Peace in Orange County Reveals Real Lives

Peace in Orange County Reveals Real Lives (March 29, 2015 For Chapel Hill News replaced  by different Civil War column)

By Art Menius

People forget that, for most purposes, the Civil War ended in Orange County, where one of the last skirmishes took place over a cache of moonshine near New Hope Creek. People forget, since the Bennett Place, where the surrender happened, stands in the portion of Orange ceded to the new Durham County on April 17, 1881.

People forget that Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered not once, but twice, to William Tecumseh Sherman. The original terms, signed on April 18, 1865, essentially returned the Union to status quo ante except for slavery. Inspired by a meeting with President Lincoln a fortnight earlier, Sherman hoped to avoid any anarchy or punitive Reconstruction by allowing state governments to remain in place. In return, Johnston surrendered all remaining Confederate forces.

Sherman’s magnanimity went over very badly in post-assassination Washington, where Republican leaders wanted vengeance. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton convinced himself that Sherman’s loyalty had been purchased with mythical Confederate gold, leaked that false information to the New York Times, and ordered Phil Sheridan to move to neutralize Sherman. Fortunately, the bridges over the Dan were out, giving U.S. Grant just enough time to get to Raleigh. Grant instructed Sherman obtain Johnston’s surrender under the same terms the former had granted Lee. Thus, Sherman and Johnston met once again at the Bennett Place on April 26 with the latter surrendering the forces under his command.

Most of all, people forget that the Bennett Place was a home, where James and Nancy Bennitt had scraped out a modest life and raised a family, including two sons lost during the War. The Bennitts were hard scrabble living, surprisingly entrepreneurial North Carolina yeomen farmers. Their lives opened up to me thirty-five years ago when I discovered James’ account books in the Duke University library.

Johnston suggested the Bennitt property calling it a “nice farm.” The grounds, primarily covered by a fine green lawn, contained a few flowers, some shrubbery, a number of cherry trees then in full bloom, a house, a kitchen, and a smokehouse. Sherman wrote that their home was “scrupulously neat, the floors scrubbed to a milky whiteness, the bed in one room very neatly made up, and the few articles of furniture in the room arranged with neatness and taste.”

James and Nancy Bennitt married in 1831 and struggled through most of their first decade together, with frequent court appearances for debt. In 1839, however, he mortgaged 40 acres that he had inherited in Chatham County to stabilize his growing family’s financial life. Seven years later Bennitt was able to purchase what we now call The Bennett Place.

For the 1840s as a whole, the Bennitts cleared a whopping $30.74 from a wealth of activities. He spent more than $40 having a wagon built in 1845 and immediately put it to work, hauling meal to Raleigh, school kids to Hillsborough, and University students from University Station down to Chapel Hill. In the real antebellum southern hospitality, the Bennitts took in travelers, charging them for a place to sleep and meals. One dollar could purchase supper, bed, and breakfast. James purchased brandy and whiskey by the keg for sale, clearing $1.16 on the former. He also sold horse feed and tobacco plugs.

The Bennitts were engaged in shoe- and clothes-making by at least 1833 to earn money and to save through self-sufficiency. Each fall James purchased side leather, shoe leather, and shoe thread. The Bennitts peddled clothing even much more actively. The family sold pants, coats, and vests cut from store-bought patterns. The prices were much lower than those for the ready-made clothes available at the country stores. There a coat could cost $8.00 to $10.00, compared to $1.50 when bought from James Bennitt.

Farming remained their primary business. The Bennitts raised enough corn (250 bushels in 1849) to sell a surplus. During the summer, they sold watermelon for $2 the wagonload. They also grew, besides household vegetables, a lot of oats and a little wheat. One year they sold 874 pounds of cotton for a whopping $18.74. Besides growing lots of Irish (for sale) and sweet (for consumption) potatoes, the Bennitts even grew hops – just now coming back in Orange County. The most important domestic animal was the hog. Sales of pork, lard, and bacon during the 1840s thus totaled $77.45, more than 10% of the farm’s income. They also kept a few cows and chickens.

After serving on county commissions for the destitute, James died in 1878, followed six years later by Nancy. The enterprises of the Bennitt family suggest the multiplicity of small-scale commercial activities and the petty capitalist nature of local society before the Civil War. These are the stories of real life that people tend to forget.