1984 photo, three decades after Gen. Johnston camped in vicinity of today's campus
When Johnny went marching home
by Mike Harris '93 MA, UNCG Magazine assistant editor

With headquarters in the vicinity of today's campus, a resolute general initiated the largest surrender of the Civil War.

As our nation marks the Civil War sesquicentennial, our assistant editor examined some of the writings of historians associated with UNCG. The story that emerges, from their writings and others', is remarkable. This area of Greensboro, it turns out, has quite a Civil War history….

When this cruel war is over

Civil War book photo Ethel Stephens Arnett wrote the groundbreaking work on Greensboro’s role in the Civil War’s final days. Her husband, Dr. Alex Arnett, had joined the history department in 1923. After his death in 1945, she took the research skills she’d learned working with him, and became a noted history writer. About researching her books, she said, “It’s like a detective game.” Their two daughters, Georgia Arnett Bonds ’38 and Dorothy Arnett Dixon ’45, were both Phi Beta Kappa at UNCG.

In 1865, Greensboro was small. Its population was just shy of 2,000 people, according to historian Ethel Stephens Arnett in her groundbreaking work "Confederate Guns Were Stacked: Greensboro, North Carolina." The military's need for a railroad connection to Danville to help supply Confederate General Robert E. Lee's forces brought prosperity and warehouses and - in the final month of the war - a focal point for the Union armies. The residents were very aware of Union General William T. Sherman's destructive March to the Sea in Georgia. Now, as winter had passed, Johnston's rebel army had taken a stand at Bentonville, before moving on toward the supply hub of Greensboro. They had perhaps 50,000 men, says Arnett. Howard Hendricks '82, MA '87 puts it more conservatively at "approaching thirty thousand men … well-armed, seasoned fighters."

On April 9, General Lee, whose forces were surrounded near Appomattox, Va., surrendered about 28,000 men to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Johnston's situation was different. As Union General John Schofield noted in his memoir, "(I)t must be remembered that Johnston's army was not surrounded, and its surrender could not have been compelled." If the terms of surrender offered to the men were not favorable, "they would, it was apprehended, break up into guerrilla bands of greater or less strength and carry on the war in that way indefinitely."

That was Sherman's fear.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose rail car was parked near Elm Street, envisioned the war continuing as they somehow gathered more troops, as he made clear in his first Greensboro meeting with Johnston, accompanied by General P.T. Beauregard. But in a conference with Davis and his cabinet the following day, Johnston pressed for peace. Davis relented, agreeing to a request for the two sides to negotiate.

Sherman agreed to halt all his troops. In a reply, he alluded to the destruction his forces had recently brought to Georgia, by telling Johnston he wished to save that part of our state from devastation. Meanwhile, Davis and his cabinet retreated farther south, to Charlotte.

An assistant adjutant general announced at 4 p.m. April 16 that Johnston's headquarters had been established "about one mile and a quarter west of Greensborough." That day, Johnston traveled to Confederate General Wade Hampton's headquarters near Hillsborough, Johnston's memoir shows. Sherman and Johnston would confer nearby at Durham Station over the following two days.

Not all of Johnston's generals agreed with seeking terms for surrender. For example, Hampton would not surrender. He ultimately followed Davis southward. Conversely, Beauregard, who reportedly had stayed at Blandwood when he first arrived in town and was currently in a rail car, agreed with Johnston.

At Sherman and Johnston's first round of meetings between enemy lines at the Bennett place near Durham Station, Sherman showed Johnston the telegraph he had just received that U.S. President Lincoln had been killed. Sherman and Grant had met with Lincoln a month earlier. Sherman believed he knew his wishes: that Lincoln wished for liberal surrender terms for the rebels. He wanted reconciliation. But in the immediate aftermath of his assassination, the initial terms for a closure to war that Sherman and Johnston had worked out over two days, deemed far too favorable for the rebels, were rejected by President Andrew Johnson's administration. The terms went far beyond what Grant had offered to Lee.

Burke Davis ’33X Burke Davis ’33X was UNCG’s best-known writer about the Civil War. He once noted the passionate letters he received, from throughout the nation. Stonewall Jackson’s granddaughter upbraided him on his biography of her grandfather. Former president Harry S. Truman chastised him for leaving out Robert E. Lee’s middle initial.

Sherman was ordered to proceed with his offensive.

