Last year on a trip to view the autumn colors with my family, I convinced them to stop at Appomattox Court House, site of Lee’s surrender to Grant in April 1865 which essentially heralded the end of the Civil War. It was my third visit to the remote village in the rolling hills of southcentral Virginia. At the time of the Civil War it was little more than a few houses surrounding a tavern and a courthouse on the road from Richmond to Lynchburg. The entire agricultural county had no other towns.
But history has a way of making unexpected places famous. What drew me back again to this compelling place of winding country lanes and vibrant green hillsides? I suppose its power to evoke the past. It ranks in the top tier of America’s historic sites. Owned by the National Park Service, the park consists of about fifteen main buildings and various outbuildings. The buildings themselves are not particularly interesting, save of course for one house, Wilmer McLean’s house.
The story falls into the “you can’t make that up” category. One of Lee’s aides had selected the house for the meeting to discuss terms of surrender between Generals Lee and Grant. McLean had lived in another town in 1861, several hours to the north in Manassas, Virginia. There he found his home in the middle of the first battle of the Civil War. It was a Confederate headquarters and was damaged by a shell exploding in his kitchen. Supposedly he had moved his family to Appomattox a year later, eager to escape any proximity to potential battle sites. Then almost four years later he found the war’s top generals in his parlor.
Lee was 58 years old, Grant was 43. Lee, dressed immaculately in a crisp uniform was from a patrician family of Old Virginia. Grant, in a muddy uniform, represented the Midwest. They reminisced briefly about their initial meeting years earlier in Mexico. And the business of surrender began.
The house is a reconstruction by the Park Service on the original foundation. The original house survived until 1893 when a New York company dismantled it in hopes of moving it to Washington to turn it into a war museum. But that plan did not come to fruition and the piles of bricks and lumber eventually disappeared.
Today, Park Service rangers speak eloquently of that day almost one hundred fifty years ago. The furnishings in the front parlor represent the two chairs and small tables eight feet apart (the originals are in the Smithsonian). It’s easy to imagine the room crowded with Union officers, including Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son.
In another dramatic moment, Grant introduced Lee to his aides, including Ely Parker, of Seneca Indian heritage. Lee supposedly said that he was glad to see at least one real American there. To which Parker responded that “We are all Americans.”
The hushed expectancy, the awkwardness and nervousness of the generals. The stillness surrounding the house as thousands of soldiers awaited their fate. A visitor today can stand on the front porch and imagine the rush of emotions as Lee left the house and slowly rode away, lifting his hat to Grant. Then a sudden euphoria spread like a giant wave of relief to thousands of weary men and women.
To me this site holds as much emotional power as Gettysburg. Its story is not death but affirmation of decency and that bittersweet moment when America began to mend.
Have you been to Appomattox? What did you think?