The knock came around noon on a sunny spring day, April 17, 1865. When James Bennett and his wife Nancy opened their door, they saw Union Major General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph Johnston, along with their staffs and escorts—several hundred soldiers in all. Johnston thought the farm, which he had passed earlier, looked like a good place for them to sit down and talk surrender terms, and Sherman deferred to his judgment.
The Bennetts repaired to the detached kitchen of their three-room, two-story cabin, leaving the generals in the main room, which was described as “scrupulously neat, the floors scrubbed to a milky whiteness…the few articles of furniture in the room arranged with neatness and taste.” While the Appomattox surrender has often overshadowed events at the Bennett Place, the surrender there on April 26 of nearly 90,000 Confederate soldiers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida really signified the Confederacy was done.
James Bennett (he changed the spelling from “Bennitt” after 1860) was born in Chatham County on July 11, 1806. In the 1820s he moved to Orange County, and in 1831 he married Nancy Leigh Pearson. A son, Lorenzo, soon arrived, followed by daughter Eliza Ann in 1834 and another son, Alphonso, in 1836. After struggling for years, in 1846 James finally managed to borrow $400 and purchase a 325-acre tract of land along the Hillsboro Road outside Durham, N.C. It’s not clear when they built the cabin where they were living in 1865, but by 1854 James had managed to pay off the loan, and he sold off 133 acres for $250.
The Bennetts had several sources of income, including contract hauling, selling food, liquor and lodging to travelers on the Hillsboro Road, and making and selling shoes and clothing. But the family’s primary business was agriculture. They grew corn, which they both consumed and sold, as well as watermelons, oats, wheat and potatoes. Bennett owned no slaves, but he hired helpers, including slaves, when needed.
The war was hard on the Bennetts. Lorenzo, who had enlisted in the 27th North Carolina Infantry, became sick and died in October 1862. Alphonso apparently died not long after that, though it isn’t clear whether he died in military service. In August 1864, Eliza’s husband Robert Duke—brother of Washington Duke, for whom Duke University is named—died from illness while serving with the 46th North Carolina. Eliza soon returned to live at Bennett Place with her son, James.
When Sherman and Johnston signed the “Terms of a Military Convention” on April 26, James Bennett was invited to join the generals and their staffs in a celebratory toast. Afterward a Union private offered to purchase the table cover on which the agreement had been signed, but Bennett refused. Relic hunters soon set upon his home. One reporter wrote it seemed likely that little would be left to indicate where the house stood.
Two days later, a detail from Maj. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division arrived and offered Bennett $10 and a horse for the signing table and cover, with the caveat that they were under orders to take them if he declined the offer. Not surprisingly he accepted, but the payment never materialized. In 1870, after learning that his table had subsequently sold for $3,000, Bennett wrote the governor of North Carolina seeking compensation for that and other items taken from his home, but to no effect. In 1873 he filed a claim with the Southern Claims Commission, which was denied because he had supported the Confederacy.
Although his land was spared the ravages of fighting, after the war the productivity of Bennett’s farm dropped off significantly. By 1875 he had sold off various parcels and was left with only 175 acres, all of which he sharecropped out in early 1876. James died in 1879, followed not long after by his wife. By 1889 Eliza’s daughter Roberta Shields was the sole owner of the farm. She sold 35 acres, including the house, to Brodie L. Duke, a ne’er-do-well son of Washington Duke, in 1890. By the early 1900s the farm was reportedly deserted, and the house had fallen into severe disrepair.
A protective structure was erected around the cabin early in the 20th century. Richmond businessman Samuel T. Morgan purchased 31 acres and the house around 1908, but he died in 1920 before anything was done to preserve the property. About a year later the surrender site burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. All that remained was the house’s stone chimney.
In 1923 the Morgan family donated a 3½-acre plot including the building site and a new memorial (known as the Unity Monument) to the nonprofit Bennett Place Memorial Commission in return for a promise to maintain it in perpetuity. But while some small improvements were made, the spot remained relatively unvisited in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1958 that the state received a donation of $8,000 to restore the surrender site.
The reconstructed house and kitchen were dedicated in 1963, when Bennett Place’s existence as a state historic site began. Today the site along the historic Hillsboro Road trace includes a visitor center with theater and museum, as well as a research library.
Thanks to Tonia Smith for her assistance with this article.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.