April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
From Richmond to Appomattox Court House, roads unchanged for 140 years tell the story of the final days, the final hours of the Confederacy
It’s hardly more than the size of your bedroom, half of it living quarters, the rest the office. “What about a bathroom?” I ask National Parks Ranger Tracy Chernault.
It’s hardly more than the size of your bedroom, half of it living quarters, the rest the office. “What about a bathroom?” I ask National Parks Ranger Tracy Chernault.
“See the sycamore tree?” He’s kidding, of course. The first thing both armies did when making camp was to dig long sinks—latrines. So the sycamore performed no real purpose when for a few cold-weather months this century and a third gone this hut stood by it. Then the tiny wooden structure was taken away and reassembled for display in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. That was right after the war, in August of 1865.
Eleven years later, with the 1876 celebrations of America’s centennial, the little place was spruced up a bit, and an identifying plaque affixed. Then for one hundred years it was left entirely neglected and unattended. Philadelphia vagrants took up temporary residence; couples made use of it.
Now it has been brought back to where it was built and put where long ago it stood. The sycamore was young while serving for background in the old photographs made when it and the hut were first together. Now the tree is old and not in very good health. The hut appears unchanged. Good money has been spent and much research done that this be so. Here is the last, the only one, of all the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands perhaps, of similar huts thrown together by the Boys in Blue and the Boys in Gray when they went into winter quarters to await spring’s campaign, acres of green wood shanties burned or abandoned for locals’ use as fuel, barns, planking, fences.
This was once the residence of the lieutenant general commanding the armies of the United States during what is called the Siege of Petersburg, although technically a siege means that an objective is completely surrounded by an enemy force, which was not the case here, for the back entrances to Petersburg and Richmond were open. Grant never wanted to get involved in such a situation, and still less did Robert E. Lee. If it came to this, Lee knew all would be lost for the Confederacy. “It will be a mere question of time,” he told Gen. Jubal Early. But a siege it became. If today you drive down from Washington on I-95, you will see signs at intersecting highways with destination names invoking the battling South that led to the Siege of Petersburg: Spotsylvania, the North Anna. (You will also see signs bringing earlier Civil War encounters to mind: Rappahannock River, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Stonewall Jackson Shrine.) I am here to trace what happened when the Siege of Petersburg ended.
The armies, arrived at the area stretching from Richmond to Petersburg, had thinned themselves out into facing lines thirty-five miles long. It became Grant’s task to work his way around Lee’s westernmost fortifications and cut the Confederate railroad supply lines leading to North Carolina. By doing so, he would force the Rebels out of their defensive positions and into open country. He believed the job would take about a month. His troops would be supplied by ships coming down the James River and docking at City Point, some ten miles behind his lines.
So facilities to receive supplies, eight enormous jerrybuilt wharves reaching half a mile out into the water, were quickly flung up at City Point. Their remains poke up into sight at low tide now. On top of the bluffs, acres of hasty constructions appeared: a hospital, blacksmith shops, a bakery, an open-air military prison and execution site, and new railroad tracks, replacing those installed in the 183Os. These stayed in place until the 1920s, when the ones you see today were put in. Believing he’d soon be off in the field chasing Lee, Grant lived in a tent.
But the Rebel lines sprouted redoubts and strongpoints and forts connected by tunnels. Each hill or rise had an artillery piece or pieces. As with the Confederates, so the Yankees. Six summer weeks went by with no rain, soldiers of both sides falling in murderous humid heat into choking dust when they were hit. Cool nights came and then cold weather as the Rebels stayed in place, refusing to be pried loose, and huts, this hut, were put up. Grant’s wife, and a couple of their children, were with him in his tiny habitation on the bluffs looking down at the water. It was very much in the interests of the North that this be so, for when Julia was around, he did not touch liquor. In front of others she called him Mr. Grant, as she had when first they met, in the days when he was a lieutenant fresh from West Point.
City Point, now a part of Hopewell, Virginia, was in those 1864-65 days almost entirely emptied of its three hundred inhabitants, who had fled when the Yankees came. It had declined from the better days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before ever-expanding railroad networks made it largely obsolete. Now the occupying forces turned it into the world’s busiest harbor as it took in endless supplies for Grant’s hundred thousand men up the line. Today a portion of that line is found in the National Park Service’s Petersburg National Battlefield, some twenty-five hundred acres gashed and left uneven from the shells crashing down. At the visitors’ center there are displays and old photographs, and walking and driving trails go by artillery pieces and exotically and archaically named devices to stop troops or charging cavalry: chevaux-de-frise, gabions, abatis. The Crater, formed when the Yankees exploded four tons of gunpowder in a tunnel under the Rebel line, remains a great depressed scar in the earth.
