The Last Rebel Ground

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According to the little map, there is a small monument off in the thick woods behind the houses to mark the precise spot of Hill’s death. “If you cannot find the granite shaft,” instructions read, “ask the children in the area.” Because it was a school day with no child available to offer information, I left my car and blundered off into the trees, bearing a cheerless recollection of advice in the brochure offered visitors to more significant sites in the Richmond National Battlefield Park, about twenty-five miles north, where I’d been two days earlier: “Be alert for poisonous snakes.” I lack the eloquence to tell you how happy I was not to encounter such, or even their colleagues the nonpoisonous snakes. I found the three-foot-high marker a hundred yards or so into the woods. There was no indication of who had erected it, or when. (An area Confederate veterans’ meeting many years ago, the National Park Service people say.) In front of the marker was a green plastic bowl containing a spray of plastic flowers, an empty glass vase, and two 4- or 5-inch-across Confederate flags on little sticks stuck in the ground.

 

The small granite shaft is not an official stop on what the state of Virginia in knowing-where-its-bread-is-buttered fashion terms its Civil War Trails. There are several: the Peninsula Campaign, the Overland Campaign of Lee versus Grant, the Shenandoah, Northern Virginia, and the one I’m after, Lee’s Retreat. This last has, as do the others, many bettertrodden paths than that leading to the inconvenient site of A. P. Hill’s death and far more elaborately done-up indicators of where you are when you halt your car at the couple of dozen points leading away from the scene of the Siege of Petersburg to where Generals Lee and Grant met at Appomattox. You can get a brochure offering guidance, and a map, at the Petersburg visitors’ center, or have them mailed to you by calling 1-800-6RETREAT.

The map shows every stop, and along the roads there are signs to direct you. At each stop there is a roadside map display, and you tune your AM radio to 1610 to hear a recorded message broadcast from an on-site transmitter. The first stop is Sutherland Station. Here occurred the engagement that enabled Grant to sever Lee’s last railroad supply line. Facing the little parking area by the transmitter is a Southern-erected monument put up many years ago to speak of the “gallant stand” made here by men who faced “overwhelming numbers” and who, while defeated, live on in “sacred memory.” A few steps away is what was the Fork Inn, used as a field hospital during and after the fighting, and nearby is the Ocran Methodist Church, which served as the left flank anchor of the Confederate line. Soldiers were buried in the churchyard.

Across the road there is an old-time country crossroads store, things for sale on outside tables, and on the day I came by three gents, each of whom could have served as stand-in for Jeeter Lester, sitting on the porch.

We spoke much of the weather. There were vegetables, gourds, Rebel flags, hats, and drinking cups. I picked up a tin of potted meat and studied the description of its contents: “A delicious blend of wild herbs, spices, and road-killed possum from the roadways of Sutherland, Va.”

“Dollah,” said one of the trio.

I had no choice. My car bears a Northern plate. If I don’t have the guts to buy, I’m letting the home team down. I picked up another tin. “Slowly simmered turtle from the branches and creeks of Sutherland, Va.” Good on “biscuit, ashcake, corn pone, slightly burned toast.” The old boys grinned hugely. A memory of basic training in Korean War days at Camp (now Fort) Gordon, Georgia, flashed into my mind. We were on a route march. There was an old man sitting on the porch of a falling-down cabin. It was related as absolute fact that a month earlier he had asked participants in a similar march, “Ain’t you boys licked them Yankees yet?” Is every old guy sitting on a Southern porch putting you on? Road-killed possum. I handed over two dollars and drove off. (Lacking the courage not to buy, I similarly lack the courage to eat, so the tins remain unopened yet, and I shall never know how they’d go with ashcake and cornpone.)

The next stop along the Lee’s Retreat Trail is Namozine Church, where, the radio transmitter tells us, a rear-guard skirmish was mounted by the Confederates heading west. The church is profoundly simple and profoundly lonely, nothing nearby and everything silent as it stands on brick pilings at a crossroads of thin roads. All the roads are thin. In April of 1865 these country lanes would have been jammed by men and horses and wagons and dragged artillery pieces. Now ten minutes can pass before a car, or very likely a pickup truck, comes by, for beyond those few April days of long ago this area was always, and remains, a remote backwater.

Now I don’t want to be unkind. But I have to say that I didn’t get much out of the AM 1610 recorded messages. They were to my mind mechanical and lecturelike despite TV-documentary-style present-tense usage: “Lee sees now … Sheridan’s cavalry goes forward.” These recitations failed to infuse in me the feeling that I, I myself, here, now, I’m where big things happened, here right where my car’s parked!