This Hallowed Ground

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He struck on March 25, in the dark hour just before dawn, driving a column of infantry in on a strong point in the Union line known as Fort Stedman, due east of Petersburg. His men attacked without warning, seized Fort Stedman, went running out along the trenches on either side, and sent a spearhead on through to take secondary Union positions in the rear. If they succeeded they would break the Union army in half, Grant would have to pull his left wing back to repair the break, and the Army of Northern Virginia would have a clear road to North Carolina.

They could not succeed. A Federal counterattack was launched, the men who had taken Fort Stedman found themselves under heavy fire, Union artillery plastered the Confederate front—and by eight o’clock it was clear that the attack had been a failure. Remnants of the Confederate force got back to their own lines, the Union repossessed Fort Stedman, and Lee had lost nearly 5,000 men. Now it would be Grant’s turn.

Heavy rains slowed all movement, and for a few days the armies marked time. Then Grant struck, crowding a full corps of infantry in on the farthest extremity of the Confederate line; and at the same time Phil Sheridan moved out with his cavalry, leaving the trenches behind and moving up through Dinwiddie Courthouse to a rain-swept crossroads known as Five Forks. Lee sent his own cavalry, plus an infantry division under George Pickett, to halt this thrust, and on April i Sheridan got infantry reinforcements of his own, overwhelmed Pickett by sheer drive and force of numbers, capturing most of his force and shattering the rest beyond repair—and Lee’s flank had been turned at last, once and for all. The next day Grant ordered an assault all along the main lines. General Horatio Wright and his 6th Corps found a place where Lee’s force had been stretched too thin, and broke it—losing 2,000 men in the assault, for even when they were woefully undermanned these Petersburg lines were all but invulnerable—punching a wide hole that could not be repaired. On the evening and night of April 2, Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond and began his final retreat, with the Federals in hot pursuit.

It was a forced march for both armies, lit with jubilant hope for one, darkened by gloom for the other. One army had wagon trains filled with food, the other had few wagons and no rations; yet the soldiers of both armies drove on, marching away from mealtimes, knowing only that after four years of it they were at last coming to the end, with tomorrow and all that tomorrow might mean lying somewhere over the next horizon.

It came to an end, at last, on Palm Sunday—April 9, 1865—when Sheridan and his cavalry and a whole corps of infantry got squarely across the road in Lee’s front. The nearest town was the village of Appomattox Courthouse, and the last long mile had been paced off. Lee had armed Yankees in his front, in his rear, and on his flank. There was a spatter of fighting, as his advance guard tried the Yankee line, to see if it could be broken. It could not. The firing died down, and Lee sent a courier with a white flag through the lines carrying a letter to U. S. Grant.

Until this Palm Sunday of 1865 the word Appomattox had no meaning. It was a harsh name left over from Indian days, it belonged to a river and to a county town, and it had no overtones. But after this day it would be one of the haunted possessions of the American people, a great and unique word that would echo in the national memory with infinite tragedy and infinite promise, recalling a moment in which sunset and sunrise came together in a streaked glow that was half twilight and half dawn.

The business might almost have been stage-managed, for effect. No detail had been overlooked. There was even the case of Wilmer McLean, the Virginian who once owned a place by a stream named Bull Run and who found his farm overrun by soldiers in the first battle of the war. He sold out and moved to southern Virginia, to get away from the war, and he bought a modest house in Appomattox Courthouse; and the war caught up with him, finally, so that Lee and Grant chose his front parlor—of all the rooms in America—as the place where they would sit down together and bring the fighting to an end. Grant and Lee sat at two separate tables, the central figures in one of the greatest tableaux of American history.

It was a great tableau not merely because of what these two men did but also because of what they were. No two Americans could have been in greater contrast. Lee was legend incarnate—tall, gray, one of the handsomest and most imposing men who ever lived, dressed today in his best uniform with a sword belted at his waist. Grant was—well, he was U. S. Grant, rather scrubby and undersized, wearing his working clothes, with mud-spattered boots and trousers, and a private’s rumpled blue coat with his lieutenant general’s stars tacked to the shoulders. He wore no sword. The men who were with them noticed the contrast, and remembered it. Grant himself seems to have felt it; years afterward, when he wrote his memoirs, he mentioned it, and went to some lengths to explain why he did not go to this meeting togged out in dress uniform. (In effect, his explanation was that he was just too busy.)

Yet the contrast went far beyond the matter of personal appearance. Two separate versions of America met in this room, each perfectly embodied by its chosen representative.