The Last Rebel Ground

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Far more was I taken by From Petersburg to Appomattox: A Tour Guide to the Routes of Lee’s Withdrawal and Grant’s Pursuit , written by Christopher M. Calkins of the National Park Service, a forty-eight-page pamphlet available for $2.95 at the Petersburg visitors’ center. Calkins offers seven detailed maps. He suggests you select an important Union or Confederate officer and follow his route. Any route, Calkins points out, will comprise about one hundred miles. Because many stops will be called for, a full day should be allocated for the trip. “The route most will probably want to follow is the one Lee personally took, which is listed as Longstreet’s I and III Corps. The Federal II or VI Corps routes also provide an interesting tour as does the Federal Cavalry Route. WARNING ! Use extreme caution when travelling these narrow backroads and be aware of blind curves.”

Alone as I was, I did not comply with Calkins’s recommendation to follow someone. Perhaps with a navigator to read his maps I might have done so. Instead for three days I drifted about, Calkins’s pamphlet always at hand, but less for his maps than for the photos and notes. He shows picture after picture of this area snapped for a 1936 WPA project. The Old South then was not much removed from the war and Reconstruction. The pictures, primitive by our present-day standards, are haunting: those rutted roads, the crumpled tin-roof tobacco sheds, the unpainted houses, the lanes where within the memory of then-living people the artillery horses shouldered to one side the trudging infantry and exhausted men fell out with the dying mules here . Now sixty-odd years have gone by, and you can look at a pictured house or place as it then was, a creek, a field, a road, a town seen from its outskirts—this world as it was in 1936—and try to make a second leap back to April of 1865. Yes, the roads are largely paved now, and yes, there are some new houses, but as Calkins says, “The frequently destructive effect that progress has on historical sites and the countryside has not heavily touched through here. Much of the original terrain and physical features exist as they were in 1865. Many of the modern-day roads continue to follow the original roadbeds of that period.”

So I stood by the remains of earthworks thrown up along springs or on hills, saw the Judge James H. Cox house, where on the third day of the month Lee and Longstreet dined, looked at the house that served as Billy Mahone’s headquarters on April 4-5, saw the Federal trenches at Jetersville, and Marshall’s Cross Roads, where Sheridan’s cavalry battled Anderson’s corps. I parked overlooking Little Sayler’s Creek—often misspelled Sailor’s —where Lee saw his men running away and cried, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”

At the Beech Street residence of John T. Thornton in Farmville, Lee was a morning visitor on the seventh. He’d also stayed for a few hours in Patrick Jackson’s home, and Mrs. Jackson had given him tea for breakfast. I dined at the Landshark Restaurant, an oddly shaped place that in April 1865 was a telegraph office from which Lee sent out messages and which today sometimes turns into a comedy club with standup would-be Jerry Seinfelds. When the Rebels fled Farmville, the Yankees came in. Grant stayed at the Prince Edward Hotel, just down the street from the telegraph office-Land-shark Restaurant. It’s gone now, collapsed into a pile of rubble when workmen attempted to repoint it, replacing old mortar with new for the Civil War Centennial four decades ago. Endless columns of blue went by it as the troops moved up. “If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender,” Sheridan said. “Let the thing be pressed,” Lincoln responded, and torches were lit and “John Brown’s Body” was sung over and over for a slouched silent figure with a cigar who sent a message forward under a flag of truce suggesting that Lee offer “the surrender of that portion of the C.S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”