In Greensboro, refugees, wounded soldiers, remnants from Lee's army, and Johnston's troops as well as stragglers had swelled the normal population. The Confederates struggled to secure the warehouses from mobs – one time, women were at the front of the mob, to deter soldiers from firing. In another incident, Confederate cavalrymen charged a warehouse, Burke Davis '33X says in "The Long Surrender," resulting in a bloody scene. Food was scarce. Arnett describes dirty, hungry soldiers being fed by local families, including the Bumpass family at what is now the Troy-Bumpass Inn in College Hill.

In his master's thesis, Howard Hendricks made the point that the Confederate troops were prepared for more combat, but as it sunk in that their commander was truly negotiating a surrender, morale and military discipline quickly eroded.

Tenting tonight on the old campground

Sherman resided in the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. Johnston's headquarters was a few war-worn tents in the vicinity of what's now UNCG.

Johnston received an urgent message from his president to disband his infantry with the purpose of reassembling them at some faraway location, and send cavalry to protect Davis. Johnston foresaw the consequences that would bring to his troops and the countryside, according to his memoir. He disobeyed, advising the president to immediately take flight southward, and he wrote Sherman, requesting one more meeting. "I determined to do all in my power to bring about a termination of hostilities."

As Union General John Schofield later told it, Sherman and Johnston met for a long time at Bennett Place. Finally, Sherman called Schofield in and explained he and Johnston could not agree to terms. They were at an impasse. Sherman could not bend. Johnston would not lay down arms unless his men received acceptable terms. According to Schofield's memoir (and others' memoirs told it differently), Schofield wrote out the terms that were very similar to what Grant had offered Lee. And he suggested a supplemental listing of what he would provide the soldiers once Sherman left the area. Sherman and Johnston agreed to this solution. The terms were accepted by General Grant and by Johnson's administration. Within days, on May 2, Generals Schofield and Jacob D. Cox would travel to Greensboro, guarded on the journey by the specially chosen 104th Ohio regiment, with its drum and bugle corp that was much admired in Raleigh, Cox's memoir says.

Schofield and Cox would reside at Blandwood, guests of the former governor John Morehead. But their goal, Cox explained, was a conference at Johnston's small camp. There was much to discuss.

"It seemed to us, as we approached, that the little encampment was not quite so regular and trim as our own custom required," Cox later wrote. "The wall tents did not sit quite so squarely upon the ground, and the camp was not laid out with regularity. The general indirectly apologized for some of these things by saying that we could not expect the discipline in his army to be fully maintained when all knew that it was on the eve of being disbanded." Johnston's army would begin its march homeward in a day or two – it'd be necessary to disband the soldiers well away from Greensboro. Schofield was arranging for transportation and food rations. Johnston's men could keep the horses and mules to help with their crops. He would even allow them to retain a portion of their armaments for the long journey some troops would have, some as far as Texas.

New York Herald reporter D.P. Conyngham interviewed Johnston at this headquarters "in a pleasant grove on a high hill" he pegged at about two miles from town in his memoir. (In his May 3 dispatch, he said it was "a mile and a half from town.") Johnston told him if he had not surrendered, "the country would have been devastated."

Civil War photo caption As editor of the Guilford Genealogist, Bradley Foley came across lots of local Civil War material. The genealogical society commissioned a book, and he called on Adrian Whicker to help. They'd met as master's student in a history course about the Confederacy. Their book shone a spotlight on the war's final weeks. Why such interest? "It's the drama of it," Bradley explains.

Everyone aside from Johnston himself, they learned, had stood guard at night on that hill simply to try to keep every horse from being taken by desperate soldiers and refugees.

Greensboro's and the Piedmont's fate had hung in the balance. The Confederates and now the Union preserved order in Greensboro, as Johnston and Sherman sought peace. Remarkably little blood was shed. Schofield issued a general order that all slaves in the state were in fact free, if there was any doubt. Meanwhile, the brass band of the Ohio 104th, which lore says camped on or near what is now the northern part of our campus, along with other bands helped provide diversion for several weeks. Nearly 40,000 Confederates in Greensboro were paroled, Sherman noted in his memoir. Many had left for home days or weeks earlier. Counting all troops under Johnston's command in the South, 89,270 men were surrendered to Sherman, he said. The remaining Southern troops soon surrendered as well.

The large village of Greensboro was poised to become the "Gate City," notes Bradley R. Foley '98,'00 MLIS and Adrian L. Whicker '96, '99 MA, '04 MLIS. Their "The Civil War Ends: Greensboro, April 1865" is the most recent book exploring these pivotal weeks.

Where Greensboro might have been badly scarred by the last days of war, the war years – with its building boom downtown, new railroad spur northward, and escape from devastation – put it on a trajectory to be an inviting location for the state's new Normal School (UNCG) 25 years later.

 

 

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