SUBMITTED BY: Scott Dickson; written by Holly Dickson Hollingsworth (edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter)
By: Holly Dickson Hollingsworth
My grandfather, John W. Dickson, was born in the Dickson House in 1912 and lived there until 1925. His stories were shared with me for a paper I wrote in 6th grade. I can remember riding out to the old farm when I was a kid to see the house and land near the old Occaneechi Farm in Hillsborough, N.C.
The Last Headquarters of the Confederacy, A Mixture of Oral History (as told by John W. Dickson) and Research
The origin of this family story dates back to 1865 when my Aunt Nannie (otherwise known as Nancy W. Dickson) began passing down accounts of the Confederate troops who camped on the big field on the north side of the Dickson House at Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her tales of soldiers scouring the farm for anything they could eat, sometimes even resorting to digging up wild onions, fascinated my grandfather and his brother. In fact, the whole family was deeply concerned for the soldiers and their health. The family did everything in their power to care for and feed the wounded men. Confederate Generals Wade Hampton and Joseph E. Johnston had made the little building behind the main house their headquarters, which became known as ‘the office.’ However, it is known that three rooms on the first floor of the main house were also turned over to Johnston and his staff. Aunt Nannie (nearly 20 years old at the time) had even seen General Hampton and General Johnston talking under a big maple tree that used to stand behind “the office.” (Click image to enlarge.)
General Johnston had made his way to Hillsborough from Tennessee via train after receiving instructions from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet to arrange for surrender. General Hampton and General Johnston met at the home of my grandparents, Alexander and Elizabeth Dickson, to discuss the impending surrender of their Confederate armies to Union General William Sherman. The Dickson Farm was originally located on the Durham road (now overlooking I-85). My grandfather, Alexander Dickson, owned the house and ran a gristmill, a store, a blacksmith shop, and a wagon repair shop. He also made furniture for his family and occasionally to sell. Many items, including a walnut cupboard, a spool bed, and chests, were passed down through the years and are prized possessions of his descendants. (Click on images below of the Dickson House.)
The surrender that ended the war for the Confederate soldiers in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida took place halfway between Raleigh, where Sherman was headquartered, and Hillsborough at the home of James and Nancy Bennitt on April 26, 1865 (research indicates that Bennitt is the correct spelling of the family name, according to https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/johnston-surrenders and https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/bennett-place/history). General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse merely 100 miles north of Hillsborough, and General Johnston knew that his army could not continue fighting the war. By that time, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and the Confederate capital of Richmond had come under Union control.
One of the many legends surrounding the Dickson house concerns Johnston’s first visit with Sherman. Aunt Nannie told the story of the need for a surrender flag. Upon leaving on horseback to meet with Sherman, General Johnston realized he had no appropriate flag. Johnston politely asked my grandmother, Elizabeth Dickson, to furnish a piece of white cloth of some kind to use as a flag. Frustrated by the fact that all the sheets and white tablecloths in the house had been used as bandages for the wounded Confederate soldiers, Elizabeth came across Alexander’s last known piece of white clothing. Alexander had barely made it through the ravages of war and had only one surviving white shirt. She quickly cut off part of the shirttail, tacked it onto a stick, and presented it to the general. Off rode General Johnston to surrender the last and largest Confederate army of the Civil War with my grandfather’s shirttail as a surrender flag.
Negotiating the terms of surrender proved difficult and frustrating for General Johnston and General Sherman. Johnston and Hampton set off from the Dickson farm to meet Sherman halfway in Durham at the home of James Bennitt, a farmer. The story is told that this first meeting went well, but the two leaders could not agree on the fate of the members of the Confederate government. Supposedly, while Johnston and Sherman talked, Hampton stammered around in the yard of the Bennitt’s house complaining that if he had anything to do with it, there would be no negotiations taking place at all.
A concerned General Johnston returned to the Dickson house at the end of the day and decided to summon reinforcements to redefine the terms of surrender. Johnston sent a telegram requesting the assistance of Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge and Postmaster General John Reagan to join him in Hillsborough. Arriving by train on April 18th, Breckenridge and Reagan met Johnston in the small outbuilding, “the office,” at the Dickson farm to discuss the new terms of surrender. Johnston and Breckenridge left to meet with Sherman while Reagan stayed behind to write out the terms on paper. According to one oral tradition, General Sherman passed around a bottle of whiskey (Breckenridge’s drink of choice), and when Breckenridge began lecturing Sherman about military and civil laws, Sherman interrupted by saying, “See here, gentlemen, who is doing the surrendering here anyway? If this thing goes on, you’ll have me sending an apology to Jeff Davis.”
On April 18th, Sherman submitted “a basis of agreement,” which Johnston accepted. After more whiskey was passed around, Johnston and Sherman continued negotiating and agreed on a completed surrender proposal that was written by Sherman. It instructed Confederate armies to surrender their arms at state capitals, re-establish Federal courts in the former Confederate states, and a provided “general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command.” Before it could take effect, the agreement had to be approved by the Federal government, so as soon as General Johnston left to return to Greensboro on April 19th, a messenger left for Washington with a copy of the surrender agreement.
Federal officials rejected the proposed agreement between Johnston and Sherman, which sent the two Generals back to the negotiating table at the Bennitt’s home on April 26th. The two finally agreed to terms like the ones agreed upon by General Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. At this point, the bloodiest war in American history was officially over, and the hungry Confederate troops were issued food from Union supplies and were paroled back to their homes.
After the war was over, the Dickson family continued living on the farm. Many of Alexander and Elizabeth’s children married and moved out of the old house, but my Aunt Nannie never did, and she ended up keeping house for my father, Edwin A. Dickson, the youngest child of Alexander and Elizabeth. Edwin married Flora Waitt in 1904 and continued living in the house, working the farm, and running the family business. Edwin also served as Treasurer of Orange County for some time. He was too young to fight in the war, but several of his older brothers served in the North Carolina Troops 27th Regiment, Company G.
I (John W. Dickson) was born in the Dickson house in 1912. Unfortunately, my father Edwin passed away in 1925. I was only 12 years old at the time. Flora sold the property in 1927 and moved to Hillsborough with me. The property was sold to Dr. William Few of Durham. A relative of Mrs. Few renovated the house in 1938, and for a number of years, it was open for tours sponsored by the Hillsborough Garden Club. In later years it was used as a rental property. In 1981, the Preservation Fund of Hillsborough learned that the land was to be sold for commercial use. To save the house, the Fund bought it and moved it to a lot located beside the post office in the center of Hillsborough. Mrs. Charles Blake gave the lot to the Fund in memory of her husband, who for years had been very active with historical groups in Orange County.
To our family’s pleasure, the house was completely restored (including “the office” out back) and is now used as the Orange County Visitor’s Center. (Click on images to enlarge.) I beamed with excitement as the 18-wheeled tractor trailer carefully carried the house to its new resting place in Hillsborough. Many historical items remain in the house, and it is a splendid testament to life during the Civil War and an enormous source of pride for our family and our southern heritage. If you’re interested in learning more, you can contact the Orange County Visitor’s Center at 919-732-7741, or write to 150 East King Street, Hillsborough, N.C. 27278.
**Additional information on the account of General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman was provided by the research of Willie Drye, and John P. Kennedy (Chairman of the Preservation Fund of Hillsborough, Inc. 1983), and Narrative of Military Operations Defected During the Late War Between the States, By General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States of America. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 549 & 551 Broadway, 1874.)