The Last Rebel Ground

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Today Appomattox Court House almost photographically resembles what Lee and Grant saw when they were there.

The letter’s recipient read it in the 1754 Cumberland Church, described then as “rudely finished” but looking quite nice today, and declined Grant’s suggestion. I must say I cannot understand his thinking. His scarecrow soldiers had been on half-rations or worse for a year, since the Wilderness, and were just off the siege’s long ordeal of cold, fleas, lice, skin inflammations, eye infections, untreated wounds, and no shoes. As he fled west, Lee issued appeals to the country people to provide food for his soldiers. He got little response from locals with hardly enough for themselves, while the Yankees had herds of beef cattle landed at City Point and then driven behind the troops. The former governor of Virginia Henry Wise said to the commander: “Nothing remains but to put your poor men on their poor mules and send them home. This army is hopelessly whipped. I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder.” Lee responded by silently looking through a window at a crowd hardly describable as a military force but rather as a demoralized horde running across these fields and roads. Wagons, caissons, and limber chests floated by on a tide of disorganization. The sound of Yankee artillery hurried them on. Rangers Chernault and Blankenship, the descendants of Virginia soldiers, had told me that my agreement with Governor Wise was a 1990s reaction, that I did not understand Lee. But did there exist anyone who could say he knew Robert E. Lee? the Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut asked. “I doubt it!” The pursued and the pursuers rushed on.

Some of them traveled over a segment of road “probably the best preserved of the retreat route.” Calkins tells us, adding, “During many periods of the year this road is impassable. Use better judgment before proceeding down it.” Chernault and Blankenship had assured me that the recent rain situation had been such that I’d probably be all right, so I turned onto what in 1865 was called the Richmond Road and is now Route 2307 crossing Holiday Creek in the direction of Vera. The earth under the car tires was as bright red for some stretches as what you find in Georgia. There were no houses, none at all. Trees grow right by the edge of a passageway sometimes sunken as much as a foot below the surrounding surface. If I met someone driving toward me, I knew, we’d both be in trouble, for it would be impossible to get by each other. Someone—he, not I, I hoped—would have to back up a half-mile, a mile, to find a little forest trail where one car could slip in while the other squeezed by. Sometimes there were deep depressions, making the car dip and rise as I lumbered along. When the Union artillery pieces and wagons came to such, men tossed in Confederate rifles discarded by their fleeing or surrendered opponents and so corduroyed what we call potholes today.

I never exceeded seven or eight miles an hour, and when I came out onto paved Route 626, my auto was in such shape that even two car washings later there were bits of encrusted red mud on the underside to remind me of my trip through the Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest.

The yes-or-no coming of a railroad was life and death to little towns everywhere in the years oreceding the Civil War. Witness Farmville, site of the Prince Edward Hotel and Landshark Restaurant, whose citizenry in the 1850s all but sold their souls to raise money for the High Bridge over a deep valley so that trains might come through, and which now is quite a thriving place, home to two colleges and with a big motel and jammed main drag. (The old railroad station, very picturesque, today sees no passengers while finding new life as the location for wedding receptions and such and, a while before I made my trip, as the scene of a Coca-Cola TV commercial that found locals offered twenty dollars apiece to stand around cheering upon command.) The town of Appomattox Court House, some twenty-five miles west, lost out on the tracks and was hung out to dry as the isolated county seat of a backwater county, with a handful of houses, the Clover Hill Tavern, Meeks’ Store, Woodson’s Law Office, streets unpaved, population about 120 people black and white. It was near here that the Federals rushed forward on roads paralleling those used by the Confederates—sometimes the Rebels could hear the Yankee bands playing—and got behind their foes. When on the morning of April 9 the Union cavalry drew back, it was for the Confederates like being in a theater where the rising of the curtain revealed massive numbers of lined-up infantry. The Army of Northern Virginia was caught, surrounded, enclosed.

 

“There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant,” Lee said. White flags went up everywhere to signal a truce, and word was sent to Grant that Lee desired a meeting. Awaiting a reply, Lee lay on a blanket under an apple tree by the side of ‘the road a short distance northeast of Appomattox Court House. The site is marked and can be visited today although there is nothing to see, really, and the apple tree is long gone. It was said that a full railroad car of pieces of souvenir wood absolutely guaranteed to be from that tree was shipped out.