Ready, aim, misfire! Bennett Place 'Civil War School Days'
Bennett Place is showing its age.
Its electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems are worn out.
Its bathrooms don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The state historic site needs $560,000 for repairs.
In addition, the money would help build an expansion to hold classes for visiting school children and a conference room.
“With [state] budgets being slashed, we don’t get enough money each year to do these projects," site manager Diane Smith said.
The N.C. Department of Cultural and Natural Resources requested $1.4 million for repairs and renovation at the state's 27 historic sites. The money was in the governor’s budget, but not in the budget passed by the General Assembly. State appropriations generally only provide enough funding for basic needs.
In April 1865 the Bennett Farm became the site of the largest surrender of Confederate troops, ending the Civil War.
“That truce marked a big change, said Joseph T. Glatthaar, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It meant North Carolina accepted the idea that slavery as an institution was dead.”
Today Bennett Place's rural location off U..S. 70 in west Durham hides its significance.
“What happened there was a big deal,” said Harvey Dalton a musician and a former Orange County school volunteer who used to take kids there for trips. “I am not well schooled in history, but a significant event in the Civil War happened there, and that fascinates me.”
“It was a huge deal” he echoed, “a huge deal.”
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union army marched through the Carolinas from Georgia, defeating the Confederates in battles. As Sherman approached Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in northern Virginia surrendered April 9, 1865.
With Lee's surrender, the Confederate cause was lost and Sherman began negotiations with Gen. Joseph Johnston, the Confederate commander in North Carolina. Johnson surrendered April 17, 1865.
“Johnston commanded the last major army in the Confederacy,” Glatthaar said. “With its surrender the war was over.”
Within a few months the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified.
“This transformed North Carolina in monumental ways,” Glatthaar said. “Slavery was a powerful economic component, the wealthy owned slaves, and with that came status.”
The Bennett Place surrender saved North Carolina from the destruction that would have ensued had Johnson kept fighting. During the talks, President Lincoln was assassinated April 14.
“The bottom line is Johnston when given this information was fearful,” Glatthaar said. “He feared there would be tremendous vindictiveness on the part on the Union army if he continued the war.”
The surrender had an unintended consequence.
“While thousands of Union and Confederate troops were idle in the Durham’s Station area as surrender negotiations went on,they made themselves familiar with the local tobacco," said historian Jim Wise, author of "On Sherman's Trail: The Civil War's North Carolina Climax."
A raid by soldiers on a warehouse belonging to John R. Green turned out to be great advertising. After the war, former soldiers from both sides started sending orders for Durham smoking tobacco. This jumpstarted tobacco manufacturing at Durham’s Station.
“Without the Bennett talks, there would have been nothing to boost Durham branded tobacco over that from any other place dealing in bright leaf," Wise said.
Today, Bennett Place, 4409 Bennett Memorial Road, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5p.m. Its major attractions are a visitors center, museum, research library, gift shop, and reconstruction of the Bennett Farm.
In 1988, the Bennett Place Support Fund, a nonprofit organization, was created to hep support the site. A fundraiser planned for this month has been postponed to the fall due to recent high temperatures.