Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
In my time here in Virginia, I've taken the opportunity to visit several of the Civil War battlefields that dot the landscape. It is always a thought-provoking time, as it should be when one comes face-to-face with the Nation's history.
There is a...well...a sense that can be felt by anyone who makes the effort to open themselves up to such things. As I've written before, anyplace that has been visited by violent death has a different feel to the land. You see and hear the quiet, broken only by the wind and wildlife. But underneath that veneer of calm lies something else; a tense feeling of disquiet, as though those who died here never truly found rest.
If a person is perceptive enough to recognize such things, it can make the experience of visiting a battlefield more complete, perhaps reaching at least an ephemeral understanding of the events that transpired so long ago.
On this particular day, my wife and I visited the historic village of Appomattox Court House. This village, a separate entity from the town of Appomattox, started out as a stop on the stage line that ran from Richmond to Lynchburg. Accordingly, its sole building at first was the Clover Hill Tavern, built around 1819. In 1845, the village was established as the seat of Appomattox County. There was some growth initially, a courthouse, jail, and a few other government buildings, but the anticipated train line ran instead to Appomattox Station, about three miles away. The village began to languish as businesses moved to be close to the railroad. By the time the Civil War arrived, the village consisted of five houses, along with the tavern and courthouse. For most of the war, the area remained relatively peaceful. However as April 1865 approached, this small, inconsequential community became the focal point of the entire war.
After staging his breakout from the siege of Petersburg, the remnants of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fled to the west, hoping to eventually turn south and meet up with the Army of the Tennessee. Lee's men were hungry and exhausted. Supplies had been largely cut off by the Union's interdiction of the railroads. Still, they marched. At least most of them. Lee's army had been a highly cohesive one, but the combination of the long march, no food, and a sense that the war was in its last days poked a hole through which starving deserters flowed like so much grain. In the time it took to march from Petersburg to the battle at Sailor's Creek, it is estimated that this army bled some 30,000 soldiers.
At Sailor's Creek, Lee and the Army of the Potomac fought. It was a disaster for the South. The Army of Northern Virginia lost almost 8,000 men, including the capture of 8 generals. Delays had cost Lee time and space, enough that the last of Confederate supplies to be sent to his reeling army was captured by Union cavalry under Phil Sheridan at Appomattox Station. Lee turned his army towards Appomattox Court House, but found his way blocked by three Union brigades. The Army of Northern Virginia attacked and began to push the Union troops back, but the sudden appearance of the XXIV Corps, some 30,000 fresh Union troops, stalled the attack, and the Confederates retreated. At this moment, with the remains of his army surrounded on three sides, Lee made the difficult decision to seek out General Grant. Notes were passed back and forth between the lines, while guns still fired. Finally a cease-fire was established, and Lee, wearing an immaculate new gray uniform rode his horse Traveler to the home of Wilmer McLean, who had left Manassas four years earlier when that battle erupted in his front yard. After about 30 minutes, Grant and his staff arrived, the General in a nondescript uniform and mud-splattered boots.
In the parlor of that home over the next 90 minutes, the two leaders reached an accord, and with their signatures, the legendary Army of Northern Virginia surrendered.
McLean's parlor. Lee sat at the marble desk at the left,
Grant at the smaller wood desk on the right.
Grant forbade any celebration by the Union Army, following President Lincoln's order that the former Confederates were not to be embarrassed in any way. Immediately after the surrender, Grant ordered food, clothing, and medical supplies sent to the battered southerners.
On April 12th, the formerly Confederate army formally surrendered, marching to the village, stacking their rifles, and rolling their individual battle flags. The Union officer receiving the surrender was none other than General Joshua L. Chamberlain, the hero from Gettysburg, and several other battles. As the Confederates marched up the road between parallel lines of Union infantry, Chamberlain ordered "Carry Arms," in effect, saluting the surrendering soldiers. The Confederate officer leading the march, General John B. Gordon, seeing the movement, ordered his troops to carry arms as well, as he wheeled gracefully on his horse, returned the salute. Gordon, although not knowing until many years later who Chamberlain was, said that day that the former professor was, "the knightliest officer in the Union Army."
...and the place.
The surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia did not end the war. In fact, the last Confederate ground troops did not surrender until late June in Oklahoma. The last Confederate naval ship, the CSS Shenandoah, did not lower her flag until November, and then at the port of Liverpool in England. But Lee was undeniably the South's most effective leader, in fact the heart and soul of the Confederacy, and his army was the best of all the Southern units. With him and his army gone, Grant and Lincoln knew the rest would soon follow.
Today, the village almost completely restored to what it had been on the April day in 1865. Several living historians, actors if you will, give visitors a realistic first-hand account of their experiences, each playing the part of a real person from history. There are displays ranging from salvaged arms and equipment, to meticulously maintained building interiors, including quarters for McLean's slaves.
The place is peaceful, but the tranquility goes beyond its somewhat remote location. As you read, look, listen, and learn, the full appreciation for what transpired here becomes clear and understandable. That not only was an army defeated here, but its remnants welcomed back into the fold, not as prisoners, but as fellow citizens. It was in a very real sense, the start of the healing process for the nation.
War has started in far too many places. In this place however, it was peace that broke out. It was here that the United States was reunited. And our future assured.