Like Appomattox, the events at the Bennett farm were an American epitome.
ON A SPRING DAY IN 1865, AN UNSCHEDULED TRAIN CHUFFED INTO THE DEPOT AT GREENSBORO, North Carolina. The peaceful town of 2,000, all but ignored during four years of civil war, found itself a reluctant host to what remained of the government of the Confederacy. Aboard the train, which had left Danville, Virginia, 12 hours before, were President Jefferson Davis and most of his Cabinet. A second train carried a considerable cargo of Confederate gold.
Richmond had fallen on April 3. With Confederate currency now all but worthless, the ladies of the former capital were reduced to selling pastry to the Yankees in order to secure bread for their own tables. Six days later, on April 9, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomatox. Lee told a group of his soldiers, “I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more.”
In the South as in the North, the fall of Richmond and the surrender by Lee were seen as signaling an end to a war that had killed more than 600,000 people and entailed total casualties of more than 1 million.
Suggestions that the war might not be over were unpopular, and the reception accorded the Davis party at Greensboro was cool. One young Confederate soldier, eyeing the decrepit train that had brought Davis south from Richmond, characterized the president and his retinue as “a government on wheels . . . the marvelous and incongruous debris of the wreck of the Confederate capital.”
Spring had come to North Carolina, but there was war-weariness everywhere. In Greensboro there was also fear–fear of economic collapse, fear of the embittered parolees from Lee’s army who were filtering into the town, and, most of all, fear of Sherman. Sherman’s Yankee army was approaching, and nothing the South could do seemed even to slow his advance.
One person for whom the war was not over was Jefferson Davis. Four years of war had left the Confederate president pale and wan, afflicted with insomnia and a variety of other ailments. But the 56-year-old Mississippian was no less convinced of the justice of his cause in 1865 than he had been four years before. From Danville he had issued yet another call to arms. “We have now entered upon a new phase of the struggle,” he proclaimed. “Relieved from the necessity of guarding particular points, our army will be free to move from point to point to strike the enemy. . . .
“Let us not despond then, my countrymen; but, relying on God, meet the foe with fresh defiance and . . . unconquerable hearts.”
Defiance was in short supply in the Confederacy, but had Davis chosen to do so, be might have cited some numbers. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the only Confederate force of any size in the East, still had some 30,000 men. In Mississippi and Alabama, General Richard Taylor had perhaps 20,000 more. And across the Mississippi lay Davis’s main hope, a scattered force of 40,000, mostly in Texas, commanded by General Edmund Kirby Smith. Any wishful thinking based on these numbers, however, overlooked several pertinent facts. One was that Federal forces included a million men under arms with whom to confront the remaining Confederates. Another was that Sherman’s army, totaling about 80,000 effectives, was close by, threatening to end all meaningful resistance east of the Mississippi.
No other name struck such fear into Southern hearts as that of William Tecumseh Sherman. The wiry, red-bearded Ohioan had begun the war in obscurity. Whereas prominent Confederates like Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston had risen to senior ranks in the Old Army, Sherman was the ex-superintendent of a little–known military academy in Louisiana. In 1861 something resembling a nervous breakdown had almost ended his Civil War career before it began. But Sherman was then assigned to serve under General Ulysses S. Grant in Kentucky. Teamed with Grant, he contributed to the series of Federal triumphs along the Mississippi that cut the Confederacy in two.
Sherman eventually was given an independent command, the Army of the Tennessee. After his augmented force had captured Atlanta in November 1864, he asked for and received permission to cut loose from his supply lines and “march to the sea.” In devastating Georgia’s economy en route to Savannah, Sherman set the pattern for total war.
“Cump” Sherman was an American original. He made a virtue of simple dress and simple life in the field. His men affectionately called him “Uncle Billy”; he in turn would sometimes stop and talk to groups of soldiers, bantering with them in his gruff, staccato manner. Like Davis, Sherman was something of an insomniac. He could be found in the small hours of the morning pacing his camp, poking a dying fire, visiting pickets.
