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Appomattox Court House

March 13, 2018

 

For four bloody years, the Civil War raged across the United States, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Neither side had been able to make a decisive blow to end the war, which came at the expense of over 700,000 casualties. For those fighting and witnessing the conflict, there seemed to be no end in sight. But in April 1865, following the recent fall of Richmond and the successful Siege of Petersburg, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was in turmoil and full retreat. General Ulysses S. Grant seized the opportunity and ordered an aggressive pursuit of the weakened Confederate Army. For twelve days, the two generals and their armies played a game of "cat-and-mouse," hastily marching through the Virginia countryside. When the battered and exhausted Confederate Army reached Appomattox Court House, they were surrounded by the overwhelming Union force. Realizing that fighting would lead to unnecessary bloodshed, Lee agreed to meet with Grant to discuss terms of surrender and take the first steps towards reconciliation and reunification. 

 

The Confederate collapse became imminent on April 1, 1865, when Major General Philip Sheridan and the 21,000-man Union Fifth Corps engaged Confederate General George Pickett's 11,000-man army at the Battle of Five Forks. Sheridan decimated the Confederates and captured the last remaining railroad junction to Richmond, effectively severing all lifelines to the Confederate Army. With no incoming supplies or railway transportation, Lee ordered an immediate evacuation of defenses around Richmond and Petersburg. Lee's plan was to march south to North Carolina, meet up with General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee, and form a defensive line along the Roanoke River. After two days of marching, Lee's army reached Amelia Court House running extremely low on supplies. The early signs of starvation and exhaustion were apparent. Lee decided to halt his march so his men could gather provisions and await for troops from Richmond to arrive. This delay provided ample opportunity for Federal troops to catch up.

 

The following day, outside of Jetersville, Lee was surprised to find Union cavalry and infantry fortifications blocking their route south. Instead of engaging, the Confederate army continued west to try to maneuver around the Federals. However, the Union army shadowed Lee's every move, providing pressure every time the Confederate Army tried to march south. The daily firefights and long, excruciating marches took their toll on the ragged Confederate ranks. On April 6, the Union Sixth Corps and cavalry regiments took advantage of the gaps in the Confederate columns at Sailor's Creek. They severed the lagging Confederate regiments from the rest of the column and forced their surrender. Lee, upon witnessing portions of his army being captured, exclaimed, "My God! Has the army been dissolved?"

 

Six days of marching resulted in the loss of eight generals and nearly 8,000 men. When the Confederate Army arrived in Farmville on April 7, Lee received a note from Grant asking for the surrender of his army. He gave it to his right-hand man, General James Longstreet, who simply replied, "Not yet." Lee's army continued its march to Appomattox Court House on April 8. In the late afternoon, General Reuben Lindsay Walker and 100 pieces of Confederate artillery encountered the cavalry force of General George A. Custer. A vicious skirmish ensued, resulting in Custer capturing 25 cannon, 200 supply wagons, 1,000 prisoners, and the high ground along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, effectively sealing Lee's only route of retreat. Surrounded, Lee and his staff decided to make one last attempt at escape.

 

On the morning of April 9, General John B. Gordon and his men attacked the Union cavalry guarding the stage road west of their position. After initial success, Union infantry reinforcements arrived, thwarting any chance of victory. Lee recognized the reality his army was faced with, and requested to meet with General Grant to discuss terms of surrender. Under a flag of truce, Captain Robert Moorman Sims delivered Lee's message to Union commanders. 

 

Members of Lee's staff chose the home of Wilmer McLean for the meeting (coincidentally, McLean owned property up in Manassas during the First Battle of Bull Run, so one can say the Civil War started and ended in his own back yard!). Lee arrived at the McLean House at 1 p.m. dressed in fine military regalia. Grant arrived nearly thirty minutes later and entered the home in a mud-spattered field uniform. The two generals could not have been more contradistinctive. Grant and Lee chatted cordially for a good half an hour, recalling their service in the Mexican-American War and reliving other pleasantries. After dancing around the subject for some time, Lee brought the topic of surrender to Grant's attention. 