Everything in the park is well marked, and you will leave the visitors’ center with a handful of pamphlets and maps. One cast iron marker popped my mouth open. It stands by the Eppes family mansion, which is about a football field’s length from Grant’s hut, and its nonoccupancy by the general tells us something about him. He stayed in his tiny place, letting his quartermaster, Rufus Ingalls, occupy the Eppes home. He was quite content to receive Lincoln, and Sherman, and Sheridan in the hut. Lincoln came down twice to City Point, his only vacation time from Washington during his entire Presidency. The astounding sign mentions this. “Good God!” I cried to National Park Service Ranger James Blankenship. The sign says Lincoln spent three weeks here in April of 1865. “He was shot on April fourteenth!” I said.
“Yes, of course,” Blankenship said, and began a tangled explanation of why the National Park Service wasn’t responsible for the sign.
I interrupted after a moment. “Wait a second. How do you spell siege ?”
“Not that way,” Blankenship said. I forget the rule about—what is it?— i follows e except when … but I know the sign’s wrong when it speaks of the Seige of Petersburg. “Good catch,” Blankenship said. “Not everybody notices that.” Blankenship’s family has lived in these parts since many long years and once owned much of what is now the Army’s Fort Lee, adjoining the national battlefield. As with Ranger Tracy Chernault, he can name the Virginia regiments in which his people served.
I drove off past a rather modestlooking place that during the siege was run as a boardinghouse-inn by a man who used the money he garnered to build a hotel, which decades and decades later became unhappily famous as the place where Legionnaires’ disease originated. Crossing in a few minutes the lines held for 292 days, the longest siege in American history, I took a motel room a couple of miles south of Petersburg and asked the young lady at the desk where I should eat. She recommended Annabelle’s, on the front of whose menu I found discussion of the long-gone woman for whom the place was named. Reference was made to her doings during the struggle that, the menu pointed out, “folks hereabouts call the War of Northern Aggression.” But then, 95 percent of the local population, Blankenship and Chernault estimated, come from families that have been here for hundreds of years and with inevitable Confederate affiliations. Very few outsiders. Some Mexican migrant labor during the summers, yes, but they don’t settle in.
After the meal I chatted with Annabelle’s hostess about the building housing the restaurant. “It used to be a cow barn,” she said, pointing to old photographs on the wall. They were taken in 1919, when the barn was erected. It had replaced an earlier one whose demolition, she’d heard, had disclosed reams of Civil War artifacts: buckles, buttons, broken muskets. That wasn’t surprising. All of this area was fought over as the lines swayed back and forth, and nobody since 1865 has been able to put a wing on a house or more latterly dig for a swimming pool without turning things up, some today to command a price in the wide-open mementos market that equals the lifetime earnings of the original owner. Discovery of bodily remains, bones, presents a problem. By law the finding must be reported to the authorities—a homicide might have occurred—but that can mean police inquiries and forensic studies. Construction on a project could be delayed for weeks. And let’s face it, thousands of dead were hastily buried in 1864-65. What are the chances there’s been a recent murder? A filled plastic bag deposited in a Dumpster is the preferred solution. It’s different when bones turn up on National Park Service land. They are carefully examined for clues to what killed the soldier and then formally interred. On occasion people seeking not bones but valuables come onto government holdings. Two dead-of-night metal-detector prospectors were apprehended on the battlefield shortly before my visit last year. They got no salable trophies, but instead six months.
“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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.)
One leaves the central village after perhaps buying a gift-shop reproduction of the parole issued each Reb allowing him to return home, thirty thousand being printed in the Clover Hill Tavern, and wanders perhaps to the wooded hill where Lee made camp after the surrender or to the tiny cemetery alongside what was the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road but is now just a minor rut in a field. The cemetery holds a dozen and a half soldiers’ bodies. One is Jesse H. Hutchins, who enlisted three days after the firing on Fort Sumter, a plaque tells us, served 1,454 days, and died in the Army of Northern Virginia’s final twenty-four hours, on April 8, when he ran into some Federal cavalry. His destiny was to stay forever in this place, which would have remained an obscure hamlet no one ever heard of had things been different. Now it lives in history as where the war ended, where occurred what Gen. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine famously described as the Passing of the Armies, the laying down of the Confederate flags and arms along the road that reaches for some thousand feet between the McLean and Peers Houses.
In the couple of days it took to print and sign the passes the former enemies mingled. I like the story a Southerner told. A Union soldier asked if he was hungry. A pretty question to ask a Reb, was the snorted reply. Never mind, the Yankee said. Did the Southerner have a knife? Yes. The Bluecoat pointed to a ham strung to his saddle. “Cut you a slice, Johnny.” In later years the Confederate said, “God bless that Yank!”
The surrender took place on Palm Sunday. On the previous Sunday Corporal Mauck had killed General Hill. Then came Lee’s retreat, and now there is the Lee’s Retreat Trail, which ends here where all the soldiers went home. As did I.