Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Appomattox Court House

I am no great student of the Civil War but I know the outlines of the conflict, the causes that led up to it and the whole sorry mess of carpetbagging amid the ruins of President Lincoln's proposed Reconstruction program, which was to have been with malice toward none.

It was quite the privilege for me to see the place where the vast grinding machinery of War came to a complete and sudden halt in the small village of Appomattox in Central Virginia. Where once they killed each other wholesale nowadays guns are no longer permitted by Federal Fiat. Well, more or less, because if you read the fine print guns aren't allowed in the structures. In the fields it's open season on the unarmed visitor.

There's the Court House where General Lee's aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall first thought to organize the surrender but it was Palm Sunday and the facility was closed. So he cast around but the village was empty as everyone who could, had fled to join relatives to get away from the nearby fighting that morning in 1865. That was when General George Custer attacked General Lee's supplies at Appomattox Station breaking the back of the Army of Northern Virginia, at last.

The only non-slave residents Marshall found were the McLean family originally from Manassas who got sick of the fighting early in the war and relocated to Appomattox to find some peace and quiet. That worked for several years until April 9th, 1865 when Wilmer McLean was asked for a place for the Generals to meet and all he had to offer that was suitable was his...living room in the red brick house below:

There was considerable to-ing and fro-ing and everyone knew that momentous actions were underway. As a result everyone at Appomattox that day kept a souvenir of whatever sort they could and the National Parks Service has collected an astonishing quantity of items of greater or lesser significance.

Lee waited 25 minutes for Grant to arrive and they chatted a further half hour of their recollections of the Mexican War, until Lee confronted the unpleasantness head on and Grant squirmed and told Lee all would be as previously written but Lee wanted the generous terms in writing and Grant scribbled them out (a pencil used for the job is on display). Grant took no pleasure in the act of surrender and his troops we are told at some great length were very respectful of the former Rebels they had defeated.

The visitor's center is packed with the memorabilia, films are shown and the atmosphere of that fateful day is recreated as faithfully as you could hope.

There are tons of family treasures on display as well detailing the rather harsh lives of the soldiers of the day. The Federals did a lot better than the Confederates in terms of food and equipment but none of it looks really comfortable to a modern observer. Perhaps that's why the uniforms look so small for a modern well nourished American.

The Park Service also has a huge supply of photos of participants documented to have been at Appomattox and they are rotated periodically on the walls of the center. The surrender took place on April 9th, but it didn't take formal effect until April 12th. That was because clerks were feverishly writing up parole slips for the Confederates to give them and their horses passes to go home safely. Indeed the last battle of the war in Texas was won by the Confederacy near Brownsville in May of that year. News travelled slowly especially to unwilling ears.

So it was that Appomattox became the place where the war ended and nowadays the little village in the rolling fields lives with the slogan "Where Our Nation Reunited" putting I suppose the best face one can on it. Below I photographed the Court House of Appomattox County from the front porch of the restored McLean house where the Generals met.

The Generals were in the house ninety minutes all told and used only the parlor for their meeting and signing ceremony. I told you everything was carefully observed and recorded at the time of the surrender.

The parlor has been restored as closely as possible to the way it was then:

In some way I wanted to stay and see more but there was nothing more to see. It was time to go and mull over the scenes and the intense recreations of that day.

It was time to get back to the real world. No one is quite so good at getting under your skin with time travel as the National Parks Service.

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