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The Quiet and Compelling History of Appomattox

By James T. Yenckel
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 19, 1987
© The Washington Post

The other Civil War parks outside Washington commemorate the violent clash of armies, a story most often told of bold tactics and devastating blunders, of bitter victories and death in horrifying numbers. Appomattox is a place of peace, a lovely memorial to the end of four long years of war and to the dignity, the honor and the generosity of the combatants in the final days of the conflict.

"A Stillness at Appomattox" is the title historian Bruce Catton gave to his famous account of the last year of the Civil War, and even today a haunting stillness cloaks the tiny central Virginia village where on April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his tattered army to the troops of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The village, looking much as it did on that fateful day, has been carefully preserved as Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

Appomattox sits atop a broad grass-covered hill, a small cluster of restored or rebuilt homes and other buildings -- a tavern, the general store, the courthouse, the jail -- encircled by acres of rolling farm and pasture land. Weathered rail fences trace the one-time stagecoach road between Richmond and Lynchburg, now merely a path for foot travel, and flower-ringed yards shelter the privies, water wells and gazebos of an earlier day.

It is a typical 19th-century southern town that was caught by surprise in the final sweep of war and thrust suddenly into the national conscience. The park's exhibits, which include most of the remaining structures, nicely recall both the dramatic moments of the surrender and the private lives of the 120 or so inhabitants who became unsuspecting witnesses.

Much of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War raged in countryside not far from Washington, and trips into history -- and especially Civil War history -- have become a popular and rewarding getaway for the weekend. As at Appomattox, these excursions offer multiple pleasures: the thrill of discovery, of learning something new; the esthetic delight of scenic surroundings and, perhaps, the relaxing charm of a country inn.

The fun at Appomattox -- fun should be part of any getaway -- comes from exploring the village and (if you like a modest challenge) tramping the six-mile History Trail that loops past most of the historic sites in the 1,320-acre park. Along the way, you can picnic beside the rushing Appomattox River at Appomattox Wayside. It is just a few steps from the woodland spot where Lee crossed the river on his way to meet Grant.

For a weekend trip, Appomattox is somewhat distant -- about a four-hour drive south from Washington. "To get here, you have to want to come," says Supt. Jon Montgomery, noting that the park is well off Virginia's most heavily traveled tourist trails. So a visitor should consider a two-night excursion, approaching Appomattox the way Lee and Grant did, from Petersburg, about 90 miles to the east.

For 10 months prior to the war's end, Grant's troops laid siege to Lee's well-entrenched forces in Petersburg. On April 1, 1865, Grant finally broke through Lee's defenses, and the next night Lee abandoned Petersburg in a desperate attempt to escape the Union Army, find supplies and join up with another Confederate Army unit in North Carolina. For a week, Lee pushed west along the Appomattox River while Grant raced to overtake him and block his route. Grant won the race at Appomattox, a village of no strategic value that had managed up to this point to stay well out of the war's path.

An Appomattox weekend gets off to a pleasant start when you spend Friday night in one of Petersburg's newly restored bed-and-breakfast inns, the High Street Inn in Old Towne [Note: now the Owl & the Pussycat] or Mayfield Inn on the western outskirts. Linger in the city long enough Saturday morning to visit the Siege Museum. It describes the plight of Petersburg's trapped residents as the siege wore on. And take a look at Petersburg National Battlefield, a beautiful expanse of fields and woodlands that preserves the fortifications of both armies. It is a prologue that will enhance your understanding of Appomattox.

Then head west on U.S. Route 460 through attractive Southside Virginia farm country, only a little more populated than it was when Grant and Lee hurried by. The drive takes about two hours. Save at least three hours to tour Appomattox -- the reason for this getaway -- or more if you plan to hike the History Trail. End the day at one of the many hotels or motels in Lynchburg, another 18 miles west. Concluding the weekend on Sunday, return home directly via U.S. Route 29 (about 175 miles) or take your time along the winding mountain roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive.

In easy doses like this, history has a way of entertaining even the most reluctant of students, whatever their ages.

You approach Appomattox on foot, up a gravel walkway between rail fences. Cars are parked about 100 yards away, down the hill and unobtrusive. It is not hard to imagine that you are a traveler from the century past, headed for the Clover Hill Tavern just in front of you or the Courthouse to the right. You can see the entire town at one time, most of its dozen or so major buildings grouped around the Courthouse. Others, such as the Widow Kelly's cozy log cabin, are only a short walk away.

Appomattox was a young town in 1865 when it entered the history texts. Officially, it was Appomattox Court House, the capital of Appomattox County, established only 20 years earlier in the farming community. The oldest structure in town was the brick tavern, built in 1819 as a stage stop. The imposing brick Courthouse went up in 1846.

Today the Courthouse is the Visitor Center, first stop on a village tour. Two 15-minute movies shown throughout the day explain the events of the surrender, and a mechanical wall display traces Lee's and Grant's routes from Petersburg in flashing red and blue lights. The panel is easy to understand if you've just covered the same ground yourself.

Appomattox's role in the war lasted five days. Lee's forces, hungry and worn, reached the area on April 8. Lee had hoped to pick up Confederate supplies at Appomattox Station, a railway depot about three miles south of Appomattox Court House, but Grant's cavalry seized them first. (Today, Appomattox Station is the busy town of Appomattox. Appomattox Court House has only one resident, a park ranger.)

