Presentation: Bennett Place Historic Site

Diane Smith, site manager of Bennett Place, provided a fascinating glimpse into Durham’s history in Monday’s program presentation. Bennett Place is the site of the last and largest surrender of a Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Bennett Place is one of three state historic sites located in Durham County. Durham is the only county in the state to host three historic sites.  

Carver Weaver introduced Diane to the Club

In the 1840s, the community we now know as Durham was little more than a hamlet, home to yeoman farmer James Bennett and his family: wife Nancy, a daughter, and two sons, who settled on 300 acres in 1846. Soon after, Dr. Bartlett Durham sold property to the railroad (the site is near where DPAC now stands), and now the community had a name: Durham Station. Likewise, the Bennetts were approached about selling some of their land for tracks. If you’ve been to Bennett Place, you know that the railroad runs next to it for several hundred yards to this day. Though Durham already stood on a well-traveled trading path that ran from Virginia to Georgia, the railroad brought a new era of prosperity with the ability to conduct commerce on a larger, more efficient scale, and the 1850s were a very prosperous time for this area.  

After the Civil War broke out, life changed dramatically for the Bennetts as it did for thousands of families whether or not they were slave holders. Thousands of military troops, both Union and Confederate, appropriated food, livestock, and other supplies from farms they crisscrossed the Southern states. The Confederate dollar was virtually worthless and the economy was in ruins. The Bennett’s oldest son enlisted and their son-in-law was conscripted into service; both would die of disease before they ever saw battle.  

After Major General Sherman’s March to the Sea, he turned north on his Carolinas Campaign, stopping in Raleigh. Meanwhile, Confederate President Jefferson Davis met with his General Joseph Johnston in Greensboro. Davis wished to continue the war, but Johnston sought a truce in the wake of Lee’s recent surrender to Grant at Appomattox. The farm of James and Nancy Bennett offered a convenient, neutral, and private place to conduct talks between Johnston and Sherman. 

The first day’s talks planned for April 17 were overshadowed by the telegram Sherman handed to Johnston, informing him of the assassination of PresidentAbraham LincolnThe generals met the following day and signed terms of surrender. However, on April 24, Grant arrived and informed Sherman that the terms had been rejected by the presidential cabinet in Washington because they exceeded the terms that Grant had given LeeThe opposing generals met again on April 26 and agreed to new terms omitting the controversial sections. The agreement disbanded all active Confederate forces in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, totaling 89,270 soldiers, as the largest group to surrender during the Civil War. 

The Bennetts never recovered from the affect that the war had on their livesThey had lost both of their sons and their son-in-law. James Bennett died in 1877 followed by Nancy in 1880. Daughter Eliza moved to Durham where she worked for a tobacco company. Brodie Duke purchased the property from Eliza around 1889 and then sold it in 1919; by that time the farm was in ruins. It would burn down in 1921 leaving only the chimney behind to marthe historic spot.  

In 1923 the Unity monument was dedicated on the site to acknowledge the peace that was made there. That would not be the only addition to the property. In 1924 the Durham Rotary Club transferred the bandstand that had initially stood in downtown Durham to the Bennett Farm, which by then had become a memorial park. With the centennial of the Civil War approaching, steps were taken to rebuild the farm and by the spring of 1965 the buildings had been completed and a commemorative ceremony was held. In 1990 the Downtown Rotary Club made major improvements to the bandstand as its 75th anniversary gift to Durham. 

Numerous events are held each year at Bennett Place (check the website for a full calendar: www.bennettplacehistoricsite.com/special-events/) including the annual Surrender Commemoration; Civil War School Days; the Annual Memorial Day Remembrance; Candlelight Christmas Tour; and the upcoming Beer, Blues& BBQ event on September 21. Tickets to this last event are available on the website or by calling 919-383-2019. While many activities are free of charge, others require a small fee or donation. Like most state-funded initiatives, historic sites struggle for ongoing funding and financial support, so the work of the Bennett Place Support Fund is critical in maintaining and preserving this one-of-a-kind property and the unique artifacts it houses.  

Ms. Smith would like to increase community outreach in a number of ways, including beautifying the site to make it more attractive for private event rentals, increasing the number of children’s and educational programs, and improving the current infrastructure at the site to ensure Bennett Place remains a historic treasure for North Carolinians and all Americans to enjoy.  

Submitted by: 
Carver Weaver  

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