The spirit of the Bennett Place

Exterior of Bennett Place historical site today.
Credit: Bennett Place Historical Site, NC Dept. Natural & Cultural Resources.

LOCAL HISTORY IN CONTEXT

By Gregory DL Morris
Columnist/Correspondent

April 26 is the 159th anniversary of the day at the Bennett Place, just a few miles northeast of Chapel Hill, where 150,000 soldiers stopped fighting and went home—no recriminations, no retributions. Today, it is a state historic site, and the anniversary will be honored with events on Saturday.
https://historicsites.nc.gov/news/events/159th-anniversary-daytime-program

Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered his force of nearly 90,000 troops to U.S. Army Major General William Sherman. The two generals and their staff met three times at James and Nancy Bennett’s farmhouse in what was then rural Orange County.

“We have two programs on Saturday: 10 am – 4pm living history focused on the surrender and soldier/civilian wartime experience,” Kaitlin O’Connor, site manager at Bennett Place State Historic Site, told TLR. “The second is 7 – 9pm ‘The Day Had Come: Emancipation & Bennett Place,’ highlighting how the surrender brought more than an uneasy peace, the end of war helped usher in the end of slavery in North Carolina.”

The leaders of the two largest remaining armies met to end the Civil War in the southeast. Source: Bennett Place Historical Site, NC Dept. Natural & Cultural Resources

The surrender was by far the largest of the war. It ended the fighting in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Still, it is far overshadowed by the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 12. To the extent the concord at Bennett Place knows at all, it is only tangentially: Waiting for weeks to be shipped out from the rail center of Durham, Union soldiers had lots of idle time to smoke, and subsequently spread the fame of the local tobacco.

More importantly, the developments of that day are both an example of amity and an explanation of animus. After five years of horrific fighting, the soldiers simply stopped trying to kill each other. The terms of surrender were generous, the same as those Grant offered Lee. But it took time for word to spread.

Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who had ordered Johnston to continue fighting, was captured on May 10. The last organized fighting was the Battle of Palmito Ranch, near Brownsville, Texas, on May 12. Brigadier General Stand Waite, commander of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage troops in the Indian Territory, now the State of Oklahoma, surrendered on June 23. The commerce raider CSS Shenandoah interned herself in England in August.

And that is part of the problem that lingers to this day. The Confederacy simply ceased to exist. Generals and captains surrendered their commands and civilian leaders were captured, but there was never any governmental surrender. It was not until August 20, 1866 – sixteen months after Lee’s surrender – that president Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation that the “insurrection is at an end.”

Not quite. That same year Edward A. Pollard, editor of the Richmond Examiner, published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of The War of the Confederates. The demonstrably false myths of “the lost cause” continue to fester in our politics and culture.

And that is the irony of the Bennett Place: there, as all over the country, hundreds of thousands of soldiers just wanted to stop fighting, go home, recover, and restart. “In April 1865, two battle-weary adversaries, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman, met under a flag of truce to discuss a peaceful solution to the tragic Civil War,” according to the Bennett Place website.

Only a few fanatics wanted to keep fighting somehow. Most notoriously, Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in 1865. The Enforcement Act of 1871 mostly suppressed the Klan over the course of the following years. And then Confederate monuments started popping up all over. Most were not erected immediately after the war but in the 1890s through 1920s. Silent Sam, on the UNC campus, was erected in 1913. It was removed on August 20, 2018, one hundred and fifty-two years to the day after Johnson declared the “insurrection is at an end.”

This weekend let’s remember the spirit of the Bennett Place, a peaceful resolution to a tragic war.

“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
-Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address


Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.

This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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