Lee, camped in the woods on another hill not far outside Appomattox Court House, faced a critical decision. He had fewer than 20,000 men available and no food for them; Grant's well-fed and well-equipped forces numbered 60,000. Always a fighter, Lee chose to make one more attempt to break away. But after his troops engaged in a brief skirmish on the morning of April 9, he realized the odds were hopeless. He sent a message to Grant under a flag of truce asking for a meeting to surrender.

The meeting took place that afternoon in Wilmer McLean's house, "the nicest home in the village," says ranger Helen Talbert, who points out to visitors where the generals sat, each at his own small table. There is irony in the choice of meeting places. McLean, a prosperous merchant, had moved his family from Manassas, site of two major battles, to the presumed safety of quiet Appomattox to escape the war. It followed him to his parlor.

Most of the furniture pieces are authentic reproductions of the originals, which are in the Smithsonian and other museums. Supt. Montgomery has made attempts to acquire them, but so far has been unsuccessful. The originals were scooped up by Union officers and cherished as souvenirs that eventually found their way to museums. "Anything connected with the surrender had significance beyond the value of the article," says park historian Ron Wilson.

Even the pencil Lee used to jot a word on the surrender terms document was saved, and now it is displayed upstairs in the Visitor Center. The end is chewed, the work of a daughter of the Union officer who loaned it to Lee and then retrieved it for posterity.

In its exhibits, the park emphasizes the "compassion, generosity and honor" that the opposing generals and their armies showed each other. Lee surrendered his army as a whole, rejecting suggestions that individuals be allowed to slip away to engage in guerrilla warfare. He feared they would turn into bands of robbers. Grant's terms of surrender allowed the Confederates to return home, free from detention, taking their horses with them. He also sent rations to feed Lee's men, although many Union soldiers already had begun to share their food with their former enemies. Union officers rode into the Confederate camp to exchange greetings with one-time West Point colleagues.

On the following day, April 10, the two generals met again on horseback on the edge of town at the crest of a hill that slides gently down to the Appomattox River. It is the beginning of the History Trail, which leads across the river to Lee's camp several small hilltops away. A marker locates the spot, and the view now can hardly be much different from what the commanders saw.

The formal surrender ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place on April 12. The delay gave the Union Army time to print the 28,231 parole passes to be distributed to the Confederates so that they would not be mistaken for deserters or stragglers. Many were printed in the tavern, which is now furnished with a printing press. Union troops lined both sides of the stage road from the end of town down to the river. The Confederates filed up hill between the two lines to, as a Park Service guide puts it, "lay down their arms for the last time." On the park map, the site is called "Surrender Triangle."

What impressed both Blue and Gray alike was the respect troops of both armies showed each other. Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who accepted the formal surrender, later wrote:

"On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breathholding, as if it were the passing of the dead."

When the troops departed, Appomattox faded into obscurity. No veterans hastened to erect monuments of the sort that dot the Gettysburg battlefields in Pennsylvania. In 1889, the McLean house was purchased with the idea that it could be moved and placed on exhibit. It was dismantled, but that was as far as the project got. The timbers rotted on the ground. In 1892, the Courthouse was destroyed by fire, and village residents drifted away to the railroad town of Appomattox Station.

It was not until the 1930s that Congress authorized a memorial at Appomattox, and the National Park Service suggested restoring and reconstructing the entire community. Today, the work is essentially completed, according to Supt. Montgomery. Not all of the buildings that were destroyed after 1865 have been rebuilt, but markers point out their sites. The park expects to acquire a few more acres, but the park appears secure from intrusive development at its edges.

Once you have toured the Visitor Center, you can wander the park at will. The McLean house, of course, is the most important structure, but it seems strangely designed. Each of its three floors has two rooms, one on each side of a wide hallway. "A lot of wasted space," you observe aloud, and Ranger Talbert agrees.

In the field across the road is a tiny fenced cemetery, shaded by a lightning-damaged cedar tree. On a cool, gray morning in March, the cemetery seems like a grim monument to the war's many dead. But only 18-year-old Lafayette Meeks is buried there, a Confederate soldier who died of typhoid fever. To the right, a few paces away, is Meek's Store, which was owned by his father Albert.

Outside the village center, you can drive or hike the History Trail to Lee's Headquarters to the north [Note: as of July 1996, you cannot drive on the History Trail]. There is only a marker there, on a knoll in the woods. If your eyes are good, you can see the village in the distance. To the southwest, by road or trail, is Grant's Headquarters, designated by a marker, and nearby is the Confederate Cemetery. It was established in 1866, says a plaque, "for those who lost their lives in the last days of the war."

A wrought-iron fence encloses the burial ground, and magnolia and holly trees stand sentinel. Nineteen stone markers are lined up side by side. Eighteen are Confederate; the 19th, on the end, is for a Union trooper. A tiny U.S. flag flies over his grave. A touching sight like this alone is worth the long drive to the park.

In the summer, actors portray a Union soldier, a Confederate trooper and a town resident, the Widow Kelly. Talk to them, and they will respond as if the day were mid-April of 1865 and no later. They help bring the village alive, but their presence isn't essential. A bit of imagination, and a love of history, do just as well.

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