Sherman hated war but liked soldiers and soldiering. Even though his brother John was a senator from Ohio, Sherman’s greatest ire was reserved for politicians and newspaper reporters. He had no strong views on slavery, but had given a great deal of thought to how the war should be prosecuted. He saw the destruction of the Confederate economy as a means of hastening the end of the war, and he had no apology for the devastation his army wreaked. His march to the sea contributed only indirectly to the defeat of Lee’s army, but it sapped the morale of the entire Confederacy.
Sherman had done little to control looting while his army was in South Carolina, for he shared his soldiers’ animosity toward the state that had for so long been identified with secession. Discipline was tightened somewhat as the army crossed into North Carolina, and personal property was spared in some instances. Nonetheless, army foragers–or “bummers,” as they were called–continued to roam the countryside in advance of the regular troops, “requisitioning” supplies. And entire pine forests, tapped for turpentine, were burned by soldiers for sport. The conflagrations were tremendous.
Sherman, at his headquarters near Smithfield, knew that organized Confederate resistance was near an end. But he was eager to see a formal surrender, lest Johnston’s army disperse into guerrilla bands that might prolong the fighting indefinitely. In late March, Sherman had attended a conference aboard the gunboat River Queen–a meeting that had included President Abraham Lincoln, Grant, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter–at which Lincoln had stated his desire to get the rebel armies “back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops.” Sherman thought he knew the kind of peace that the president had in mind. From Raleigh he wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “I will accept the same terms as General Grant gave General Lee, and be careful not to complicate any points of civil policy.”
SHERMAN’S OUTNUMBERED OPPONENT WAS THE MAKESHIFT CONFEDERATE ARMY of General Joseph E. Johnston. Although Johnston had been unable to obstruct Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, he had kept an army in the field and had fought tenacious delaying actions where circumstances permitted. On March 19 at Bentonville, North Carolina, he had thrown his little army against one wing of Sherman’s command and had managed to come within an ace of victory.
Joe Johnston was one of the enigmas of the Civil War. The dapper, courtly Virginian made no attempt to mingle with his soldiers, as Sherman did, yet he was perhaps as respected by his men as Robert E. Lee had been by the Army of Northern Virginia. His superiors, however, had difficulties with Johnston. At the outset of the war, Davis had named three other generals, Lee among them, senior to Johnston, despite the fact that Johnston had outranked them in the Old Army. Johnston protested the slight and never forgave Jefferson Davis.
It was Johnston who had confronted Sherman in the campaign for Atlanta, and although the Virginian directed a skillful delaying action, Davis had relieved him in July 1864 for failing to halt the Yankee advance. When Johnston’s successors had even worse luck against the rampaging Sherman, the wily Johnston–always formidable in defense–was restored to command. From the time of Lee’s surrender, however, Johnston believed that his duty lay in making a decent peace.
At Greensboro, Davis was met by General P.G.T. Beauregard, another senior officer with whom Davis had crossed swords. Beauregard, now second in command to Johnston, had opened the war with the capture of Fort Sumter and a subsequent victory at the First Battle of Manassas. Since then his reputation had been in eclipse. At Greensboro, however, Beauregard greeted Davis cordially. He advised Davis that Johnston would be arriving the following day, April 12, and moved his headquarters, located in a baggage car, to a railroad siding within sight of Davis’s train.
At the Cabinet meeting on April 12, Davis proposed re-forming the Army of Virginia, apparently ignoring the fact that the paroles granted to Lee’s soldiers were conditioned on their not bearing arms against the Union. Johnston heard the president out in disdainful silence, and when he spoke it was in a tone of rebuke. In Johnston’s view, the South now lacked both money and munitions, and to protract the war would be a crime. “The effect of our keeping to the field,” he said, “would be, not to harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and the ruin of its people.”
