The Last Rebel Ground

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A messenger came from Grant saying he was on the way, and Lee’s aide Col. Charles Marshall, who decades later would recommend to his young cousin George C. Marshall, Jr., that he think about going to the Virginia Military Institute, rode into town to seek a suitable place for the two generals to meet. He ran into Wilmer McLean, who in July of 1861 found his Manassas, Virginia, home suddenly surrounded by the Battle of Bull Run and decided he’d had enough of the war. He went to Appomattox Court House and bought a place whose largish size reflected its builder’s unfulfilled hopes that the railroad would come and it could be a tavern-inn. McLean opened his house to Colonel Marshall, who said it would do, and showed General Lee in. Grant rode up a short while later to ask Phil Sheridan, who was standing in the street, where Lee was. “He is in that brick house, waiting to surrender to you.”

An obscure hamlet now lives in history as the place where occurred what Gen. Joshua Chamberlain called the Passing of the Armies.

“Well, then, we’ll go over.”

The rest you know.

Within a few days the legions of both sides were gone from Appomattox Court House, and it lapsed into the somnolent state that had always char- acterized it. No important engagements had been fought there, so there were no numerous monuments, as at Gettysburg, no Army War College classes coming to study a great battle, as at Chancellorsville. In a couple of years, with the general impoverishment of the Reconstruction-era South, McLean lost his house. Two decades later it was purchased by a group of Union veterans from Niagara Falls, New York, who thought to make it a moneymaking exhibition in Washington. They took it down, ran out of cash, and left it in a pile. In 1892 the courthouse burned to the ground and was not replaced, the county seat being relocated in Appomattox Station, where the railroad was. Appomattox Court House, still so named, went into decay. The houses saw no new paint. Roofs sagged. In 1930 Congress voted to build a monument on the old courthouse grounds to commemorate the surrender. The National Park Service suggested expanding the concept into a restoration of the whole village. In 1935 Congress agreed. Houses and land were purchased by the government and work began. The Second World War intervened, but at its end restoration and reconstruction continued. Today Appomattox Court House National Historical Park presents an appearance almost photographically resembling what Lee and Grant saw when they were there, although neater: There are no cows or pigs wandering around and no mud.

The place draws masses of people, and from every state. During my travels from Petersburg to the signs identifying the town— HERE OUR COUNTRY WAS REUNITED —mine seemed the only non-Virginia car in the motel parking lots. (“Perhaps it is a state of adulterers,” mused a cynical friend.) But in the Appomattox parking area there were all kinds of license plates. People are advised to begin their tour in the reconstructed old courthouse, now the visitors’ center, where there are numerous displays and brochures and maps. As elsewhere, the National Park Service rangers are up on their subject. At stated times one will appear dressed, say, in the fashion of a Confederate soldier available to answer questions about his war. You are urged to take him strictly on his own terms. “Leave the questions about the nearest Pizza Hut to us,” a NPS uniformed ranger says, always getting a laugh.

The businesses and homes are interesting enough and reflective, so far as research can make them, of life as once it was lived here. But it is of course the McLean House that draws the largest and most intense crowds, even though save for five thousand original bricks it is wholly a reconstruction. Fortunately the Niagara Falls would-be entrepreneurs made extensive photographs of the interior, so that what was could be accurately duplicated. The table at which Lee sat is a perfect reproduction of the real thing, which is now in the Chicago Historical Society, as is the representation of the one Grant used, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution, deposited there by Mrs. George A. Custer, whose husband rode away from the house balancing it on his head. The reproduction of a doll belonging to little Lulu McLean lies on the actual sofa present when the generals met; McLean descendants gave the sofa a few years ago along with two vases that were on the mantelpiece. You can see the real doll under glass in the reproduction courthouse visitors’ center. It was taken home by a Union officer and cherished in his family for a century and a quarter before being placed in its present location along with the pencil Lee used to correct a minor error in Grant’s written-out surrender proposal; he marked a place where a word had been inadvertently omitted. (The dress sword Grant took note of by ruling that Rebel officers could retain their side arms is in Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy.)