Thursday, April 23, 2015

The End That Marked A Beginning

I wonder as re-enactors, history buffs and other visitors gather in Durham, North Carolina this weekend if they will realize the even greater symbolism Bennett Place has to this community.

The otherwise tranquil setting is not only where the Civil War ended 150 years ago this week, it marks the place where Durham began to gather a realization of its sense of place.

One of the surprises in the new book entitled, To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy, is not only how much of it is new information but that author Robert M. Dunkerly includes a number of essays in the appendix.

One is entitled The Long Road Home from Appomattox by another Park Ranger and interpreter, Ernie K. Price, who has been researching the journey home of Confederate soldiers for many years.

After Appomattox, people who would be giants among Durham’s founding generation were on their way home, having been paroled as part of Lee’s surrender of his much smaller Army of Virginia including several North Carolina units such as the 3rd Cavalry.

Most, traveling on foot, would have reached here in time to hear intense picket battles raging across southern Durham as Union Cavalry chased the remnants of Confederate troopers in the hours before a ceasefire took effect.

As Price notes, while returning Confederate soldiers would have traveled in small groups, the last few miles to home were often alone.  I suspect that if it wasn’t surreal enough to find the war still winding down as they were greeted, then they heard the news was of President Lincoln’s assassination.

I have learned since first penning this essay that next month Durham will be the culmination of another reenactment entitled, A Soldier’s Walk Home, in recognition of the even longer walk home another Durham Confederate soldier made from the coast.

The legacy of Bennett Place is not only that Confederates resisted calls to continue a guerilla war, although several units tried.  By 1868 and only 18 miles west of Bennett Place, gangs of KKK riders were terrorizing the countryside.

That is also the year that tobacco, rebranded as Genuine Bull Durham, was being mailed to fulfill requests from former Union and Confederate soldiers who had helped themselves to it during the truce, marking the genesis of the New South.

Bennett Place remained a working farm until purchased by Brodie Duke in 1890, twenty-five years after the surrender there that ended the Civil War.  Duke saw it as an enterprise and tried to sell it as a novelty during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Coincidentally, this is also when two of those returning Confederate soldiers, Julian Carr and Washington Duke, helped Trinity College relocate to Durham which later became Duke University.

At its former location in Randolph County, Trinity College had been one of several places stretching from Greensboro to Salisbury where Confederate units awaited the outcome of the surrender negotiations in Durham.

In 1908, 43 years after the surrender, Bennett Place was purchased by another of Durham’s founding generation, industrialist Samuel Tate Morgan, who hoped to see it preserved as an historical park.

It was also the period when another North Carolinian, Thomas Dixon, wrote The Clansman (1905) glorifying and rebranding the KKK from terrorists to saviors and forming the basis of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and the second coming of the Clan.

Many former Confederates in Durham were staunch segregationists but instead of dawning white robes and burning crosses, they were lending a helping hand during this span to evolution of an “entrepreneurial enclave” of black owned enterprises including the founding of a university.

But before Morgan’s dream could be realized, he died in 1921, a few months before membership in the KKK nationwide peaked.  His family and friends in Durham took up the cause.

It is fitting that as KKK membership reached 4 million, on October 12, 1923 Durham leaders including many former Confederate soldiers were instead erecting the Unity Monument at Bennett Place.

His vision about the importance of honoring place inspired other at the time and while they may not realize it, continues to generations here still working to promote and shape Durham’s distinctive sense of place.

Hopefully, in a few years, we remember to recognize the 150th anniversary of so much that makes Durham distinctive and appealing.  Hopefully, we will not instead be mourning its demise.

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