In the spring of 1865, the American Civil War was reaching its conclusion. The blood continued to flow but the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Confederacy was crumbling, its army starving, and the Union troops far outnumbered them in the field.

On April 11, General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee learned that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox. 

To Johnston, that was devastating news. He and Lee knew that any hope that the South had for continuing the war, hinged on their two forces linking up near the North Carolina-Virginia state line. Johnston, who still commanded over 90,000 troops, however, was now outnumbered by his enemy by 18 to 1. 

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was still harboring delusional ideas of raising a huge army of former deserters, somehow equipping and supplying them — while Confederate troops already in the field were going bare — and defeating the Union. 

Johnston knew better, and in a meeting with Davis, tried to persuade the president that their best course of action was to try and get the best possible terms of surrender available to them. Johnston and Davis were never close, their animosity stretching back to the earliest days of the war.

Johnston had been the most senior of the Army generals in the U.S. Army to offer his resignation and fight for the Confederacy. He was a Brigadier General and was the Quartermaster General of the Army in 1861. Davis promoted three other Confederate generals ahead of him and the bad feelings would continue to the war’s end.

Johnston finally convinced Davis that, “it would be the greatest of human crimes to continue the war.” Davis agreed that he could discuss terms of surrender with Johnston’s nemesis, Sherman, who had hounded him through the Atlanta campaign. 

At their first meeting, Sherman handed Johnston a cable from Washington announcing that President Lincoln had been assassinated. This shocked Johnston. He believed that “the event was the greatest possible calamity to the South.” He reaffirmed his goal of obtaining the best possible terms of surrender. The first meeting didn’t come to any agreement.