Johnston counterproposed that peace negotiations be initiated with Sherman at once. He was supported in this idea by all the Cabinet members in attendance except for Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. But Johnston reckoned without Jefferson Davis. Writing his memoirs two decades later, Davis recalled, “I had reason to believe that the spirit of the army in North Carolina was unbroken, for, though surrounded by circumstances well calculated to depress and discourage them, I had learned that they earnestly protested to their officers against . . . surrender.”
That afternoon, Confederate secretary of war John C. Breckinridge arrived at Greensboro. Breckinridge had been vice president of the United States under James Buchanan, and an opponent of secession until nearly three months after First Manassas. He had served the Confederacy as a major general and enjoyed a wide measure of respect among Confederate leaders. After meeting with Johnston and Beauregard, Breckinridge agreed that further resistance was useless.
He joined Davis’s Cabinet meeting on April 13. Around a table in the drab railroad car, Davis once again expressed confidence in victory, and then asked Johnston for his views. Johnston reiterated his pessimistic assessment of the previous day–”My small force is melting away like snow before the sun”–and stated flatly that the South was tired of war. Of those present, only Benjamin again supported Davis in his view that the war should continue. Reluctantly, Davis authorized Johnston to open negotiations with Sherman. Johnston could offer to disband Confederate troops and to recognize Federal authority, but only on condition that state governments in the South would be preserved and that Southerners would not be penalized for their rebellion. The status of former slaves was not even mentioned.
While Davis and his colleagues drafted a letter for Johnston to send to Sherman, their world continued to collapse about them. Pillaging soldiers roamed the streets of Greensboro, undeterred by the presence of the Confederate Cabinet and much of the army high command. Navy captain John Taylor Wood, who was a member of Davis’s party, wrote, “Troops greatly demoralized, breaking into and destroying the public stores.”
Because Johnston’s letter was delayed in reaching Sherman–who had just established headquarters at Raleigh–their first meeting was set for April 17, eight days after Lee’s surrender. Sherman had boarded the train that would take him to the rendezvous when a telegrapher ran up to say that an important telegram, in cipher, had just arrived. Sherman delayed his departure, and 30 minutes later was reading a message from Stanton that told of the assassination of Lincoln and the assault on Secretary of State William H. Seaward. Swearing the telegrapher to secrecy, Sherman folded the telegram into his pocket and told the engineer to proceed.
At about 10:00 a.m. Sherman’s train reached Durham, where a squadron of Union cavalry was waiting. Sherman and his entourage, under a white flag, rode for five miles along the Hillsboro road, where they met Johnston and his party. In Sherman’s words:
We shook hands, and introduced our respective attendants. I asked if there was a place convenient where we could be private, and General Johnston said he had passed a small farmhouse a short distance back. . . . We rode back to it together side by side, our staff officers and escorts following.
Sherman and Johnston had never met, but in the course of the previous months they had developed a healthy professional respect for one another. Alone in the parlor of a farmer named James Bennitt, Sherman passed Johnston the telegram from Stanton and watched his antagonist closely.
The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead, and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee, or the officers of the Confederate army, could possibly be privy to acts of assassination; but I would not say as much for Jeff. Davis.
The two soldiers quickly agreed that there should be no more fighting. But Sherman was bound by the terms that Grant had accorded Lee, and Johnston in theory was bound by the instructions that Davis had given him. The Virginian, prompted by his contempt for Jefferson Davis, had an idea: Why not “make one job of it” and settle the fate of all Confederates still under arms? Sherman was tempted, but he was also realistic. Could Johnston in fact deliver “all armies to the Rio Grande”? Johnston pointed out that Secretary of War Breckinridge was close at hand, and that Breckinridge’s orders would be obeyed anywhere. It was sunset when the two generals parted, to meet the following day.
Sherman’s immediate task, on returning to his headquarters, was to break the news of Lincoln’s assassination. He first ordered all soldiers to camp, then issued a bulletin announcing the death of the president but exonerating the Confederate army from complicity in the assassination. Sherman and his generals watched their men closely. Many wept, and some demanded a final battle to avenge Lincoln, but Sherman’s handling of the announcement prevented any serious breakdown in discipline.
