johnston's surrender
photograph by David Stanley

The unthinkable has become the inevitable.

On April 6, 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, encamped near Goldsboro with nearly 90,000 troops, receives the stunning news: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet are fleeing toward Greensboro. Richmond has fallen.

General Sherman’s mission to aid in its capture now moot, he turns to a new and pressing objective. He writes to his old friend General Grant, “On Monday at daylight all my army will move straight on Joe Johnston, supposed to be between me and Raleigh, and I will follow him wherever he may go.”

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston stages a stubborn rearguard action as he moves his army from Smithfield toward Durham.

Up in Virginia, Lee hopes to march south and unite his army with General Johnston’s for a final campaign, but the hard-riding cavalry of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan catches his army at Sayler’s Creek and deals a shattering blow — capturing eight generals and nearly 8,000 troops.

On the evening of April 11, 1865, Sherman learns that Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

Though Lee is commander in chief of the entire Confederate Army, he has surrendered only those troops that are surrounded and facing slaughter — about 29,000 men.

Johnston’s army is not surrounded. If his infantry can make it to the mountains, they can disperse and wage a guerrilla war for years to come.

Johnston is summoned to a meeting with President Davis in Greensboro. He travels all night to make the 75-mile journey over the worn-out North Carolina Railroad. Joining him for the meeting is Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, with whom he served in the opening battle of Manassas. The generals confer in Beauregard’s headquarters, a converted boxcar, then meet President Davis at noon at a rented house.

Davis announces plans to recruit a new army from among the many deserters in the region, as well as conscripting those men previously exempt, and launching a new bold offensive.

To Johnston, this scheme is “inexpressibly wild” — sheer madness.

Sherman is bearing down on Raleigh. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman and 6,000 cavalry are raiding across the border from Tennessee to as near as Salisbury.

At a second conference the next day, April 13, having been briefed by Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, Davis announces, “I think we can whip the enemy yet, if our people will turn out.”

But there are no more people to turn out. One in four men of military age in North Carolina has died in the war — a ratio shared throughout most of the Confederacy.

Johnston bluntly declares that “it would be the greatest of human crimes to continue the war.”

General Beauregard adds, “I concur in all that Genl. Johnston has said.”

Davis bows to the overwhelming pressure of his generals and his cabinet and writes to Sherman asking for a “temporary suspension of active operations,” explaining, “the object being to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.”

Davis is not seeking a path to surrender, but only a truce to open negotiations — which he expects will fail — and anticipates fighting on.

In Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln awaits news from Sherman. He confides to Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, that he has once again dreamed of sailing fast on a ship toward an unknown shore. Always in the past, the dream has portended a Union victory. Now Lincoln  is confident that victory will be Sherman’s.

In Raleigh, David L. Swain, a former governor and president of the University of North Carolina, and state senator William A. Graham confer with Gov. Zebulon Vance, urging him to seek a separate peace for the state in order to spare it the devastation that further armed resistance will surely bring. Vance dispatches them to Sherman with a letter that reads, in part, “I have to request, under proper safe-conduct, a personal interview, in such time as may be agreeable to you, for the purpose of conferring upon the subject of a suspension of hostilities, with a view to further communications with the authorities of the United States, touching the final termination of the existing war.”

The capital falls

After many delays, the commissioners are conveyed to Sherman’s headquarters. By the time they make it back to Raleigh, the mayor has surrendered the city.

On the morning of April 13, as Lincoln recounts his dream to Secretary Welles, Sherman reviews the Army of the Tennessee in Capitol Square.

“As far as [the] eye can reach is a sea of bayonets,” marvels Maj. Gen. Carl Shurtz, one of Sherman’s commanders.

Nearby, a young townswoman openly weeps. “A few days ago I saw General Johnston’s army, ragged and starved,” she says between sobs. “Now when I look at these strong, healthy men and see them coming and coming — it is all over with us!”

Davis’s letter requesting a truce reaches General Sherman at midnight on April 14. He replies immediately: “I am fully empowered to arrange with you any terms for the suspension of further hostilities as between the armies commanded by you and those commanded by myself, and will be willing to confer with you to that end.”

Sherman goes even further. He interprets Davis’s letter as an overture of surrender, and he takes it upon himself to end the war — not just on this field, but in the whole Confederacy.

Even as he pens his reply to Davis on Good Friday evening, President Lincoln lies dying, his head pierced by a bullet fired by a Confederate zealot.

Sherman’s reply doesn’t reach Johnston until Easter morning, Sunday, April 16.  The general rides to Greensboro to confer with President Davis, but Davis and his entourage have departed without notice, bound for Charlotte. Johnston will have to negotiate the surrender on his own authority.

For political cover, at the urging of General Beauregard, he sends for Breckinridge to accompany him.

“A few hours of absolute and Sabbath stillness and silence ensued,” writes Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a journalist and poet who would be instrumental in reopening the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, a little village that sacrificed the lives of 35 young men to the war.

The faculty and students of the university have also suffered: In her memoir, Spencer writes that more than a quarter of the 84 graduates of the class of 1860 have died in service, and, altogether, 321 alumni have given their last full measure of devotion.

“We sat in our pleasant piazzas and awaited events with quiet resignation,” Spencer continues. By the time Sherman’s troops arrive, just a dozen students remain. University President Swain meets the advance guard of Ohio cavalry as they jog into the village, to make sure they honor General Sherman’s promise of protection. They do. Chapel Hill is Sherman’s last conquest.

