Having failed to stop Union Gen. William T. Sherman's army at Bentonville, on March 19-21, 1865, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his troops to Smithfield, North Carolina, some thirty miles east of Raleigh, the state capital. Upon learning that the Confederate cabinet and President Davis had evacuated the Confederate capital at Richmond on April 2, Johnston ordered his troops to Raleigh to cut off Sherman's advance on the North Carolina capital. Johnston believed that Gen. Robert E. Lee would move his troops south after abandoning Richmond and thus unite their two armies. However, on April 11, Johnston received a message from President Davis informing him that General Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9. Davis ordered Johnston to Greensboro to meet with him and the cabinet on April 12. Here, the beleaguered Confederate president stated his belief that the Confederacy was not finished and urged his generals and cabinet to continue the fight. Davis ordered his generals not to surrender.
General Johnston, having been in the field and suffered the recent loss at Bentonville, disagreed with Davis. He did not openly oppose the president, but talked with Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge and Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory, encouraging them to convince Davis of the hopelessness of continuing the war. Eventually, the entire cabinet came to this conclusion and Davis agreed to begin surrender negotiations.
General Sherman had met with General Grant and President Lincoln in late March to discuss hypothetical surrender scenarios. Lincoln encouraged Sherman to reassure North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance that, once North Carolina surrendered, the existing state government would be recognized by Lincoln until the U. S. Congress could provide a new government. Sherman returned to Goldsboro, where he anticipated one final battle for Raleigh. However, when his troops marched on Smithfield on April 10 and 11, expecting to encounter Johnston's army, they found the town abandoned. On the evening of April 11, Sherman received a telegram informing him of Lee's surrender to Grant. He announced the grand news to his troops on April 12 and much celebration took place. Confederate forces withdrew from Raleigh towards Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, and Governor Vance fled the capital headed for Greensboro to meet with President Davis. On the evening of April 12, a group of prominent citizens petitioned Sherman to spare Raleigh from devastation and Sherman agreed. On April 13, Sherman's army entered Raleigh and the general set up his headquarters in the governor's mansion.
The next day, Sherman received a message from General Johnston requesting a cessation of hostilities and the opening of peace negotiations by the civil authorities. Sherman agreed to a meeting with Johnston midway between the two armies located in Hillsborough and Raleigh. These were the fateful events that brought the two generals together at a modest farm near Durham Station in Orange County on April 17, 1865.
James Bennitt (later spelled Bennett), a yeoman farmer who never owned slaves, was probably in the midst of planting his spring corn crop in April 1865, never expecting such a momentous event would take place in his humble home. His family, already touched by the war with the loss of both sons and a son-in-law, would, from this time on, be associated with the largest surrender of the Civil War. The two generals asked permission to use Mr. Bennitt's house to conduct their meeting. The family, filled with a combination of fear and awe at having these men in their home, retreated to the separate kitchen building to allow the generals the use of the house.
On April 17, before leaving Raleigh for his train ride to Durham Station, General Sherman received a telegram informing him of the assassination of President Lincoln. As soon as the two generals were alone in the Bennitt farmhouse, Sherman shared the terrible news with Johnston. Thus, they began their peace negotiations with a dark cloud over their heads, as neither knew what effects the assassination might have on the war and its conclusion.
Sherman offered Johnston surrender on military terms, that is, surrender of the armies under his command. This was similar to the terms Grant had offered Lee at Appomattox. Johnston responded with an offer of a full surrender of all armies in the field, even those over which Johnston had no command authority. This in effect would be a total surrender, which would mean a permanent peace. Sherman realized that only the Confederate civil authorities had the power to negotiate such a proposal and, since the U.S. government did not recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate government, such an agreement would not likely be approved by Pres. Andrew Johnson and Congress.
The two men and their support staff met again on April 18. Johnston assured Sherman that he was authorized to surrender all armies, but wanted some assurance of their political rights after surrender. Sherman explained that any Confederate officer or enlisted man who laid down his arms and took an oath of allegiance to the Union would be pardoned and restored to full citizenship. Sherman offered Johnston fairly liberal terms of surrender, which included a disbanding of the armies, the deposit of arms in state arsenals, the recognition of state governments, the establishment of federal courts, a restoration of political and civil rights, and a general amnesty for all but the highest Confederate civilian leaders. Johnston agreed to the terms and forwarded the agreement to President Davis. Davis, although he didn't like the omission of any reference to the civilian government, agreed to these terms.
However, in light of the hostility toward the South in the wake of Lincoln's assassination, Congress did not like these terms and rejected them. Sherman was sent back to re-negotiate new terms that were not so liberal. The two generals met again on April 26, and Sherman proposed the more stringent terms of a military surrender, with no mention of the restoration of political or civil rights of citizens of the former Confederacy. Davis opposed surrender under these terms and ordered Johnston to withdraw from negotiations and escape with his mounted troops to fight another day. Johnston, war weary and realistic as to the fate of the Confederacy, disobeyed Davis and negotiated the surrender anyway. General Johnston surrendered all troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida which included 89,270 soldiers. The Confederate troops were mustered out and issued paroles in Greensboro, formally ending North Carolina's participation in the Civil War. The hard work of reconstructing the state and the entire South would now begin.