On the morning of April 18, Sherman set off to meet with Johnston again, determined, in Sherman’s own words, “to manifest real respect for Lincoln’s memory by following after his death that policy which, if living, I felt certain he would have approved.” At the Bennitt farmhouse, the two men resumed their talks. Johnston asked Sherman about the status of whites in the South. Were they “the slaves of the people of the North”? Nonsense, Sherman replied; Southerners would be “equal to us in all respects” once they had submitted to Federal authority. Johnston was leading his conqueror into uncharted waters, but Sherman seemed oblivious to the danger. When Johnston suggested that they bring Breckinridge into their talks, Sherman at first refused, but when Johnston pointed out that Breckinridge might participate in his capacity as a Confederate general, Sherman assented.
Johnston and Breckinridge attempted to outline terms for Davis’s personal surrender, but Sherman refused to deal on the basis of individuals. Then a courier arrived with surrender terms drafted by Confederate postmaster general John Reagan in Greensboro. Sherman looked them over but set them aside as too general and verbose. He took pen in hand himself and began to write. At one point he rose, walked to his saddlebag, took out a bottle, and poured himself a long drink of whiskey. After sipping his drink at the window, he returned to his drafting. Shortly he passed a paper to Johnston with the remark “That’s the best I can do.”
Sherman’s terms were sweeping. They called for all Confederate armies “now in existence” to be disbanded and all soldiers paroled. Existing state governments would continue, once their personnel had sworn allegiance to the Union. The inhabitants of all the Southern states were guaranteed their political rights, as defined by the Constitution. There was no mention of slavery, or of the status of former slaves. Sherman’s only hedge was in the final paragraph, where the signatories pledged “to obtain the necessary authority . . . to carry out the above program.”
Sherman and Johnston signed the document and parted on warm terms. As Johnston and Breckinridge rode away, Johnston asked what Breckinridge thought of their antagonist. “Oh, he’s bright enough and a man of force, but Sherman is a hog,” the Kentuckian responded. “Did you see him take that drink by himself?” asked Breckinridge–who was himself well known for his hard drinking. Johnston replied that Sherman had only been absentminded, but Breckinridge was unforgiving “No Kentucky gentleman would ever have taken that bottle away. He knew how much we needed it.”
President Andrew Johnson was meeting with his Cabinet when Grant, who was there by special invitation, outlined the terms agreed to by Sherman and Johnston. The Cabinet was shocked: The terms went far beyond those of Appomattox and constituted a virtual peace treaty. Particularly galling was the section that recognized the legality of the state governments of the Confederacy. When it became clear that the administration would not accept Sherman’s agreement, Grant offered to go in person to Sherman and explain why his terms had been disapproved. The new president agreed to this suggestion and told Grant to order Sherman to annul the April 18 agreement and to draft new terms applicable only to Johnston’s army.
Meanwhile, Sherman and Johnston awaited word from their respective superiors. Grant sent Sherman a telegram, then departed by oceangoing steamer to Beaufort, South Carolina. There he would have to find a train to take him north. He kept his mission a secret because he wanted to avoid publicly embarrassing Sherman. The Confederate Cabinet agreed to Sherman’s terms on April 23, after Attorney General George Davis had noted cheerfully, “Taken as a whole the convention amounts to this: that the states of the Confederacy shall reenter the old Union upon the same footing on which they stood before seceding from it.” Sherman received Grant’s telegram that same day and took the rejection of his terms calmly. In the five days since the signing of the treaty, he may well have come to regret its scope, if not its spirit. He wrote Stanton on April 25 that “I admit my folly in embracing in a military convention any civil matters,” but added that he had understood from Stanton that “the financial state of the country demanded military success and would warrant a little bending as to policy.
“I still believe that the General Government of the United States has made a mistake but that is none of my business.”
