Sunday, March 7, 2010

Remembering the war's largest surrender

Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman carried a secret with him as he rode on horseback to negotiations that would result in the largest surrender of the American Civil War:

Abraham Lincoln was dead.

Days before Sherman began first of three days of talks with Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Bennett Farm in Durham, N.C., Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

The North’s celebration quickly ended days later with the April 14, 1865, assassination of President Lincoln. Sherman received the coded news via telegraph. As he rode west toward Johnston, Sherman was concerned about recriminations by his 90,000 troops in and around Raleigh.

Sherman delivered the news to Johnston at the James and Nancy Bennett family’s home, which lies on the Old Hillsborough Road in Durham. The generals, who later became fast friends, met on April 17 and 18 before reaching a final agreement on April 26. The surrender effectively ended the bloody Civil War.

Most Americans have no idea that Bennett Place witnessed the real end to the war, not Appomattox.

“This is one of the sites overlooked in history,” says John W. Guss, site manager for Bennett Place State Historic Site, situated between Johnston’s dwindling troops in Winston-Salem and Sherman’s command to the east in Raleigh.

Bennett Place gets about 15,000 visitors a year. Appomattox Courthouse National Park, about two hours to the north, had 185,000 guests in 2009.

Still, in these tough economic and budgetary times, Guss and his small staff do their best to get the word out.

“The Internet has been the greatest asset to advertise,” says Guss. The park also has its own Facebook page.

I spoke with Guss on Friday during an hourlong visit to the site, which includes a rebuilt version of the Bennett home, a few outbuildings and well, and the visitors center, which includes a compelling film on the Carolinas campaign. We took in an informative afternoon guided tour.

The site, which is free to the public, had a recent living history and is planning for its biggest event of the year, marking the 145th anniversary of the surrender.

Guss expects between 2,000 and 3,000 people to come for the weekend events on April 17 and 18.

Visitors will witness re-enactments of the surrender by about 125 people portraying infantry and cavalry. There is no battle re-enactment. Mark Bradley, author of “The Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place,” will participate, as well as vendors and musicians.

“Some of the guys [uniformed Confederates] will be dressed very filthy, some are going to be barefoot and some will have no guns,” says red-haired Guss, who will portray Sherman.

Surrender negotiations were not without controversy. Initially, Sherman and Johnston’s agreement included political terms that were generous to the South. Union officials in Washington, angered over the recent assassination of Lincoln, turned them down in favor of purely military terms.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston to dissolve his army into guerrilla bands to continue the fight, but the general, who knew continuing was useless without Lee’s forces, disobeyed the order and signed the revised agreement.

His surrender ended the war for nearly 90,000 Confederates in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Read more about Bennett Place State Historic Site

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