Driving Through Dixie, Part 3

General Lee’s Surrender Remembered at Appomattox

 

Part 1. Across Miss., Ala., & Ga. to Atlanta

Part 5. Memorials for WW II, Korea and Viet Nam

Part 2. To Lynchburg & Appomattox Court House

Part 6. FDR Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and Corcoran

Part 3. General Lee’s Surrender Remembered

Part 7. Charleston and Fort Sumter

Part 4. Through Virginia to Arlington and D.C.

Part 8. Sweet Savannah & Dash Back to Memphis

 

Index to 62 Photos / Return to Nolan Travels Home Page / Page Updated 8-29-05

 

By Lewis Nolan

 

July 7, 2005, Thursday – At Lynchburg and Appomattox Court House

 

I took advantage of the complimentary hot breakfast by having a plateful of bacon and a couple of pieces of toast from the buffet bar at the Ramada Inn in Lynchburg, VA. There were no Danish or other sweets offered so
Betty Nolan near Appomattox entrance
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Betty passed on breakfast. I also took advantage of the motel’s rather shabby fitness room to pedal on the stationary bike for 20 minutes and to do some stretching exercises. The motel was built as a classic, roadside Holiday Inn 30 or more years ago. The two-story, four-sided structure is built around a large, well-landscaped courtyard that includes an attractive swimming pool big enough to serve as a lap-swimming venue.

 

We had the whole day open to poke around. We drove about 30 minutes to the east to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, site of General Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865 of what remained of the celebrated Army of Northern Virginia. General Grant had chased Lee’s forces from the disastrous battle at Petersburg following the fall of Richmond. Outflanked and outmaneuvered by vastly larger federal forces, Lee was finally surrounded. It was surrender or certain death for his 9,000 remaining troops.

 

Lee had pulled his battered army out of the Richmond-Petersburg front to the east on April 3, 1865. They had planned to march through the central Virginia countryside to North Carolina and join forces with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s army. Together, they would attack Union General William Sherman’s army and then turn on General Grant.

 

However, little went as planned. High water delayed Lee’s crossing of the Appomattox River and Grant’s cavalry blocked his path along the Richmond and Danville Railroad line. As Lee fought by day and marched by night, Union General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry slammed into his rear guard. Lee lost a third of his army in three battles at Little Sailor’s Creek. What remained of the Army of Northern Virginia marched the night of April 7 to Appomattox Station on the South Side Railroad, where they believed supplies awaited them.

 

But Union cavalry captured the station and its supplies. Surrounded, the worn-down and greatly outnumbered Confederates bravely tried to force a breakout. Some cavalry got through the Union lines but the assault of the main force wilted in the face of overpowering firepower and manpower.

 

“There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee told his aides.

 

Flags of truce went up and the shooting stopped. And in the little village of Appomattox Court House, the war in Virginia came to an end
Lewis Nolan by battlefield plaque
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and the slow process of national reunification began after four bloody years.

 

While Lee had no authority over several other Confederate armies still operating in the west, his surrender paved the way for the complete capitulation of all the Southern forces by early June of 1865. Significantly, the remaining Confederate generals sought and got the identical, generous terms that Grant gave Lee. Officers were allowed to keep their pistols and swords. Any Confederate soldier who owned a horse was allowed to take it home with him. Grant asked only that the Confederates pledge not to take up arms against the United States, starting the long process of reconciliation between the North and South that still echoes today.

 

Confederate General Johnson surrendered his forces on May 3 in North Carolina. General Richard Taylor’s army surrendered in Alabama May 4. General Edmond Kirby Smith’s army surrendered in Texas June 2. General Stand Wattie was the last Confederate in the field to give it up, on June 23 in the Indian Territory far to the west. 

 

The National Park Service administers the battlefield park of less than 100 acres with a peak seasonal staff of about 12. I was surprised to learn that fewer than 200,000 persons visit the park annually. Appomattox is pretty far off the beaten track in a rural area. The nearest city of any size is Richmond, the old capital of the Confederacy 92 miles to the east.

 

In over 40 years of visiting National Parks, Monuments and Historic Sites, I’ve never encountered such a high concentration of helpful, friendly rangers. Every ranger we talked to was eager to be of service. All seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the place and glad to share it in as much detail as the visitors want to hear.

 

One young ranger, a female student at our son’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, convinced me to buy a life membership in the Golden Age Passport program. For $10 – slightly more than the admission to just Appomattox – Betty and I (plus any traveling companions) now have free admission privileges to virtually all the National Parks as well as recreational sites operated by several other federal government agencies including TVA. It is a great deal for seniors 62 and older, whom I think deserve such treatment after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes over a lifetime of work.

 

I was amazed at the quality of artifacts on display at the park’s small museum and visitor center. Among them were:

 

* An inscribed, wooden tabletop on which the surrender documents were signed.


Lewis Nolan by tiny cemetery
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* A stub of a wooden pencil used by General Lee to amend terms of surrender.

* A carved wooden pipe made out of an apple tree that was cut down by souvenir hunters among Lee’s soldiers. They erroneously believed their beloved commander had sat under the tree when signing surrender documents.

* Dozens of rifles and other pieces of equipment used by notables and common soldiers on both sides.

* Several renditions of historically incorrect drawings and paintings depicting the persons supposedly present for the signing in the McLean House.

 

We learned that General Lee never personally signed the actual surrender document. He made notes on an early draft of terms, notably suggesting that Grant’s army provide rations for 20,000. But Lee left the actual signing to subordinates Generals Longstreet and Gordon. Grant magnanimously insisted that the Union Army provide the famished Confederates with rations for 30,000. Grant also ordered his troops to welcome the Southerners back into the Union by refraining from victory celebrations. Respectful Federals allowed the defeated Confederates to march and stack their rifles with dignity. 

 

While the death throes of the Confederacy lasted several more weeks, for all practical purposes the end of what the victors called “the Rebellion” came in the parlor of a two-story brick home owned by a war profiteer named Wilmer McLean. He had made a fortune speculating in sugar and selling the commodity to the Union Army. The house was the site of possibly the most important 90-minute meeting in American history.

 

Even then, the importance of that surrender meeting was widely recognized. The McLean house was stripped of virtually everything that could be carried back north. Even the roots of the apple tree where General Lee was wrongfully rumored to have sat were dug up and cut into pieces for sale as souvenirs. 

 

Northern entrepreneurs acquired and dismantled the house shortly after the war. Their scheme to reassemble the structure as a tourist attraction in Washington and charge admission never got off the ground.

 

The house was rebuilt on its actual site as part of the restoration of the Village of Appomattox Court House by the National Park Service. The project started in the 1930s and was completed after World War II. Like several other structures in the village, the McLean house is largely a reproduction. However, about 5,000 original bricks plus several foundation timbers and a few metal doorknobs and hinges were used in the re-creation of the historic structure. Its furnishings include several pieces of original furniture somehow retrieved from the descendants of Union soldiers who carted them off. There are a number of other “souvenir” pieces in various museums and collections.

 

A small, hand-made doll, called “silent witness doll” by General Sheridan since it was in the room where the surrender was signed, was
Lewis Nolan by McLean house
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given to the Park Service a few years ago. A descendant of the soldier who “liberated” the toy returned it more than a century after it was taken. Copies are sold in the souvenir shop along with various books and copies of memorabilia. Oddly but understandably given the tenor of the times, one has to look hard to find anything emblazoned with the Rebel Battle Flag. Sadly, the Stars and Bars has been misappropriated and used as a symbol by several racist organizations.

 

We have a small watercolor painting of General Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (for whom one of my grandfathers was named) in a bookcase in our home’s sunroom. An entire shelf is devoted to my small collection of books about the Civil War, most notably fellow Memphian Shelby Foote’s excellent, three volume set. At the Appomattox bookstore, Betty bought me a copy of General Lee’s handwritten Farewell Address to his troops:

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

”I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them.

”But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

”By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessings and protection.

”With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.” – General Robert E. Lee

Also offered for sale in the bookstore/souvenir shop are copies of other documents and lots of books about the war. There is a small pile of soldier caps almost out-of-sight that are decorated with either the
Betty Nolan in restored village
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American flag or Confederate flag. Near the entrance to the park is a small cemetery that contains the graves of 18 fallen Confederate soldiers whose names are not known. Each grave is decorated with a Rebel flag. There is a single grave marked by a U.S. flag of the day. Resting beneath are the remains of an unknown Union soldier found some months after the battle at Appomattox. The bodies of other fallen federals were buried elsewhere.

 

If one wants really tacky souvenirs decorated with the Rebel Flag they can go to one of several junky shops in the town of Appomattox three miles away from the historic park. The town is the county seat of Appomattox County, which was formed in 1845 – two years after my great-great grandfather John Nolan emigrated from Ireland to America. At the time of the Civil War, Appomattox County was a rural agricultural area. The then-county seat of Appomattox Court House had fewer than 150 residents, mainly professionals and tradesmen there to support the needs of area farmers and plantation owners. 

 

Today, old photographs show that the village of Appomattox Court House looks very much like it looked in April 1845. Still standing are several wooden structures that once held law offices, a store, a tavern and several homes. The original Court House burned in 1892 and was not replaced since no surrender events were held there.

 

The re-constructed McLean house looks like a very comfortable home, with two large bedrooms upstairs that were shared by the McLean’s five children. The ground floor has a heat room with rock floor. A wood-burning stove sits on a foundation of rock. Its 19th Century ductwork piped the heated air upstairs. The first floor contains the master bedroom, dining room and rarely used parlor - restored site of the historic surrender. A few steps from the house are two wooden buildings plus a privy. One of the buildings contains a spacious kitchen and living quarters for the cook, a slave who was on the top of the slave hierarchy. We were surprised to see the size of the living area and quality of furniture. Meals were cooked in large pots that hung over flames in a huge fireplace in the kitchen.

 

With the custom of the times, the main meal of the day was “dinner,” served in the early afternoon. In the absence of refrigeration other
Name recalls community, not general
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than that provided in an icehouse, the evening meals largely consisted of whatever was left over from dinner.

 

The second wooden outbuilding behind the McLean home housed the low-ranking slaves who worked in the fields. They slept dormitory style on large sacks of straw on the floor.    

 

Had it not been raining, we might have stayed longer. But two hours of immersion in the history of Appomattox Court House was both sufficient and satisfying. I doubt we will pass this way again.

 

On the way back to Lynchburg, we stopped at the Stonewall Vineyards and Winery about midway between Appomattox and our motel. We learned it was named for the former village where it is located, not for the great Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. But an image of him mounted on horseback – taken from a huge statue at Manassas Battlefield Park – adorns the Stonewall label on several vintages of wine produced there.

 

We tasted several wines and chatted with the owner’s son, who attended the University of California – Davis and lived in Northern California for several years. We thought the Stonewall Chardonnay was a bit corky but liked the Brigade and Mist varieties. We purchased several bottles to take home and hope that riding in the trunk for over 1,000 miles in hot weather didn’t ruin them.

 

It was raining steadily and getting up in the day. So we regrettably scrubbed plans to retrace our route south about an hour to Danville. So we didn’t see either the Tank Museum or what is promoted as “The last capital of the Confederacy.” We had a late lunch at a chain restaurant/saloon in Lynchburg, O’Charleys. Our usual experience of finding out that local residents rarely can give accurate driving directions was reinforced. Our waiter was new on the job (botched our order) and new in town. He didn’t have a clue about the location of what is supposed to be a grand monument celebrating D-Day.

 

A private fund-raising group located the National D-Day Memorial in nearby Bedford because the community had the highest per-capita loss of lives during the Normandy landing by U.S. troops in 1944.

 

Several other restaurant employees were of no help with directions neither to that attraction nor to “Poplar Forest,” the summer retreat home of Thomas Jefferson.

 

Finally, the fifth restaurant employee we asked tried hard to help. But she sent us on a wild goose chase we finally abandoned in the face of heavy rain and busy traffic. So despite an informative visit to Appomattox and pleasant wine tasting, what was left of our day in and around Lynchburg was pretty much a bust. That evening, we relaxed in our room at the Ramada, watched the rain and television reports of terrible, terrorist bombings in London that killed more than 100 innocent commuters and injured more than 700.

 

The worst of the bombings was in London’s subway system. News reports from Washington about extra security measures being put in place in the city’s Metro system made us more than a little nervous about our plans to ride the subway between Arlington and stations near the Capitol’s mall later in the week.

 

We also were apprehensive about Hurricane Dennis, which was south of Cuba but aimed at the Gulf Coast of Florida and Alabama with winds well over 100 mph. Since we just got our condo at Gulf Shores, Ala., habitable in late June following the widespread damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Ivan last September 16, the prospects of another direct hit were extremely unpleasant to contemplate. We kept a watchful eye on the Weather Channel for the duration of our trip.

 

As it turned out the worst of Hurricane Dennis came ashore near Pensacola, about 50 miles to the east. But our development sustained some damage to a swimming pool, an elevator and other exterior improvements from a storm surge that washed waves of salt water and debris over the property, now devoid of protective dunes and Sea Oats thanks to Ivan. But thankfully, the new roof on our building withstood the 75 mph winds that hit only a glancing blow to Gulf Shores. Our unit was undamaged.

 

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