Sherman called for a third meeting, and on April 26, 17 days after Appomattox, he met Johnston again at Bennitt’s farm; Grant, who had by then arrived in Raleigh, remained discreetly behind. Sherman explained the need for new terms of surrender, and he and Johnston quickly signed a five-point convention. It surrendered Johnston’s army but took no account of other Confederate forces and avoided all political matters. As with Lee’s army, officers and men were permitted to return to their homes. By establishing a rapport with Johnston, Sherman had effectively prevented any resort to guerrilla warfare on the part of Johnston’s forces–the result that he had feared most.
Johnston, who may have anticipated a disavowal of Sherman’s April 18 terms, issued a brief statement to his soldiers: Lee’s surrender and the disintegration of the Confederacy’s industrial base had “destroyed all hope of successful war.” He had therefore surrendered, “to spare the blood of this gallant little army, and to prevent further sufferings.”
So the war wound to a close. On May 4, at Mobile, Alabama, Confederate general Richard Taylor surrendered his Alabama–Mississippi command in accordance with the terms granted Lee and Johnston. Three weeks later, on May 26, the trans-Mississippi forces of General E. Kirby Smith–the last Confederate army of any size–stacked their arms. President Davis and his entourage had been captured in Georgia on May 10; the Confederate president would be incarcerated for two years before being released in 1867. Two important figures, however, broke off from the Davis group and set out on their own: Breckinridge and Benjamin eventually made it to Cuba. Breckinridge later returned with a presidential pardon; Benjamin lived out a prosperous life in England.
AS THE CONFEDERACY COLLAPSED, SHERMAN BECAME FURTHER INVOLVED in the surrender imbroglio. The way in which the administration repudiated his original terms soured relations between Sherman and Stanton, the acerbic secretary of war. In the course of informing the press of the terms that Sherman had offered Johnston, Stanton had suppressed a letter in which Grant had characterized Sherman as believing that he was acting in accordance with Lincoln’s wishes. Rather, Stanton announced that Sherman had deliberately ignored Lincoln’s instructions, as reiterated by President Johnson. Not content with these allegations of insubordination, Stan-ton charged Sherman with having made troop dispositions that would facilitate Davis’s escape with his supposed hoard of Confederate gold, and virtually accused Sherman of disloyalty. The New York. Herald declared that “Sherman’s splendid military career is ended; he will retire under a cloud. . . . With a few unlucky strokes of his pen, he has blurred all the triumphs of his sword.”
Sherman had not protested the overruling of his terms, but word of Stanton’s charges infuriated him. He wrote to Grant, saying that he had never in his life disobeyed an order, “though many and many a time I have risked my life, health and reputation in obeying orders.” Toward the end of May, Sherman appeared before the Committee on the Conduct of the War; he said that his April 18 terms, although not specifically authorized by Lincoln, would have been authorized by him had he lived.
In Washington, Sherman took his revenge in the most public way possible. The capital celebrated the end of the war with a two-day military review. Sherman’s army paraded on the second day, May 24, and after passing President Johnson in the reviewing stand set up in front of the White House, Sherman dismounted and joined the reviewing party. He saluted the president and shook hands. But when Stanton, standing next to the president, started to extend his hand, Sherman, flushing deeply, ignored him; instead, the general shook hands with Grant and turned to watch the parade. Such was Sherman’s prestige that his discourtesy went without rebuke.
Sherman never forgave Stanton. In contrast, the negotiations at Bennitt’s farmhouse began a lasting friendship between Sherman and Johnston. The Ohioan went on to become commanding general of the army, while Johnston served a term in Congress and was later appointed commissioner of railroads by President Grover Cleveland. When Sherman died in 1891–reviled in the South but widely admired in the North–one of the honorary pallbearers was Joseph E. Johnston. The day of the funeral was cold and rainy, and Johnston was by then eighty-two. “General, please put on your hat,” a member of the party admonished. “You might get sick.” Johnston replied, “If I were in his place, and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.”
In ten days, Johnston, too, was dead. MHQ
JOHN M. TAYLOR has written extensively on historical subjects. His latest book, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, was published in 1996 by Harper/Collins.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue (Vol. 3, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Second Surrender
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