On April 26, 1865, at the farm of James and Nancy Bennett, just west of Durham, North Carolina, General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate forces in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida surrendered to Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. This ended the war for more than 89,000 Confederate soldiers. This number far exceeded the approximately 28,000 troops that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia more than two weeks earlier, on April 9.
Johnston knew, after learning of Lee’s surrender, that continuing the war was futile. Sherman’s army had been pushing Johnston’s army north from Savannah, Georgia, since the beginning of the year. Johnston’s troops had enjoyed a temporary success with a surprise attack against a wing of Sherman’s army at Bentonville, North Carolina, on March 19. But the Union army’s superiority in numbers had turned the tide. Johnston knew that if he couldn’t unite his army with Lee’s, the total defeat of his army was inevitable, especially since the Union troops which had been fighting Lee would now join Sherman.
So, despite Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s desire to continue the war, Johnston informed Sherman that he was willing to discuss a surrender. Their first meeting at Bennett Place took place on April 17, during which Sherman informed Johnston that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by Confederate terrorist John Wilkes Booth. The two generals signed surrender papers on April 18, but on April 24 U.S. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant arrived and informed Sherman the agreement had been rejected in Washington, D.C., because it included some political concessions sought by Davis.
The generals met again on April 26 and Johnston agreed to a revised surrender agreement that was solely focused on military issues. Jefferson Davis, unable to accept reality, considered Johnston’s surrender to be a traitorous act and kicked him out of what little remained of the Confederate army on May 2. (Davis wasn’t captured by Union troops until May 10.)
Johnston’s surrender led to the eventual surrender of all of the remaining Confederate armies. Afterwards, Sherman issued rations, horses and mules to the former Confederate soldiers, and distributed food to civilians throughout the South. Johnston never forgot Sherman’s generosity and after Sherman died in New York City on February 14, 1891, Johnston served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
In March 1866 the Columbus, Georgia, chapter of the Ladies Memorial Association passed a resolution to recognize April 26, the day that Johnston officially surrendered, as a day to annually memorialize Confederate war dead. It was distributed to other chapters all across the South and thus it came to be known as Confederate Memorial Day. It’s an official state holiday in several Southern states and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) are dedicated to its continuance.
On April 23, 2016, white supremacists held a rally at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Enormous carvings of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson are carved into the side of the granite mountain. They said it was part of their Confederate Memorial Day celebration.
On April 2, 2019, Ocala, Florida, Mayor Kent Guinn (R) signed a proclamation making April 26, Confederate Memorial Day, “a time in which to honor the memories of those who sacrificed their lives in the War Between States.” Ocala City Council President Mary Sue Rich severely criticized his decision.
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