Gen. Joseph E. Johnston learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in the hamlet of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 several days later. Lee had been trying to outrace the pursuing Union armies in an attempt to link up with Johnston’s army near Weldon, North Carolina. Once Lee’s army surrendered, there was no reason for Johnston to continue the bloodletting—it was over, and the wise old Confederate general knew it. Johnston, also horrified by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and worried about potential recriminations stemming from it, was eager to end the war. The wily old Virginian had a great deal of respect for his adversary, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, and he saw an opportunity to not just end the fighting, but to end the war itself. Sherman, weary of the butchery, also wanted the same thing.
Johnston proposed a meeting between the two army commanders to treat for peace, and they selected James Bennett’s modest farmhouse, near Durham, North Carolina, which was approximately halfway between the positions of the two armies. As one of Sherman’s staff officers put it, “two great men came together in the heart of North Carolina, intent, with true nobility of soul and in the highest interest of humanity, upon putting a stop to the needless sacrifice of life.”
As Sherman was preparing to leave for his conference with Johnston, he learned of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln via telegram. He swore the telegraph operator to secrecy to keep word from reaching the men and jeopardizing the meeting.
On April 17, the two army commanders entered the little Bennett house and began hashing out the terms of not just the surrender of Johnston’s army, but for peace and the restoration of the Union. Each commander arrived with his staff and a cavalry escort. Sherman informed Johnston of the assassination, and the Virginian said that the president’s death “was the greatest possible calamity to the South.” Sherman offered Johnston the same terms offered to Lee by Grant. However, Johnston believed the purpose to cease the fighting so that the civil authorities could make peace. He proposed to surrender all remaining Confederate forces in the field, and idea that Sherman eagerly embraced, as he wanted to avoid a long guerrilla war.
Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton of South Carolina, Johnston’s chief of cavalry, and the highest-ranking Confederate cavalry officer, and Bvt. Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, Sherman’s cavalry commander, accompanied their commanders to the peace conference. Both officers had transferred from the Virginia theater of operations, and they had tangled many times. Hampton was a patrician, reportedly the richest man in the antebellum South. Kilpatrick, small, ambitious, and with an unsavory reputation, were two entirely opposite personalities.While their men mingled and chatted, Hampton and Kilpatrick instead engaged in a loud and ugly argument that led to “both parties expressing a desire that the issue of the war should be left between the cavalry.” Their row had grown so loud that Sherman and Johnston had to interrupt their important discussions to separate their quarreling subordinates. A few minutes later, the two respective contingents mounted up and rode off after scheduling another meeting for the next day to finalize their discussions. Johnston needed time to communicate with the Confederate authorities. Hampton remained at headquarters the next day to avoid another ugly confrontation with his old adversary.
The next day, April 18, Sherman and Johnston met again. Johnston wanted to have the advice of General john Breckinridge, the Confederate Secretary of War, and an experienced attorney and politician, as to the legalities, so he invited Breckinridge to attend the meeting. Sherman initially opposed the presence of a civil official of the Confederacy, but agreed to permit the Kentuckian to remain once Breckinridge agreed to act solely in his capacity as a major general. Pausing only to take a sip of whiskey, Sherman began writing. The two commanders then signed a remarkable document:
Memorandum, or Basis of Agreement, made this 18th day of April A.D. 1865, near Durham Station, in the State of North Carolina, by and between General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the United States in North Carolina, both present:
The contending armies now in the field to maintain the status quo until notice is given by the commanding general of anyone to its opponent, and reasonable time – say forty-eight hours – allowed.
The Confederate armies now in existence to be disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenal; and each officer and man to execute and file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide by the action of the State and Federal authority. The number of arms and munitions of war to be reported to the Chief of Ordinance at Washington City, subject to the future action of the Congress of the United States, and, in the mean time, to be used solely to maintain peace and order within the borders of the States respectively.
The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments, on their officers and legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and, where conflicting State governments have resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all shall be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The re-establishment of all Federal Courts in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.
The people and inhabitants of all the States to be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of person and property, as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.
The Executive authority of the Government of the United States not to disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, abstain from acts of armed hostility, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence.
In general terms – the war to cease; a general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command, on condition of the disbandment of the Confederate armies, the distribution of the arms, and the resumption of peaceful pursuits by the officers and men hitherto composing said armies.
Not being fully empowered by our respective principals to fulfill these terms, we individually and officially pledge ourselves to promptly obtain the necessary authority, and to carry out the above programme.
W.T. Sherman, Major-General,
Commanding Army of the United States in North Carolina
J.E. Johnston, General,
Commanding Confederate States Army in North Carolina
This remarkable document, if ratified, would not only ensure the surrender of Johnston’s army, it would end the war and restore the authority and civil government of the United States in the former Confederacy. It marked Sherman’s and Johnston’s attempt at statesmanship. Sherman then ordered the halting of hostilities by all troops under his command.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis quickly accepted these generous terms. However, the civil authorities in Washington, D. C., still enraged over the assassination of Lincoln, declared that Sherman lacked authority to treat for peace. Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant, Sherman’s superior officer, ordered Sherman to abrogate his treaty and to inform Johnston that he could only offer to Johnston the same terms that Grant had offered to Lee at Appomattox. Their remarkable efforts came to naught.