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Civil War History 101: The Largest Troop Surrender Happened In Durham

Bennett Place, Civil War

Thousands of history buffs are expected to visit the Bennett Place State Historic Site this week in Durham.  150 years ago, Confederate and Union generals met at the Bennett farm to negotiate a big surrender of troops.

But did this event essentially mark the end of the Civil War?  It’s according to who you ask and where they’re from.

The Bennett family farm was close to 190 acres of corn, wheat and oat.  Today, about 35 acres of the original farm is left and much work and money has gone into restoring and preserving the site.

Patti Lingafelt spent a recent afternoon walking the grounds, and snapping several pictures.

“So, I’ve lived in Durham for 32 years and had not been here until maybe 10 years ago or so," said Lingafelt.

Lingafelt was not born in North Carolina and had not grown up hearing the Tar Heel version of the great Civil War surrender.

“I grew up in Virginia and so I always thought Appomattox was the end of the war," laughed Lingafelt.   "And so, it was interesting to me to learn that this was a larger surrender and later than Appomattox.”

Seth McCurdy is originally from Pennsylvania.  He and his sons Max and Jack are also out walking, touching and learning.   The McCurdys are leaning on a wooden fence next to the Bennett farmhouse where the negotiations took place.

“The two last armies in the field, that were big armies, ended the war right here, in that room.  They met, had a drink of whiskey and signed the papers," said Seth McCurdy. 

Jack McCurdy, 8, shouted out to his father: "Maybe that’s why they agreed!"

"Maybe Jack, maybe the whiskey did it!" said Seth McCurdy.

When you line up the dates this is what happened.  After the fall of Richmond on April 3, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had hoped to leave the state and join-up with additional troops in North Carolina to keep fighting.  But Union General Ulysses S. Grant spoiled those plans.  By April 9, the two men met in Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  Lee surrendered 28,000 troops.

Ryan Reed is a Historic Interpreter at Bennett Place.

“People studying the civil war always think of Appomattox. Appomattox Court House.  Where did the war come to an end?" said Reed.  "And that’s it, Appomattox Court House.”

You can tell it’s a sore spot.  Soon after Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  A few days later Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman would negotiate at the Bennett farm in Durham three times, April 17, 18 and finally the 26.

“And negotiate what would become the largest surrender of the American Civil War. With over 89,000 troops surrendered in four confederate states, this would rapidly draw the Civil War to a close," said Reed.

This surrender triggered others across the south like in Citronelle, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana.  But Civil War history that followed Lincoln’s death would sometimes get lost.

'They met, had a drink of whisky and signed the papers.'

To commemorate the biggest surrender, more than 400 Civil War re-enactors will soon embark on the old Bennett farm.  John Guss is the Historic Site Manager at Bennett Place and he also plays the role of General Sherman for visitors.

“Most people put a rubber stamp on him that he was a mean, dirty, nasty individual who just stomped all over the south and ruined it," said Guss.  "But his duty was to go out and win a war.”

General Johnston will be there too, played by Craig Braswell of Princeton, North Carolina.  He’s already in character.

“General Lee has surrendered in Appomattox.  We lost our fight for independence.  We fought a good fight, but just too many Yankees.  It has to end here I guess.  I just want people to know the war did not end in Appomattox," said Braswell.  

Today and tomorrow will feature “Civil War School Days” at Bennett Place for more than 1,000 school children.  It’s their way of making sure the next generation gets the story right.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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