April 20, 1865: Sherman’s mistake — beaten by Breckinridge

John Cabell Breckinridge

The New York Times runs a story from the Cincinnati Commercial about the terms of Johnston’s surrender. The Commercial’s correspondent blames it on Confederate Secretary of War John Cabell Breckinridge: “Gen. SHERMAN, we fear, has made a very grave mistake, and been fairly beaten by that cunning traitor, the rebel Secretary of War.”

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial.
RALEIGH, N.C., Thursday, April 20, 1865,
Via WASHINGTON, Monday, April 24, 1865.

“Peace, from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and a hope soon to lead you to your homes,” were the cheering words in which Gen. SHERMAN announced to his proud army the result of his two days’ conference with Gen. JOHNSTON. The terms, as they were understood in the army, unconditional submission to the laws as they will be interpreted by the civil courts of the Federal Government, were read with perfect satisfaction.

The terms, as understood, were believed to be of Gen. SHERMAN’s own choosing, and dictated by him to a conquered army, and their acceptance by the Government was not questioned. So firm was the belief that absolute peace would be proclaimed from Washington, that Gen. SHERMAN’s announcement that he hoped soon to march his army homeward, was accepted as a certainty, and preparations accordingly made. The real conditions upon which the surrender was made, when known, I am confident, will be as promptly rejected by the army as they have been by President Johnson, his cabinet and Gen. Grant.

Gen. SHERMAN, we fear, has made a very grave mistake, and been fairly beaten by that cunning traitor, the rebel Secretary of War.

At the first meeting, at which Gen. JOHNSTON only was present, no terms were finally agreed upon, the second meeting, however, at which BRECKINRIDGE officiated, conditions were accepted and papers signed.
Gen. JOHNSTON, on the first day, probably learned what Gen. SHERMAN’s terms were. After full consultation with JEFF DAVIS, who was at Hillsboro, he concluded to accept them, taking BRECKINRIDGE with him, however, to draw up the papers.

This important conference was held at the solicitation of the rebel general, who, on the 4th inst., sent by flag of truce a request for a cessation of hostilities, until Gen. GRANT could be sent for. Gen. SHERMAN answered immediately by saying, that if the surrender of his army was the object of such a truce, he was competent to attend to such wants; but if anything else was desired, he wished to know it, when he would decide whether or not it would be necessary to send for the Lieutenant-General. He was informed that he, Gen. SHERMAN, was ready to meet him at any time to confer on the subject of his wants. This offer was promptly accepted, and, through WADE HAMPTON, the point of meeting was agreed upon. At Mr. JAMES BENNETT’s, a little hut on the left of the Chapel Hill Road, five miles from Durham’s Station and thirty from Raleigh, the memorable meeting took place. Gen. SHERMAN was accompanied by his right-hand man, his able Chief-Engineer, Col. O.M. POE, and Gen. HARRY, with others of his staff, and met Gen. JOHNSTON, with Major JOHNSTON and Capt. HAMPTON, of his staff. Both generals were accompanied by their cavalry generals,


After the more important questions had been settled, Gens. SHERMAN and JOHNSTON conversed freely and frankly. Gen. SHERMAN said, and Gen. JONHSTON fairly admitted, that the grand Army of the Mississippi was the best army ever marshaled. “Why,” said JOHNSTON, “my engineers, my officers and the people of the South Carolina all insisted upon it, that no army could ever penetrate Salkahatchie Swamps, and you have not only marched your army through it, but corduroyed and bridged it for miles, and then drew after you your immense supply trains. The like could not have been done by any other army.”

Gen. WADE HAMPTON’s actions and conduct in the light of such a manly and candid admission, are suggestive of his hatred of the people who elevate and dignify the laboring classes, and thorough fanaticism in his notions of Southern superiority and chivalry. He denied that the South was conquered or even worsted, and fully reannounced the theory that one Southern man could whip three Northern men. We believe four years of war have, at least, reduced the odds, even in his opinion, from five to three. During the interview of the two Generals, Col. POE and Major JOHNSTON, Chief Engineers of the two armies, had a long and friendly interview. Major JOHNSTON expressed his admiration for the engineering ability manifested by SHERMAN’s army in its march through South Carolina. The two officers questioned each other about their departments, and at the rebel engineer’s request, POE showed him our plan of building pontoons. Major JOHNSON proved himself a thorough gentleman, and as he parted from Major POE, expressed a hope that they would soon meet under more favorable circumstances. In speaking of the armies in the Southwest, SHERMAN inquired where Gen. WILSON with his cavalry was. “He is at Columbia, Georgia,” replied Johnson, “and I wish for God’s sake that you would stop him, for he is raiding all through that country, tearing everything to the devil.” Gen. SHERMAN then showed JOHNSON a dispatch he had just received from GILMORE, saying that POTTER with a force of infantry and cavalry was finishing the work of devastation in South Carolina. SHERMAN forestalled JOHNSTON’s request to have that stopped, by saying that he thought it would not hurt that people to bear a still heavier burden. “Let POTTER burn a little longer,” said he. Gen. BRECKINRIDGE was morose and reticent. He showed plainly how deep was his humiliation. He conversed, however, with those who addressed him, and to Gen. SHERMAN, in a discussion as to the slavery question, made this remarkable confession. “The discussion of the slavery question is at an end. The amendment to the Constitution forever forbidding slavery is perfectly fair, and will be accepted in that spirit by the people of the South.” If this is the feeling of the class he particularly represents, we hall it with gladness.

The news of the assassination of Mr. LINCOLN was received by Gen. SHERMAN while at KILPATRICK’s headquarters, on his way to the first day’s meeting. We have it from Gen. SHERMAN himself, that Gen. JOHNSTON was shocked, and manifested as much feeling and concern as an intimate friend would have done. And well he might, for the exasperated soldiers of the Union army would have desolated the land from the right to the left. The rebel chieftain expressed himself deeply pained at the unfortunate event. He was told that it would be politic in him to publicly disclaim any connection with or knowledge of the deed, or the conduct of our army could not be answered for.

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