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?