Sherman and Johnston Discuss Terms

April 18, 1865 (Tuesday)

William Tecumseh Sherman had left City Point in the Richmond area, where he was visiting with General Grant, at the end of the month previous. While Grant pursued Lee’s retreating army, Sherman reorganized and readied his own in Goldsboro, North Carolina to move not against Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Smithfield, but to make for Virginia. It was now an army consisting of nearly 90,000 men.

William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman

With this host, he planned to “do the enemy as much harm as possible, while en route to the Roanoke River. The march was to have begun on the 10th of April, but when news of the fall of Richmond and Petersburg was received on the 6th, things were changed. Sherman assumed that Lee could get away and would soon join Johnston.

“I at once altered the foregoing orders,” Sherman recalled, “and prepared on the day appointed, viz., April 10th, to move straight on Raleigh, against the army of General Johnston, known to be at Smithfield, and supposed to have about thirty-five thousand men.”

And so, on the 10th, Sherman’s army, now with three wings instead of two, marched on Smithfield, fifty miles away. The 11th brought them to Smithfield, which they found to be vacated by the Rebels, who had “retreated hastily on Raleigh, burning the bridges.” That night, Sherman learned that Lee had surrendered.

“Of course, this created a perfect furore of rejoicing, and we all regarded the war as over, for I knew well that General Johnston had no army with which to oppose mine. So that the only questions that remained were, would he surrender at Raleigh? Or would he allow his army to disperse into guerrilla-bands, to ‘die in the last ditch,’ and entail on his country an indefinite and prolonged military occupation, and of consequent desolation? I knew well that Johnston’s army could not be caught; the country was too open; and, without wagons, the men could escape us, disperse, and assemble again at some place agreed on, and thus the war might be prolonged indefinitely.”

As Sherman’s cavalry battled with Johnston’s, his main body drew closer to Raleigh. Before the gates of the city, Sherman was met by representatives for North Carolina’s governor, Zebulon Vance. It seemed that Vance, having heard what Sherman did to Columbia, wished for Raleigh and its citizenry to be spared the same fate. Sherman, told them to “assure the Governor and the people that the war was substantially over, and that I wanted the civil authorities to remain in the execution of their office till the pleasure of the President could be ascertained.”

When Joe Johnston heard of Lee’s surrender late in the afternoon of April 12th. That night, he met with President Davis, who had fled himself to nearby Greensboro. There, he gathered not only Johnston, but P.G.T. Beauregard and Secretary of War John Breckinridge, who had carried with him these sad tidings. Davis contended that though things certainly appeared to be terrible, all was not lost, it was “not fatal,” he asserted. “I think we can whip the enemy if your people will turn out,” he was supposed to have said.

Johnston fell silent, and Davis grew uncomfortable enough to ask for his views. From across the room, as Johnston sat as far away from Davis as possible, he let his views be known: “Sir, my views are, that our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight!”

He was not finished. The enemy was too powerful, he continued, and they grew more powerful each passing day. How could they be opposed? “My men,” Johnston closed, “are, daily, deserting in large numbers, and are taking my artillery teams to aid their escape to their homes. Since Lee’s defeat, they regard the war as at an end. If I march out of North Carolina her people will all leave my ranks. It will be the same as I proceed south through South Carolina and Georgia, and I shall expect to retain no man beyond the by-road or cow-path that leads to his house. My small force is melting away like snow before the sun, and I am hopeless of recruiting it. We may, perhaps, obtain terms which we ought to accept.”

Joseph Johnston
Joseph Johnston

Davis, no doubt pleased that Johnston had finally shut up, turned to Beauregard. But to his dismay, Beauregard agreed with Johnston. Breckinridge also agreed, and wanted Johnston to draft a letter asking for terms. Johnston, however, thought it best if it came from Davis. It read:

“The results of the recent campaign in Virginia have changed the relative military condition of the belligerents. I am, therefore, induced to address you in this form the inquiry whether, to stop the further effusion of blood and devastation of property, you are willing to make a temporary suspension of active operations, and to communicate to Lieutenant-General Grant, commanding the armies of the United States, the request that he will take like action in regard to other armies, the object being to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.”

