Life of the Confederate soldier
BY DAWN BAUMGARTNER VAUGHAN
DURHAM — Young men who served in the Confederate Army of Tennessee likely spent their entire lives close to their Tennessee homes before fighting in the Civil War. In April 1865, they were also barefoot, ragged, hungry, lonely and far from home, a Confederate interpreter explained to visitors at Bennett Place in Durham on Sunday.
The weekend event, “Tar Heels: Soldiers of the Old North State,” included demonstrations of life and encampments for the Army of Tennessee soldiers who were part of the surrender at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Union Gen. William T. Sherman met midway between their headquarters to arrange the surrender of 89,270 Confederate troops.
Though Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Northern Virginia Army surrender at Appomattox to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant earlier that month gets all the attention, the largest army surrender happened in present-day Durham.
North Carolina might as well have been a different country, not just a different state, to the Tennessee soldiers out of their element, said First Sgt. Jerry Roberts of the 38th North Carolina Infantry Regiment re-enactors in Yadkin County. Most were between the ages of 18 to mid-20s, he said, and as the war dragged on, the age of soldiers dropped so that some boys weren’t even tall enough to load their muskets standing up.
Roberts demonstrated how the bayonet on the end of a musket was a multi-purpose tool and could be used to dig, hold a candle, hold food over a fire or anchor a tent pole. Assuming a soldier had a tent — the baggage wagon was at the end of a long line of wagons, so often the tents reached the location after the soldiers had moved on, he said. Mail couldn’t keep up with soldiers either, so word from home was rare. Soldiers drank water where they could find it, and not knowing about safety standards, often acquired dysentery.
Bennett Place site manager John W. Guss told visitors that the rich and politicians are the ones who start wars, while people like us fight them.
“Yes, it was about slavery, yes, it was about states’ rights, but also about people taking sides … and looking for adventure,” he said. Guss mentioned people like the Binnetts (original spelling), simple farmers who signed on for the pay and room and board. “A lot of these folks who went off to war didn’t understand the circumstances or consequences until they went off,” he said.
Stephen and Alice Hancock of Cary brought their five children to Bennett Place on Sunday. The Hancocks homeschool their children, ages 1 to 11, and are just finishing a unit on the Civil War. The family has also visited Gettysburg, the American Civil War Center in Richmond and Fort Branch in eastern North Carolina. They wanted their children to learn history from more than just a textbook.
“It’s good for the kids because it makes history seem alive,” Alice Hancock said. “They can read about it, but seeing people makes it real.”
Bennett Place will host the 145th anniversary commemoration of the surrender with a living history weekend of reenactments and demonstrations April 17-18.
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