I was not sure whether to return to Durham – that I liked so much – or whether to go visit some other town in this area, most likely Chapel Hill with another university. Having done a bit of googling, I had two important facts in my hands: first, Bennett Place in Durham played a great role in the country’s history and second, there are over 1,800 colleges in the USA. Considering the number of higher education institutions in this country, seeing three of them instead of just two this summer would have made no difference. However, missing a place historically as important as the Bennett’s family farmhouse would have been a shame. That is why I returned to Durham this Saturday, 150 years after the historical events were taking place there.
While I probably do not fully understand why the Civil War ever started, I see that after four years of fighting, 700,000 lost lives and other costs from traumas caused to whole families to economical impact of the war, it eventually had to come to the end. I remember from my high school History classes that General Lee surrendered to General Grant in Appomattox but I had no idea that the biggest surrender of the war (over 89,000 Confederate soldiers) involved other two army leaders and that it happened so close to my summer destination.
Here, in North Carolina, General J. E. Johnston and Major General W. T. Sherman negotiated the terms of surrender. Although being enemies for years, they did not meet in person until the negotiations in the hidden farmhouse. I am not a historian but I dare to say that this event was just as important as the previous surrender in Virginia. I mean once troops fighting in Florida, Georgia and both Carolinas surrendered, then there was probably no one to fight. I also wonder how much luck was involved for the surrender to be negotiated here. Although I believe there had to be some, one of the information boards gave this reason: ease of transportation. Durham was accessible both via river and also got a new train station only shortly before the war’s end. I however missed how the generals learned about the Bennett family’s farm. Nevertheless, it seemed neutral and hidden enough, so they could meet repeatedly until the third meeting on April 26, 1865 finally brought the war to the end. The country could start to recover and the two generals remained lifelong friends.
I want to avoid any misinterpretations but president Lincoln’s assassination (sort of ironically) apparently sped up the negotiations. First, the Union lost its biggest (in terms of political position) supporter. Second, the generals had a serious reason to worry about a revenge and third, the news might have caused chaos in the troops. Finally, I understood that by agreement on the surrender, both generals felt that it was a step that would satisfy the deceased president.
Bennett Place was located to the northwest of the Durham bus station and was much further than I was willing to walk. Thankfully, there was a bus going there. It was quite a travel though: after about half an hour of walking in Raleigh to get to the bus stop, an hour long bus ride followed (in fact it was two rides, each 30 minutes long), than I waited for 30 minutes for the bus to the Bennett Place, this last stretch taking some 30 minutes as well. However, it was worth the effort and I did not even mess up too much. No, the American bus system makes no sense. I realized that occasionally, the name of the upcoming bus stop is announced. Apparently, this happens if the stop is important enough which – for some reason – was not the case of the stop right next to the Bennett Place. Who decides which bus stop is worth a notification?
Once at the Place, I went to the museum first. A documentary on the events taking place in this place had started a moment ago, so I joined about ten people watching it. I understood some but gained more complete picture after reading the information boards on the walls. I learned about the costs of the war and weapons used, the two generals and a few more personalities. There were many army-related items on display, however, the life of the Bennett’s family was not omitted. That was good as gained a little idea about being a farmer in 1900’s and I could see some old-fashioned clothing, equipment and tools. The old scissors looked super heavy to me.
The museum was very nice and loaded with information but I liked the outdoor part little bit more. There, I could walk on a reproduction of 1860’s road (namely Hillsborough Road), peek into a smokehouse and kitchen house and most importantly, enter the Bennett House. It was all wooden and the only brick part was the chimney. Once inside, I checked two bedrooms and (probably) kitchen with a reproduction of the table where the final terms of surrender were signed and two chairs resembling those the generals sit on. The original items as well as a pitcher in which the generals got buttermilk from the Bennett’s were in the museum. The remaining structures were of much smaller (in fact, probably none) historical importance but a gazebo, lousy kitchen garden and ash hopper were still nice objects for photography and it was fun to see them.
From there, I returned to the Sarah Duke Gardens once more. I saw only a fractions of it the last time and thought it would have been a pity not to see more of it. While I do not regret coming a second time, I liked the parts I saw before (particularly the main path between Historic Gardens and Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, the Rose Garden and part of Asiatic Arboretum on the way back) much better. Today, I covered the Historic Gardens more thoroughly. Azaleas, plants with large and very dark purple (almost black) leaves, fish pool with the notoriously known orange koi fish and waterlilies of all sizes and colors. Garden terraces with variety of species and an overlook with nice wooden pergola. One more pond with a large willow tree next to it, a large magnolia tree with funnily crooked branches. It was just amazing how much I could see on a rather small area. I probably saw the President’s Bridge, too. Looking on the map, I am pretty sure I was there. Trying to recall actually being there, I am afraid it made absolutely no impression on me.
Next, I explored the H. L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants instead of just passing by. I doubt I covered every single square feet of it, yet I saw quite a lot. Wildlife Garden that looked like a miniature forest to me, and Steve Church Endangered Species Garden which had so many plant species there. However, my timing was not the best as barely any were in blossom at this time of a year. Finally, I searched for the Carnivorous Plant Bog. Instead, I reached the Bird Viewing Shelter twice, climbed some stairs, passed a little pond and crossed little creek a few times. For some reason (and I blame the map!), I struggled to find my way. Moreover, the thing did not look like a garden too much. I would not hesitate to call it a good European forest. In the end, I somehow reached the non-vegetarian plants and I initially thought that three flower beds were not worth the amount of searching it took me to get there. However, the species there were so diverse that I soon forgot about its size and fully appreciated the little garden’s quality.
Although I did not see everything of the Asiatic Arboretum two weeks ago, I did not try to rectify. It was too hot and I decided to enjoy the silence and shade at the first possible occasion. That is when I probably was at the President’s Bridge. Though it was a normal wooden bridge to me, the bird feeders nearby brought lots of excitement to my Saturday afternoon at Duke. Starling and a bunch of smaller birds were the most frequent visitors there. For a short period of time, a woodpecker was returning in regular intervals. It route started at a nearby large tree, then it landed in the feeder and drove away anyone who would like to join him. Once it had enough, it returned to the tree where it apparently finished the snack and in a while was back ruling the feeder. A rare but most welcomed diner was the cardinal. In fact, it probably was two males and two females. It look like the only chance to take a picture of the most shy bird species I have ever encountered is when feeding. And you still want to stay rather far.
I am afraid that the first visit of Durham was more enjoyable, however, I am glad I decided to return. The Duke Gardens must be much more enjoyable in the spring but I would say they are a must-to-see when visiting the city of Durham. I enjoyed my time at the Bennett Place and I appreciate I could learn more about the history of the country that provided me (and its people!) with so many memorable moments this summer. There even is a change that I may know some little interesting facts which an average American has no idea about. It makes me feel so good!