The next day, Sherman received the letter, replying:

I have this moment received your communication of this date. I am fully empowered to arrange with you any terms for the suspension of further hostilities between the armies commanded by you and those commanded by myself‘, and will be willing to confer with you to that end. I will limit the advance of my main column, to-morrow, to Morrisville, and the cavalry to the university, and expect that you will also maintain the present position of your forces until each has notice of a failure to agree. That a basis of action may be had, I undertake to abide by the same terms and conditions as were made by Generals Grant and Lee at Appomattox Court-House, on the 9th instant, relative to our two armies; and, furthermore, to obtain from General Grant an order to suspend the movements of any troops from the direction of Virginia. General Stoneman is under my command, and my order will suspend any devastation or destruction contemplated by him. I will add that I really desire to save the people of North Carolina the damage they would sustain by the march of this army through the central or western parts of the State.

By the 16th, Johnston and Sherman had agreed to meet in the town of Durham on the 17th. Sherman was about to leave on the 16th when he received a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, informing him of the assassination of President Lincoln, as well as the attempt on Secretary of State William Seward. With that, and after swearing the telegraph operator to secrecy, Sherman departed, arriving in Durham at 10am.

They met in a small farm house owned by a Mr. Bennett, and before long, the two were on friendly enough terms. Sherman disclosed the telegraph from Stanton, and Johnston, according to Sherman, “denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government.” Sherman couldn’t believe that either Johnston or Lee was responsible, “but I would not say as much for Jeff Davis.” Sherman worried that word of the assassination might cause his men to level Raleigh, the closest Rebel city, as revenge, and wished to avoid such a fate.

The Bennett Place
The Bennett Place

Then it was down to the business at hand.

“I then told Johnston that he must be convinced that he could not oppose my army, and that, since Lee had surrendered, he could do the same with honor and propriety. He plainly and repeatedly admitted this, and added that any further fighting would be ‘murder,’ but he thought that, instead of surrendering piecemeal, we might arrange terms that would embrace all the Confederate armies. I asked him if he could control other armies than his own; he said, not then, but intimated that he could procure authority from Mr. Davis. I then told him that-I had recently had an interview with General Grant and President Lincoln, and that I was possessed of their views ; that with them and the people North there seemed to be no vindictive feeling against the Confederate armies, but there was against Davis and his political adherents; and that the terms that General Grant had given to General Lee’s army were certainly most generous and liberal. All this he admitted, but always recurred to the idea of a universal surrender, embracing his own army, that of Dick Taylor in Louisiana and Texas, and of Maury, Forrest, and others, in Alabama and Georgia.”

According to Johnston, Sherman entertained this idea:
“We then entered into a discussion of the terms that might be given to the Southern States, on their submission to the authority of the United States. General Sherman seemed to regard the resolutions of Congress and the declarations of the President of the United States as conclusive that the restoration of the Union was the object of the war, and to believe that the soldiers of the United States had been fighting for that object. A long official conversation with Mr. Lincoln, on Southern affairs a very short time before, had convinced him that the President then adhered to that view.”

The next day, they met again, and Sherman drafted these terms:

1. The contending armies now in the field to maintain the status quo until notice is given by the commanding general of any one to its opponent, and reasonable time—say, forty-eight hours—allowed.

2. 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 the action of the State and Federal authority. The number of arms and munitions of war to be reported to the Chief of Ordnance 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. .

3. The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the sever 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.

4. The reestablishment of all the Federal Courts in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

And that was, of course, the rub. Sherman was overstepping his authority, but with the proper permission from Washington, by doing so, he could wrap up the entire war right here in Durham. The next day, he would telegraph the contents to Washington and wait for the reply.1

  1. Sources: Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. []


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