil War was signed at James and Nancy Bennett’s farmhouse, on the road between Hillsborough and Durham’s Station, April 26, 1865.
But for 150 years, conventional wisdom, most history books and the Ken Burns TV series “The Civil War” have ignored what happened at Bennett Place, closing the conflict with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Va. Lee’s surrender happened more than two weeks before Bennett Place, involved less than a third as many troops, and left the question hanging what the rest of the Rebel armies were going to do.
“What happened ... at Appomattox Courthouse was of great significance,” said Keith Hardison, historic sites director with the state Department of Cultural Resources, “but its place in history “was only assured by what happened at Bennett Place.”
At Appomattox, Lee surrendered only his personal command, the 28,000-man Army of Northern Virginia. Fleeing south and west, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was calling for the war to go on – if necessary, as guerrilla actions that could have prolonged the conflict for years – a sentiment shared by some leaders in the Rebel military.
Davis did agree, though, for Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina to contact the pursing Union commander, William T. Sherman, about a cease-fire to talk peace terms. After three meetings with Sherman at the Bennett home, and in disobedience of Davis’ direct orders, Johnston surrendered – his action involving about 90,000 troops in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
For practical purposes, that assured an end to formal hostilities although several smaller surrenders were to follow farther west in May and June.
Bennett Place, though, “is what made the surrender complete,” Hardison said, “and launched what they like to say is the dawn of peace.”
Coming ‘into its own’
Starting Friday and continuing through Sunday, April 26, Bennett Place is doing its dangedest to take a place in the spotlight (nando.com/150th), commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end with 10 days of tours, talks, exhibits, reenactments, a brand-new site museum and a circuit rider’s worship service, leading up to Confederate troops stacking their arms and taking the oath of loyalty to the Union.
On the final weekend, April 25-26, reenactors will camp as Union and Confederate troops and as civilian refugees, Sherman and Johnston will arrive and conduct surrender talks, period music will play, soldiers will drill, Civil War authors will speak and sign books, organizations of both sides’ soldiers’ descendants will hold court, sutlers will vend their wares, and a photographer will make pictures in the 1860s manner.
“This will help bring Bennett Place into its own,” Hardison said.
“We hope so,” Guss said.
The Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the historic site will get 8,000 to 10,000 visitors
“Conservatively,” Guss estimated 5,000 to 8,000, but, “We could end up with double that number.”
Given Bennett Place’s size, just 30 acres with limited parking – even participants in the last two days’ events are having to park off-site – double that number would present major logistical problems.
Still, it would fall far short of the 100,000 or so on hand for last week’s events at Appomattox.
Durham would not be Durham were it not for Bennett Place. Soldiers idled during the cease-fire raided John R. Green’s tobacco warehouse at Durham’s Station (on the site of the present-day Old Bull Building at American Tobacco). They liked his brightleaf blend so much that, after they went home, they began ordering more and were willing to pay for it – setting off a boom for smoking tobacco from Durham.
Still, according to the city’s first historian, Hiram Paul, by 1884 “some pretending knowing ones” were denying that the Bennett Place meetings ever happened.
Bennett Place’s relative obscurity began in 1865. Because of Lee’s stature and battlefield successes, his surrender following upon the fall of Richmond met jubilation in the north and was received as “the final victory” – as phrased by Harper’s Weekly, one of the era’s most-read periodicals.
Days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and that story, with the hunt for those responsible and the president’s funeral, dominated the popular press and public mind for weeks. Harper’s made no mention of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman until its issue of May 27 – a scant four paragraphs sharing sixth-page space with “Paris Fashions for May.”
Bennett Place’s significance was not lost in Durham, and there were some efforts to preserve the site and buildings for posterity. The property’s owners donated it to the state in 1921, with the state’s pledge to maintain it, and private money paid for a monument to Unity that was dedicated in 1923. Then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke at the site’s observance of the surrender’s centennial in 1965.
Still, Hardison said, “It’s lived in the shadows.
“I’ve always wanted to do a billboard or an ad campaign or something that said ‘Come to North Carolina where the Civil War really ended,” he said.
Bennett Place State Historic Site, 4409 Bennett Memorial Road in western Durham, is hosting a 10-day commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s largest surrender of the American Civil War.
Events begin at 10 a.m. Friday, April 17 and continue until 5 p.m. Sunday, April 26: the same period between Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston and Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s first meeting at Bennett Place and Johnston’s surrender of 90,000 Rebel troops in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Taking place this weekend:
▪ Friday, April 17
10 a.m.: Site tour on generals’ first meeting
11:30 a.m.: Author’s talk – Bert Dunkerly, “The Confederate Surrender in Greensboro”
1 p.m.: Site tour on generals’ first meeting
2:30 p.m.: Author’s talk – Bert Dunkerly, “The Confederate Surrender in Greensboro”
▪ Saturday, April 18
10 a.m.-5 p.m.: New museum gallery open, civilian and military living history reenactors, film “Dawn of Peace”
10 a.m.: Site tour on initial surrender
11 a.m.: Author’s talk – Eric Wittenberg, “The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads”
Noon: Author’s talk – Michael Hardy, “The Once Proud Army of Tennessee”
1 p.m.: Author’s talk – Wade Sokolosky, “Battle of Averasboro”
1:30 p.m.: Site our on initial surrender
2 p.m.: Author’s talk – Eric Wittenberg, “The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads”
3 p.m.: Author’s talk – Keith Jones, “The Boyd Brothers of Abbeville, South Carolina”
4 p.m.: Author’s talk – Michael Hardy, “The Once Proud Army of Tennessee”
▪ Sunday, April 19
Bennett Place site closed, commemoration activities at McMannen United Methodist Church, 4102 Neal Road
9:30 a.m.-1 p.m.: Period music, Civil War displays, Bennett family research exhibit
10 a.m.: 19th-century worship service, outdoors with circuit rider preaching
▪ More information
For a full schedule of the Bennett Place commemoration, see nando.com/14x.
End of a road
Bennett Place State Historic site has reason to claim it is where the American Civil War ended. A century and a half later, it represents another ending, said Site Manager John Guss.
“There is going to be a trickle of other events that are happening,” he said, “but as far as the reenacting community this is pretty much the end.”
Guss expects about 400 reenactors at the April 25-26 finale, portraying soldiers, camp-following merchants and civilians – more reenactors than there were actual soldiers at Bennett Place in 1865.
“A lot of these people have spent their lives re-creating the history of this time period,” said Guss, who is himself taking the role of Gen. William T. Sherman.
“They were down at Fort Sumter ... they’ve been to Gettysburg, they’ve been to Fredericksburg, Antietam, Shiloh and the list goes on and on. They’ve traveled the road and this is the end of it,” he said. “You’re probably going to see a lot of teary-eyed men and women.”