The war must end

At last, after a series of miscarriages and delays, on April 17, General Sherman and his staff board a train for Durham Station to meet with General Johnston. Sherman, 45, wears the years of war on his seamed face. His red hair is disheveled, his chin and cheeks stubbled with gray-flecked whiskers. He is dressed in his hard-used blue field coat, unbuttoned over a blue vest. One observer reports, “An old, low crowned, round topped, faded black felt hat sat clapped close on his head.”

En route, he receives an urgent telegram.

From Durham, Sherman — astride a white horse — and his entourage, trailed by a company of cavalry troopers, follow the Hillsborough Road. To his staff, Sherman appears “quite cheerful and at his ease, having the air of one who felt himself indubitably ‘master of the situation.’ ”

Maj. George W. Nichols, one of his staff officers, recounts the scene: “As General Sherman rode past his picket line upon that sunny spring morning, the fresh breeze came laden with the fragrance of the pine, of apple blossoms, of lilacs, roses, and violets … The scene was symbolic of the new era of peace then just beginning to dawn upon the nation.”

General Johnston rides to meet him. Fifty-eight, fit and dapper, his goatee neatly trimmed, his gray dress uniform pressed and buttoned, Johnston looks more like the victor than the vanquished — except for the exhaustion and care furrowed into his high brow.

Each party is preceded by a rider bearing a flag of truce. At noon, the two flag-bearers meet. The generals are summoned and shake hands cordially. Sherman suggests they confer in private, and Johnston directs him to a nearby farmhouse — the home of James and Nancy Bennett.

They cannot know that the Bennetts have been made destitute by the war, have lost two sons and a son-in-law.

Nancy Bennett offers the generals a pitcher of cool buttermilk, then retires to the kitchen — a separate outbuilding.

In the main room — which features a couple of beds, a drop-leaf table, and chairs — Sherman hands Johnston the telegram he received on the train to Durham: “President Lincoln was murdered about 10 o’clock last night in his private box at Ford’s Theatre in this city, by an assassin who shot him through the head with a pistol ball.”

Johnston has understood that this meeting was simply a preamble to a conference between the governments to arrange a peace. But Sherman reminds him that the United States has never recognized the Confederacy as a sovereign nation and therefore cannot negotiate with it as such. But the generals may do whatever duty requires.

Sherman surprises Johnston by offering immediate and generous terms for surrender.

Johnston recognizes the urgency of the moment, the fleeting opportunity to end the madness once and for all. Now it is his turn to make a startling proposal: to surrender not just the troops under his immediate command, but all the soldiers remaining in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida — about 90,000 men. In exchange, he wants amnesty for soldiers and officers, as well as for Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.

Sherman is elated. They will confer with their respective governments and meet again tomorrow.

Next day, Johnston pushes for stronger guarantees that his soldiers will be restored full rights of citizenship, that officers will not suffer reprisals. In the middle of their discussion, a courier arrives bearing a memorandum from John H. Reagan, postmaster general of the Confederacy: It is the “Basis of Pacification” from the Confederate Government, outlining the terms it authorizes for Johnston.

Sherman quickly dismisses the memorandum. He sends for a bottle of whiskey from his saddlebag, and pours himself a healthy shot. He then writes out his own expansive terms. Along with a general amnesty, the document guarantees full political and property rights to the citizens of the Confederate states and recognition of their state governments.

Two copies are scribed, then both generals sign the document — confident that, at long last, the cruel war is over.

Finding common ground

At daybreak on April 24, General Grant arrives in Raleigh unannounced and surprises Sherman, still in his nightclothes. He has come to relieve Sherman of command: Washington has denied the terms of the surrender. Grant does not tell Sherman that some in the government, in particular Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, have accused him of treasonous ambitions. Sherman must offer Johnston only the terms offered to Lee at Appomattox, nothing more. Sherman writes two notes to Johnston — the first reminding him that the cease-fire will be up in 48 hours after receipt unless they reach a final agreement; the second notifying him of Grant’s terms.

For his part, Davis has approved the terms in principle, but he has also ordered Johnston to disband his infantry, to be reunited at a safe haven in the mountains, and to send the cavalry to escort Davis and the cabinet in their escape south.

Johnston is appalled by the orders and refuses to obey his commander in chief. He appeals to Sherman to meet one more time, and so on April 26, the two generals once again take up the contentious cause of peace.

They talk for hours but cannot agree. The sticking point: transportation. After Lee’s army was disbanded with no provision for getting the men back home, the countryside became infested with gangs of pillaging veterans. Maj. Gen. John Schofield, already assigned to become commander of the district after surrender, hits upon a simple, ingenious solution: a second document, unconnected to the surrender terms, spelling out the logistical details for feeding and transporting the surrendered troops.

Sherman orders his army commanders to “loan” to the local farmers and merchants any captured horses, mules, or wagons not essential to the service.

Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick’s provost marshal sends a detail to acquire the Bennetts’ drop-leaf table, on which the surrender was signed. They offer $10 and a horse, but the debt is never paid.

Sherman and Johnston, who never met face-to-face before negotiating surrender, become fast lifelong friends. They reunite with General Grant one last time on August 8, 1885, escorting his casket through the streets of New York City.

The curtain closes
In North Carolina, the vast tide of soldiers recedes. The hope and terror and heartbreak of Reconstruction is soon to begin.

Cornelia Phillips Spencer, the poet and journalist, renders a private judgment that for many becomes the epitaph of history: “Looking back at our delusions, errors, and miscalculations for the four years of the war, the wonder is, that the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.”

The long gray line has broken. The bright battle flags are furled. Out across the killing grounds of Fort Fisher, Averasboro, Wyse Forks, Bentonville, and scores of other fields, all stained with blue and gray, a sigh of wind is the only sound, as night falls over day.

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.