April 17, 1865 – Longtime rivals Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman met face-to-face for the first time as they discussed the surrender of Johnston’s Confederate army.
Sherman boarded a train to take him to the halfway point between the main Federal and Confederate armies in North Carolina. He was scheduled to meet with Johnston there. Before the train left, a courier delivered a message from the Federal base at Morehead City. It was from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, written two days ago:
“President Lincoln was murdered about 10 o’clock last night in his private box at Ford’s Theatre in this city, by an assassin who shot him through the head by a pistol ball… I have no time to add more than to say that I find evidence that an assassin is also on your track, and I beseech you to be more heedful than Mr. Lincoln was to such knowledge.”
Sherman ordered the messenger not to divulge this news to his troops. If they knew that Lincoln had been killed, they might destroy Raleigh along with any efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Johnston. The men would not be told until Sherman returned from the conference.
The train stopped at Durham’s Station, about 26 miles northwest of Raleigh. Sherman and his accompanying officers rode five miles before meeting Johnston and Lieutenant General Wade Hampton. This was the first personal meeting between Sherman and Johnston, “although we had been interchanging shots constantly since May, 1863.” The men exchanged formalities, and the combined party rode to a nearby farmhouse owned by James Bennett. Sherman and Johnston went into the house alone, where Sherman showed Johnston the telegram announcing Lincoln’s death. According to Sherman:
“The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead, and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee, or the officers of the Confederate army, could possibly be privy to acts of assassination; but I would not say as much for Jeff. Davis… I explained to him that I had not yet revealed the news to my own personal staff or to the army, and that I dreaded the effect when made known in Raleigh. Mr. Lincoln was peculiarly endeared to the soldiers, and I feared that some foolish woman or man in Raleigh might say something or do something that would madden our men, and that a fate worse than that of Columbia would befall the place.”
Johnston conceded that continuing the war would be “murder,” but Sherman refused to defer to civil authorities, which had been President Jefferson Davis’s requirement for Johnston to negotiate. Johnston then exceeded Davis’s instructions by offering to make “one job of it” (with Davis’s permission) by settling “the fate of all armies to the Rio Grande.” The men agreed to continue the talks and hopefully arrange a peace the next day.
Sherman returned to Raleigh and announced Lincoln’s assassination in Special Field Orders No. 56:
“The general commanding announces, with pain and sorrow, that on the evening of the 14th instant, at the theatre in Washington city, his Excellency the President of the United States, Mr. Lincoln, was assassinated by one who uttered the State motto of Virginia. At the same time, the Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, while suffering from a broken arm, was also stabbed by another murderer in his own house, but still survives, and his son was wounded, supposed fatally. It is believed, by persons capable of judging, that other high officers were designed to share the same fate. Thus it seems that our enemy, despairing of meeting us in open, manly warfare, begins to resort to the assassin’s tools.
“Your general does not wish you to infer that this is universal, for he knows that the great mass of the Confederate army world scorn to sanction each acts, but he believes it the legitimate consequence of rebellion against rightful authority.
“We have met every phase which this war has assumed, and must now be prepared for it in its last and worst shape, that of assassins and guerrillas; but woe onto the people who seek to expend their wild passions in such a manner, for there is but one dread result!”
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22870; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 559; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 20828-38, 20848-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 585; Gates, Arnold, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 678; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1889, Kindle Edition), Loc 12274-336; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265