Bill and I promised each other we would go for a drive the day after Thanksgiving. We have had SUCH a year, and I haven’t posted in this blog since his stroke. But we are very much recovered from all that and things are looking way up—we feel like ourselves again, and so it was time to get back on the road. We love day trips – no worries about animal care, no huge expenses, nothing but a chance to explore the area and really get to know our community.
We hadn’t yet picked a destination when we awoke on Friday so I opened Google maps (I love this century!!) as we discussed the general direction—north! I saw several Virginia towns in a reasonable radius, and then noticed Appomattox. I remembered it had historical significance, but couldn’t remember what. But lo, this is the internet age, and in seconds I had my answer—Appomattox was the site where the Civil War ended. The perfect destination for a beautiful weekend!
We left unceremoniously, heading north at first, and then a seemingly endless series of lefts. So many lefts! The roads were two lanes, sometimes with large expanses past the shoulders and other times where the trees encroached nearby. I began to wonder where Siri was leading us. I remembered days of paper maps and thought how the idea of Siri would have seemed unbelievable, just a short time ago.
True to our road trip traditions, we were wending our way through the landscape, passing quaint churches, dilapidated barns, small cemeteries, and scores of lovely houses. Virginia has rolling fields of bright green grass and our route took us past a few farms with cattle, horses, and the occasional goat. Our adventure playlist on the radio, we passed through small towns with twisty roads, shops with their doors opening on small sidewalks, and beautiful, colonial-style homes. Very occasionally we saw a car with a Christmas tree on top, and people were smiling and cheerful at our stops.
My brief internet search had told me that the Appomattox Court House was a national park at the site of the surrender and that we should start at the Visitor Center down town. Once in Appomattox we found the old train depot/visitor center where a stately older woman with a thick, classically southern accent answered our questions. She showed me the map to the national park and provided us the context of the train depot, where northern troops had captured a south-bound train, seizing troops, artillery, food and supplies for the citizens of the southern states. Near the end of the war, this defeat had a devastating impact. Southerners were literally starving, with stories of people eating the paste from their wallpaper in desperation. The battle at the train depot was a crushing blow.
The courthouse national park was about ten miles away, through a rather crappy looking area. Appomattox as a modern town is not my favorite sampling of Americana and apparently grew in a time when we didn’t care too much how things looked. We saw rather boring and fairly run down strip malls, torn up asphalt patches, and architecture that was far more functional than interesting to look at. I found the atmosphere rather depressing, especially for an area of Virginia that is usually so beautiful.
But soon enough we spotted the classic Civil War fencing – also known as Shenandoah stack rail – that lines the national parks. Green grass shone through the fencing, and eventually we saw the brown signs leading us to the courthouse. We parked in the lower lot and saw the tall, square, brick buildings I associate with the 1860s. Hilly grass fields surrounded the whole area, and with the buildings spaced far apart, the gentle, natural beauty of the scene was irrepressible.
I had a sudden impression of my father, who loved these Civil War parks. Like me, my father would drive for a mood-lift, and we often took day trips to destinations like this. He loved the Civil War parks and taught me the love of history and the life energy held in the stones and trees and buildings.
In our tour of the area, we learned quite a bit. Southern troops had been pushed back and were trying to regain ground, but the northern troops kept a constant pressure. As Lee’s men tried to move north past Richmond, they were pushed further and further west until finally being surrounded – as some of Grant’s troops slid south behind the Rebels – at Appomattox. Ultimately, Lee surrendered on Palm Sunday, when the courthouse was closed; the meeting of the two generals took place in a home owned by the McLean family, about 150 yards away.
McLean, who owned several properties in Virginia, happened to also own property in Manassas at the site of the first Civil War battle. In a strange coincidence, he is quoted as saying, “The war started in my front yard and ended in my living room.” He had moved to Appomattox to settle his family away from the war. A man of considerable means after marrying a rich widow, he and his family were financially ruined by the war since their capital was entirely Confederate money and property.
Early in our tour, we learned that Lincoln had met months prior to the surrender with Grant and other Union big wigs, and they planned for the end of the war. Lincoln was adamant that the end of the war must begin the healing of the country, and even though the Rebel troops were considered criminals, they would be pardoned and allowed to return home.
We heard often of the dignity and class shared by Grant and Lee. Lee had a new uniform and was decked out in finery, even as he surrendered. Grant, on the other hand, was fresh from the battlefield, with muddy boots and uniform. But both treated the occasion with dignity and respect. They chatted amiably before getting to the business of the surrender, and history (written by the victors) says that Grant provided generous terms of surrender, which Lee accepted. The southern soldiers were paroled there at the Courthouse site, and within two days Grant’s men had printed 20,000 passes for them. The southern soldiers would be able to keep their horses, were given free passage on federal transportation, and would be fed at Union camps on their way home.
What I did not appreciate is that Lincoln was killed a mere five days later. I had not remembered that his assassination fell so shortly after the surrender. Thinking now of how information would have travelled, I marvel that the war did not re-ignite. The materials at the site mentioned the frailty of the peace and that the unrest following his murder was significant.
The trip got me thinking about the reconstruction after such a dramatic division. Here we were, literally at war, and somehow the men Lincoln met with that day had a vision that the country would heal, the citizenship would knit together and be able to see themselves as a whole, single country again. I was struck by the reports of Confederate soldiers crying on the battlefields, defeated in spite of their utter exhaustion and starvation – they had lost so much and would now head home without the spoils of war.
We managed to reunite the country, for the most part, after a terrible and bloody war. Are we a people who could do that now? Do we have that kind of strength and determination? I hope so. We certainly have work to do, don’t we?