David Terrenoire posted a comment in response to my entry “Of Books and Dilemmas”, and mentioned that he lives about a mile from Bennett Place, the site of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to William T. Sherman on April 26, 1865. His post reminded me of the absolutely stunning difference between the Bennett Place site and Appomattox Court House, the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The entire village of Appomattox Court House was purchased by the War Department and was turned into a shrine. It’s now part of the National Park Service, with many of the buildings–including Wilmer McLean’s handsome home–having been reconstructed as replicas of the original structures. The Appomattox Court House National Park consists of 1800 acres and includes 27 original structures. It is amply monumented, and the small battlefield area–the fight was brief and aborted when Lee realized that Union infantry had arrived and that his plight was hopeless–is well interpreted. There’s even a small military cemetery on site, a large Eastern National Park & Monument Association book store with an excellent selection, and a visitor center with a nice museum. It’s a place well worth visiting. I’ve only been there once, but I spent the better part of a day there, exploring the place and seeing what there was to see.
There have been lots of books written about these events. Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month that Saved America comes to mind immediately, as does William Marvel’s A Place Called Appomattox. There are also the many fine works by Chris Calkins on the Appomattox Campaign, and any number of other similar works.
It’s important to remember that after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, there were still three major Confederate armies in the field: Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina, Richard H. Taylor’s army in Alabama, and Edmund Kirby-Smith’s army in the Trans-Mississippi. Contrary to popular belief, Lee’s surrender did NOT end the Civil War. Johnston had a nearly insurmountable lead over Sherman’s army, and Sherman would have been hard-pressed to bring Johnston to bay had Johnston not decided that further bloodshed would have been completely useless.
Johnston asked for a truce, and arrangements were made for Johnston to meet Sherman at David Bennett’s farm, about four miles from Durham, NC. There, on April 17, the two commanders met and negotiated not just the surrender of Johnston’s army, but peace. They negotiated an end to hostilities as well as the surrender of Johnston’s army. Sherman gave Johnston extremely generous terms, and they signed an agreement on April 18, subject to government approval. Although Jefferson Davis readily approved these liberal terms, an angry Federal government, still stinging from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, rejected them. Grant then ordered Sherman to re-negotiate the terms with Johnston to match those given to Lee at Appomattox.
Davis, opposed the surrender of Johnston’s command under the terms given to Lee, ordered Johnston to disband the infantry and escape with the large force of cavalry attached to Johnston’s army. To his undying credit, Johnston disobeyed those orders, met Sherman again on April 26, and surrendered nearly 90,000 Confederate troops on the same terms given to Lee’s army at Appomattox. The troops included men in the Carolinas, Georga, and Florida. Only after Johnston surrendered did Taylor and Kirby-Smith finally surrender, too.
In many ways, what happened at Bennett Place is more remarkable, and more important, than what happened at Appomattox. However, the Bennett place episode has long been ignored in light of the more dramatic events at Appomattox. The Bennett Place surrender site is a North Carolina state park that occupies about four acres. It has a couple of monuments, a replica of the Bennett house, a small visitor center with a couple of museum exhibits, a movie, and about a dozen books for sale. The contrast is absolutely shocking when compared with the plush and huge national park at Appomattox. The Bennett Place park sits a couple of hundred yards from an Interstate freeway, nestled among houses, so there is no way that it could be expanded. There are a couple of monuments and gazebo. And that’s all there is to commemorate one of the most important events of the American Civil War.
Fortunately, in recent years, thanks to the brilliant work of Mark L. Bradley, Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign and the events at Bennett Place have finally begun to receive some recognition for their importance. Mark has written an excellent book titled This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2000. This outstanding book finally puts the last days of the Carolinas Campaign–the five weeks after the Battle of Bentonville–and the events at Bennett Place in their proper context. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the surrender of Johnston’s army. This book deserves its place next to Winik’s book (which I have always thought was badly overrated and overstated) on the shelf of anyone who claims to be truly interested in the healing of the war’s wounds.
I can only hope that some day, the events at Bennett Place will receive the level of attention and the volume of scholarship devoted to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Sadly, though, I doubt that will happen.Scridb filter