But two years later, on April 9, 1865, it seemed like the relic of a misguided dream. And as Lee sat down to await his conqueror, it was perhaps the most elegant thing left in the meager army he was about to surrender.
This weekend, the sword — encased and illuminated as if from an ancient hoard — is the centerpiece of the official opening of the Museum of the Confederacy’s new $7.5 million satellite a mile and a half from the surrender site.
It is the first of the Richmond museum’s projected three new sites designed to exhibit more of its vast artifact collection and “take the museum to the people,” said its president, S. Waite Rawls III. The other sites are near Fredericksburg and Norfolk.
“We did a detailed study of where are people who are interested in Civil War history . . . already going,” Rawls said. One answer was that more than 150,000 a year were visiting the Appomattox area.
“Appomattox is one of those words that you can say anywhere in the world and people know what you’re talking about,” he said. Like “Waterloo, Gettysburg . . . the very name rings.
“It is both an ending and a beginning,” he said. “It is certainly the metaphor for the end of the Civil War. . . . It was very much the beginning of the modern United States of America.”
The opening of the eight-acre site comes as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War years 1861-1865.
Lee’s sword is inscribed in French on one side of the blade, “Help thyself, and God will help thee,” the museum said. The inscription on the other side reads: “Genl. Robert. E. Lee. C.S.A. from a marylander. 1863.”
The sword was bequeathed to the museum in 1982. No one seems to know who the Marylander was.
It is one of scores of artifacts on display related to the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, to the months leading up to the capitulation, and to the years after the event, which effectively brought an end to the Civil War.
They include two dozen uniforms — some moth-eaten and tattered, others on special mounts, looking as if their owners might be back in a minute to slip them on again.
“You open those things up and they look like they just came off the rack,” said museum spokesman Sam Craghead.
The elegant gray uniform coat Lee wore when he surrendered to begrimed, cigar-smoking Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is there.
So is that of Confederate Gen. William N. Pendleton, the Episcopal priest and artillery commander to whom other rebel officers delegated the task of urging Lee to surrender.
The gray-bearded Pendleton, who was often mistaken for Lee, had lost his son, “Sandie,” in battle only six months before. Sandie’s uniform coat, which was said to be hidden in upholstery to keep it from the Yankees, is there, too.