The Last Rebel Ground

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Some rebel units fled along what is now Route 2307, probably the best preserved part of Lee’s Retreat.

“This place is haunted, you know,” Annabelle’s hostess said. She told me that the owner of the original barn was a Confederate soldier whose death was reported to his wife. So distraught was she that she hanged herself in the hayloft. The report was incorrect, and when he turned up and discovered what she had done, he followed her example. Their ghosts migrated from the original barn into the 1919 replacement and stayed on when the restaurant came into being. “Some of the waitresses, they heard them yelling and crying a couple of years back, and called the police. And when the police came with the K-9s, the dogs, you know, the dogs wouldn’t come in. It was all in the paper.”

Well, if it was all in the paper. … In the morning I set out on the Lee’s Retreat Trail.

The end of the siege came when the Yankees cut the Rebels’ last railroad supply line. Generals Custer and Sheridan personally taking part in the charge. In the early-morning hours of the next day, Lee was told Union soldiers were practically upon his headquarters. With him was the commander of his right wing, Am- brose Powell Hill, who rushed off to see what could be done. Lee himself telegraphed President Jefferson Davis in Richmond that the Confederate capital must be evacuated immediately. The message reached Davis at Sunday services in St. Paul’s, which today appears unchanged. Davis rose and slowly walked up the aisle and out. The streets soon filled with people running away with all they could carry, and, Sunday or no Sunday, banks opened so that money and valuables could be withdrawn. Storehouses were fired, and embers came down to set aflame a third of central Richmond. The rebuilt area is still called the Burnt District. After the Rebel troops had poured through on the run, the bridges they used were drenched with turpentine and torched, their wooden roadways flaming up and then falling into the James River. Standing in lines in the water, the stone pilings remain. Soon the Federals came in, a black cavalry regiment singing as it moved up Broad Street’s steep rise.

A. P. Hill, accompanied by his orderly, Sgt. George Tucker, rode down what was then the Boydton Plank Road and is now U.S. Route 1 South, which becomes in these parts the Jefferson Davis Highway. Before the interstate it was the main route for vacationers going to and coming from Florida, replete with what were called tourist cabins. Nobody uses this highway for long trips today, there are modern chain motels along I-95, and so the old chipped-paint stopping places offer, I am afraid, the prospect of sagging mattresses and uncertain plumbing. Along the old road one of hundreds of metal historical markers in this area, many put up in WPA days, indicates that Hill died near here.

“Near,” it turns out, is somewhat liberally used. At the National Park Service headquarters of the Petersburg National Battlefield, I had obtained a photocopy of a little hand-drawn map showing exactly where Hill fell, and with it turned off Route 1 and into a small development of modest singlefamily houses, Century Woods, standing around a circle and built some ten years ago. Hill would have ridden off the Boydton Plank Road here. He was a ravaged man in fearful pain. No one had ever paid more for a youthful indiscretion. As a cadet returning to West Point after an 1844 class break at home in Culpeper County, Virginia, he visited a New York City prostitute and took from her bed a venereal disease the cure for which was unknown to the doctors of the day. Prostate problems, kidney infections, and uremia periodically racked him, and by April of 1865 he was barely able to sit a horse. He and Sergeant Tucker saw two Union soldiers in the woods. “Surrender!” Tucker cried. Hill echoed the demand.

“I can’t see it,” said Cpl. John Mauck of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, to the private with him. It has an oddly modern sound, doesn’t it?

The two discharged their rifles. The private missed, but Corporal Mauck’s shot hit home. His monstrously large bullet, .58 caliber, far bigger than anything routinely seen today, struck the general’s gauntleted hand and severed his thumb, which was found loose in the glove when the body was recovered. The round kept going, into Hill’s heart. Tucker rushed off to tell Lee. “He is now at rest, and we who are left are the ones to suffer,” the commander said. You will find the sword Hill wore that day, his cape and hat, and a spur in Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy.