This post was written by Mark Meader. Mark is an Archives Specialist with the Motion Picture, Sound and Video branch. He participated in historical reenactments for over forty years, including over twenty years as a Union private in Civil War reenactments.
People often think of history as just names, dates, places where “something” happened a long time ago. They rarely think of the emotions that accompanied such events, emotions that made it so memorable that the participants could never forget what occurred at this place or that. So it was with a small Virginia hamlet that started out as Clover Hill Tavern, a stagecoach stop in 1819, and grew to become Appomattox Court House, the county seat of Appomattox County. It consisted of five houses, several businesses off the main street, and a court house. It is also the only town in the United States where one wholly American army surrendered to another.
Union General Ulysses Grant had a migraine. He had suffered from it off and on ever since his pursuit had begun of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s starving, threadbare Army of Northern Virginia, which had evacuated the defenses around Petersburg, Virginia on April 2, 1865. The 100,000 men of the Union Army of the Potomac had pursued the Confederates west where they hoped to obtain food and supplies and then join Confederate forces in North Carolina to keep the war going. Grant knew he had to prevent this to end the costly four-year Civil War. He had sent Lee messages offering terms of surrender, but Lee had only replied as to what these terms would be. Grant’s reply was to give little hope of prolonging the struggle, but to surrender Lee’s army to prevent the loss of another life. Then on the morning of April 9th a messenger from Lee presented a letter that asked for an interview in accordance with Grant’s offer. “I was still suffering with the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured,” he wrote in his memoirs.
General Robert E. Lee knew that from the moment his army evacuated the defenses around Petersburg on April 2nd his soldiers could not survive without plentiful food to recover from the months of starvation in the trenches. He had watched his gallant army win battle after battle, or survive defeats intact since May 1862 against odds that would have destroyed another force, but now he knew the end was near. There were only some 28,000 soldiers remaining in the Army of Northern Virginia, and they were heading west towards Appomattox where supply trains waited for them. If they reached them and were fed, he would point the army south towards Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee in North Carolina. But Union Army cavalry under General Philip Sheridan got there first, captured and burnt the trains, and blocked the way. When word of this reached Lee’s headquarters he knew the end was near. He and Grant had exchanged letters on the subject of surrender, and Lee suggested a meeting between the lines. When news of the arrival of three Union Infantry Corps to further block the way reached Lee on the morning of April 9th, he realized the retreat of his beleaguered army had finally been halted. He stated the inevitable, with such emotions few men have ever known. “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths” he said to his aide.
Wilmer McLean can truly be said to have a war begin and end on his property. A wholesale grocer and a retired major in the Virginia Militia, he was too old to return to active duty in 1861, but on June 21 the Union Army attacked the Confederate forces near McLean’s Yorkshire Plantation in Manassas, Prince William County,Virginia. Fighting spilled over his property and a cannonball fired by Union artillery dropped into his fireplace. When the battle was over, McLean decided to move because his commercial activities of supplying sugar to the Confederacy were centered mainly in Southern Virginia, and the presence of the Union Army in Northern Virginia made his work next to impossible. He was also determined to remove his family from such a dangerous area where a combat experience could easily reoccur, endangering them and his property.
In the spring of 1863, McLean and his family moved 120 miles south to Appomattox County, Virginia near a small crossroads community called Appomattox Court House. But on April 9th, 1865, the war came again to knock on his front door when a messenger from General Robert E. Lee requested the use of McLean’s home to meet with General Ulysses S. Grant. McLean reluctantly agreed. There the two Generals and their aides met, and Lee surrendered his army to Grant in the parlor of McLean’s house, effectively ending the American Civil War. The generous terms allowed the Confederate officers to keep their side arms, and the soldiers to keep their horses, which they would need for the spring plowing. When Lee left to announce the surrender to his troops, officers of the Union Army entered McLean’s house and began to take souvenirs, tables, chairs, and various other furnishings that they could get, handing the protesting McLean money as they made off with his property. Later, a disgusted McLean is supposed to have said ‘The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
McLean’s house is now part of Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Footage of the historical reenactment staged for the 125th anniversary of the events at Appomattox Court House (see Reel 2 here). (Local Identifier: 79-HFC-23)
And what of the weary men of both armies, what were their thoughts and emotions on that Palm Sunday of April 1865? As they sat and watched the Confederates wheel in line by regiments to face the oncoming last onslaught of the Army of the Potomac, one Union officer was surprised to see that there seemed to be more battle flags than soldiers in the Rebel ranks, so few men were left in the Army of Northern Virginia. He thought that the entire army had turned to poppies and roses in the April breeze. Then an officer in grey rode out with a white flag to confer with Union officers and the men in Blue saw the Grey and Butternut ranks begin to stack arms and rest. Many times these armies had paused to take a look at each other across the fields, before the battle. Now the Stars and Bars were about to be furled for the last time, and both sides realized that they would live to see Easter and experience its mysteries. One Union soldier sat and looked at the Confederates across from them, and thought that it seemed too bad that after all their bravery and fighting skill, it had come to nothing but surrender. Another Yankee from the 77th New Hampshire skirted around the picket lines and entered one of the rebel camps. There, he later recalled with a glow, that he was treated like one of them, no different than if he had been wearing grey. After four years of war, there was a stillness at Appomattox.