The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro: The Final Days of the Army of Tennessee, April 1865
Robert M. Dunkerly, McFarland
Unlike the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, which is remembered as one of the iconic moments in American history, the surrender of the Confederacy’s largest army three weeks later in North Carolina has rarely rated more than a footnote in Civil War historiography. Why? Perhaps because Joseph E. Johnston lacked the charisma of Robert E. Lee; perhaps because Lost Cause mythologizers preferred to memorialize picturesque Appomattox rather than the hardscrabble camps around Greensboro.
Whatever the reasons, Robert Dunkerly earnestly attempts to balance the scales. “The North Carolina surrender is also more complicated than that at Appomattox,” Dunkerly contends, “in part because events did not happen in one place.” Indeed, while all of Lee’s soldiers surrendered and were paroled at Appomattox, Johnston’s troopers were scattered in camps at High Point, New Salem, Jamestown, Trinity College, Bush Hill and Greensboro, and many did not receive their paroles until they reached home. Grant’s army actively pursued Lee’s retreating army, and the surrender occurred in full view of the victors. General Sherman’s bluecoats were 60 miles away in Raleigh, and the surrender, for the most part, occurred within sight of few Union soldiers.
Dunkerly captures the chaos and tension that pervaded the end of hostilities in Guilford County. William J. Worsham, a private in the 19th Tennessee, voiced the prevailing mood: “Although we were anxious for the war to end, yet we were hardly prepared for surrender, the giving up as lost that for which we had fought for long and for which so many had given their lives, was indeed hard, and the idea grated like harsh thunder, on our nerves.”
Dunkerly rightly concludes that the time between Sherman’s initial surrender terms and the signing of the surrender document on April 26 contributed to the rumors and anxiety prevalent in the Army of Tennessee. Sherman’s original proposals were rejected in Washington as too political. Yet some of his terms for Johnston’s army were more generous than Grant’s were for Lee’s. Sherman ordered 250,000 rations for Johnston’s hungry troopers; he allowed each unit to retain arms equal to one-fifth of its strength but insisted they be turned in to local authorities when the men reached home; and the army was allowed to keep its wagons and horses to facilitate the homeward journey.
Dunkerly describes not just the dissolution of an army, but the end of a nation. Some of Johnston’s soldiers faced hunger and violence; others found warehouses bursting with food and enjoyed interacting with locals. The surrender at Appomattox projected hopefulness that the country could move quickly toward reconciliation; Greensboro “illustrated that the larger war would not be so easy to end or move past.”
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.