Surrender at Bennett Place

People observe the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, all the time.  It’s not unusual to hear people say that Lee’s surrender to Grant ended the Civil War … although, of course, it didn’t.  Neither did the negotiations that ended with the formal surrender of the Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston’s command to William T. Sherman on April 26, 1865, at what is now called Bennett Place in North Carolina, just outside of Durham.

The document signed on April 26th was actually the second document signed by Sherman and Johnston.  The first, signed April 18th, sparked a great deal of controversy.  In it William T. Sherman, the man who supposedly abhorred politics, went far beyond his authority to frame a document which read more like a peace settlement.  He did so following a discussion with Johnston; the Union general also reportedly offended Confederate Secretary of War (and major general) John C. Breckenridge by refusing to offer him a nip from his bottle (note that it was Sherman, not Grant, who was partaking on the day of a surrender negotiation).   Moreover, apparently we should call Bennett Place Bennitt Place, since the family name appears to have been Bennitt.

Sherman’s original terms were approved by Jefferson Davis … but not by the president Sherman needed to impress, Andrew Johnson.  News of the terms arrived in Washington the very day that the funeral train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln departed the nation’s capital for Springfield.  It was left to Ulysses S. Grant to steer a middle course between rejection and an effort to defame Sherman as a lunatic or a traitor led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  Grant made his way to North Carolina, and one sees in the text of the second and final terms a document that closely resembles the one Grant prepared for Lee weeks earlier.  It is noteworthy that Johnston defied the wishes of his president in agreeing to the revised document.

The negotiations between Sherman and Johnston reveal just how complicated issues of war and peace might get.  For months politicians had failed to reach a final settlement, leaving it to the commanders in the field to work things out.  Grant had a far better political ear than did Sherman, whose contempt for professional politicians, the press, and public opinion often landed him in hot water, and never more so than in the spring of 1865.  Aware that he was not “fully empowered” to frame his initial agreement, Sherman nevertheless plunged ahead, and it is worthwhile to read the actual document in order to understand how far he had gone beyond the proper scope of military authority.

And yet, when one looks carefully at the agreement … would its implementation have been all that different from how white southerners implemented Andrew Johnson’s policy in 1865?  Oh, sure, there are differences in the details … but would there have been all that much difference in the result?

7 thoughts on “Surrender at Bennett Place

  1. tonygunter April 26, 2012 / 5:45 am

    Wouldn’t a guarantee of “rights of persons and property” have protected slavery and possibly endangered the ratification of the 13th Amendment?

    • David Lewis September 30, 2018 / 5:12 pm

      That’s what my Great-Grandfather, Captain in MI 23rd infantry, then stationed at Raleigh, thought. He was all ready to start fighting again if that was not taken out. I gather other soldiers may have felt the same. He was relieved when Grant arrived to take charge.

      I don’t think he was concerned about ratification, really, but about any legal precedent for continuation of slavery which he had fought for years to abolish. I personally think that a mere surrender agreement would not have had much effect on ratification. I doubt that Sherman would have said that he intended to affirm the right to property in slaves.

      Have you seen a discussion of this particular question anywhere? Because of my Great-Grandfather’s concern, I’ve been interested to learn if other soldiers reacted the same way. But most of the discussions of this that I’ve seen refer to other aspect of the agreement.

  2. Carl Schenker April 26, 2012 / 6:18 am

    Interesting post, Brooks.
    (1) I think there was a comment here recently stating that April 9 is considered the “official” end of the war, a conclusion which I simply don’t understand.
    (2) It’s my understanding that Sherman signed the 1st agreement only provisionally, subject to approval from Washington, which of course was not forthcoming. His memoirs assert that he was influenced by his understanding of Lincoln’s desires, as absorbed during his meetings with Lincoln and Grant at City Point in late March. (WTS knew of the assassination before meeting Johnston.)
    (3) Grant did indeed save Sherman’s bacon on this occasion. The uproar, however, severely damaged WTS’s relations with Stanton and Halleck.

  3. wgdavis April 26, 2012 / 7:39 am

    The original agreement is a curious document…sections three and five in particular seem to be where Sherman greatly exceeded his authority.

    “3. The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments, on their officers and legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and, where conflicting State governments have resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all shall be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States”

    Why the Supreme Court? Would not the oaths be just as effective for Confederate State governments? This smacks of something Johnston might have insisted upon.

    “4. The people and inhabitants of all the States to be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of person and property, as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.”

    Ooh, should have been more careful here. The Constitution still allowed slavery and slaves were still defined as property.

    This then raises a question. When did the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation go out of effect? There is a gap in time between the end of the war and the ratification of the 13th Amendment? Could there possibly have been a challenge to the EP especially if based on this clause in the terms?

    • wgdavis April 26, 2012 / 7:49 am

      In further thought on the above comment, it seems that the crafty Johnston was playing Sherman somewhat. He opens the door to Constitutional challenges on the slavery question. Even worse, he seeks to have the Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of secession. The secession issue should have been taken up in the early 1850s by the Southern Democrats, perhaps even crafting an amendment to the Constitution allowing secession and outlining the rules for it, and defining the role of the Federal and State governments when a state or states secede. One wonders why they did not attempt to do that…maybe even as early as the Compromise of 1850.

  4. Noma April 27, 2012 / 12:18 pm

    Stanton and company made a terrible and tragic mistake when they accused Sherman of being a traitor, because he went too far in making the April 18 treaty. I wonder how much it played into the problem that so many people had their hands full with the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination and entry of the formerly dormant Andrew Johnson into the presidential sphere. The had undergone an incredible amount of stress for 3 weeks, and probably with very little sleep. It almost seems like the physical conditions of their beat-up bodies contributed to the unfortunate pronouncements they made. Not to excuse them. But you can’t help wonder if things would have been different if they weren’t so completely exhausted to begin with.

    Similarly, when we look at pictures of the surrender at Appomattox, I think we usually don’t realize that we are looking at a room full of people who have had no more than 10 hours of sleep in the past 3 days.

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