The Civil War had dragged on for four long, bloody years, laying the countryside to waste and taking a terrible toll on both soldiers and civilians. By the early days of 1865, it was apparent to Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the end was near. On February 8, 1865 he sent a message to the Confederate Secretary of War saying, “You must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”
Defeated at Richmond and Petersburg, in April, 1865, Lee retreated with his bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia under constant pressure from Union troops led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee had hoped to hook up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, coming from North Carolina, and that together they could establish a defensive line near the Roanoke River. But everywhere they turned they met even more Federal soldiers blocking their route and cutting their supply lines.
Exhausted and starving, discipline began to break down as Lee’s men simply sat down alongside the road, unable to take another step. Others went off on their own searching for food. Even their horses and mules, unable to go any further, collapsed under their loads.
Desperate, Lee ordered his men to continue on toward the small village of Appomattox Court House, where he hoped to obtain supplies. On April 8, they stopped a mile away from the village, realizing that the Union troops had once again circled around them and blocked their path. Confederate scouts reported back with the grim news that even more enemy soldiers were on the way.
After a sleepless night, while he discussed their options with his senior officers, the next morning General Lee sent a letter to General Grant requesting a meeting to discuss his army’s surrender.
The two generals and their aides met at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House and hammered out the details of the surrender. Grant, following the wishes of President Abraham Lincoln, focused on reunification rather than punishment for the Confederate officers and enlisted men. He and Lee agreed that the Confederate soldiers would be allowed to return to their homes, taking their horses and personal equipment with them, and each man was given a pass allowing him to pass through Union lines along the way. The two men signed the surrender documents and shook hands. Outside, Union troops stood at attention while their former enemies stacked their rifles and began the trek home.
Today the village where the Civil War ended has been preserved as Appomattox Court House National Historic Site.
Visitors can explore several original buildings where they stood during that historic day, as well as a re-creation of the McLean house, where the surrender papers were signed. The original house burned down after the war ended but has been carefully replicated.
The Visitor Center includes exhibits on the Civil War and the surrender, and a movie explaining what led to the final meeting at Appomattox. The visitor center also has a small shop where books on the Civil War and National Park Service souvenirs are available.
After watching the video, we wandered around the small village for a while, poking our heads into the buildings and looking at the items on display. Many are furnished with period items to give visitors an idea of what life was like during that time.
This is the Clover Hill Tavern, the oldest original structure in the village of Appomattox Court House. Opening for business in 1819, it was built by brothers Alexander and Lilburne Patteson and was a stagecoach stop for the line between Cumberland County and Lynchburg.
The Plunkett-Meeks Store was built in 1852 and was operated by Albert Meeks, who was also the village’s postmaster and druggist. The store was a community gathering center where locals would come to collect their mail, socialize, and talk about the events of the day. Lafayette Meeks, the son of the storekeeper, is buried behind the store. He died of typhoid fever at the age of 19 while serving in the Confederate army. Examples of the kind of supplies a village store would carry in those days are on display inside the building.
It was a cold, dreary November morning when we visited Appomattox Court House, no doubt reminiscent of how the Confederate troops must have felt when the cause they had sacrificed for for so long was finally over and they had to accept defeat. For us, there was a strong sense of history about the place. Just to walk in the footsteps of those men and their leaders made us feel a connection to them that one can’t get from reading a book or watching a movie.
Appomattox Court House National Historic Site is located just outside the town of Appomattox, Virginia. The site includes more than a dozen buildings, a museum, theater, and bookstore. Plan on giving yourself at least two hours when you visit, but if you are really into history it could take longer than that. The Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The site is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.
For visitors with handicaps, be aware that you might encounter problems with accessibility. Due to the historic nature of the village, surfaces are gravel, dirt, or grass and most buildings are not accessible to wheelchairs. There is a 100-yard uphill walk from the parking area to the village itself. For more information, call (434) 352-8987 or visit the parks website at https://www.nps.gov/apco/index.htm
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of The Driving Lesson by my friend Ben Rehder. While Ben writes some excellent mysteries, including the wildly popular Blanco County series, this tale of a boy and his grandfather on an unplanned road trip across the country is a coming of age story that will tug at your heart strings. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – I’m just here to establish an alibi.