 

Grant was incredibly generous and lenient when he drafted the terms of surrender. First, all officers and enlisted men in the Confederate Army would be paroled and allowed to keep their sidearms. All other military equipment was to be turned over. Second, all soldiers claiming to own horses and other livestock were allowed to keep them, making it easier for veterans to return to civilian life. Lastly, Grant arranged for 25,000 rations to be sent to Confederate soldiers before they disbanded. In the wake of all the destruction the Civil War had caused, both generals realized that the terms of surrender shouldn't punish or inflict more suffering; rather, it should reflect compassion and hospitality and set an example for the healing process the nation would have to reconcile following the end of the war.

 

It took nearly an hour and a half to draft the terms of surrender. Both generals emerged from the McLean House satisfied at the prospect of peace. Robert E. Lee mounted his horse, and with the silent salutes of Union officers, rode back to his defeated army. 

 

On April 12, Confederate soldiers--regiment by regiment--marched into Appomattox Court House to surrender their arms. Union soldiers lined the streets to witness this pivotal moment they had been fighting for. Some 5,000 of these men belonged to the United States Colored Troops, many of whom hailed from the South as escaped slaves...the feeling of victory must have been unimaginable. General Joshua Chamberlain, who oversaw the proceedings, ordered his men to salute each Confederate regiment as they laid down their weapons. This gesture of honor and respect resonated with the Confederates, who immediately returned salute as they passed. 

 

After the surrender, the Confederates disbanded and journeyed home while the Union Army marched back to Washington D.C. As quickly as the war had arrived in Appomattox, it had left. Little became of Appomattox Court House in the post-war years, despite its significance. In 1892, the town was completely abandoned after the Court House burned down and the county seat moved to Appomattox Station. For over forty years, the town sat vacant and was left incredibly preserved by time the National Park Service took it over in 1933. It wasn't until 1954 that  Appomattox Court House became a national historic park. Thanks to restoration and continued preservation efforts, the town looks much like it did in 1865.

 

I started my tour at the Visitor Center (the reconstructed Court House). Inside I watched a 15-minute movie on the events of Appomattox (I highly recommend...it's an incredibly moving film) and looked at the artifacts they had on display. Among the relics on display was part of the original flag of truce, Robert E. Lee's copy of the terms of surrender, and numerous personal affects from soldiers at Appomattox.

 

My next stop was the McLean House. This structure was originally built in 1848, but was demolished in 1893 by a veterans association to rebuild in Washington D.C. However, that plan never happened and the house was left as a pile of rubble until the NPS reconstructed it in the 1940s. Across the street is the Meeks General Store and Post Office, one of the original surviving buildings in the town (circa 1852). 

 

The oldest building in the town is the Clover Hill Tavern. Built in 1819, the tavern served patrons who traveled along the old Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. During the surrender at Appomattox, the tavern was commandeered by the Union Army as a printing station for parole passes. Over 30,000 parole documents were produced here within a matter of a few days. Opposite the tavern stands the Appomattox County Jail (circa 1867), which contains a small exhibit of prison life during the 1800s. At the end of the stage road stands the Peers House. A Richmond Howitzer cannon sits in the front yard, one of the guns that fired the last shots of defiance during the battle. 

 

Located just outside the town is the Confederate Cemetery. Interred here are eighteen Confederates and one Union soldier. Only seven of the bodies have been identified. Directly across the highway stand the North Carolina Monument and Raine Family Cemetery. On opposite ends of the park are the sites of Lee's encampment (to the north) and Grant's encampment (to the south). 

 

Being the Civil War buff that I am, it was incredibly overwhelming for me to visit Appomattox Court House, just knowing that this is what culminated after four fierce years of fighting. This is where the country took its first steps towards reunification--a truly momentous occasion in American history. Words can hardly describe how these events influenced our nation's integrity and development. In order to fully comprehend the lasting impact of Appomattox Court House, you simply must visit for yourself!

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the National Park: click HERE

 

For more information of the battle: click HERE

 

For some first-hand accounts on the events leading up to Appomattox: click HERE

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