APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE — Walk along the red dirt remnants of the Richmond-to-Lynchburg stagecoach road here, the quarter-mile from a tiny Confederate cemetery to the place of surrender in a private parlor, and carry with you the thought of Robert E. Lee. Astride his horse Traveler and dressed in a resplendent uniform, the lionized general rode away from Appomattox on this road on a Palm Sunday 150 years ago finally beaten, a knot of Union officers silently saluting him, his starving Confederate soldiers giving him a rousing cheer as he approached, then crumbling to the ground in sobs as he passed.
Think of Ulysses S. Grant, in a soldier’s shirt, spackled with mud, riding this road after writing and presenting to Lee the simple, generous terms of a surrender that would begin the generations-long process of binding the nation’s wounds, this the same man who had to corral personal demons of the bottle before conquering the rebels in battle.
Yet on your short walk amid the scent of fresh-cut hay, carry also in your reflections Jesse H. Hutchins, an infantryman who enlisted in the Confederate army days after the opening blasts of Fort Sumter, survived through four years and dozens of such brutal battles as Gettysburg, gave the last of his loyalty, in vain, during a skirmish on this battlefield, and lay now in that small cemetery, about 400 paces from the place of surrender and 690 miles from his Alabama home.
Mythologized figures haunt this land. Yet, the story of our Civil War and its climax are often best revealed in the hopes and horrors of the grunt soldier, the anxious townswoman, the slave.
The Appomattox Court House National Historical Park understands this.
Tucked among the rolling hills of central Virginia, the park succeeds in walking the visitor through the trauma and drama of April 9, 1865, including the frenzied events leading to — and the poignant ones following — the surrender of Lee’s Confederates. And it captures not only this tiny town’s immense place in history but also the sense of the fraying fabric of lives a century and a half ago.
Two miles long, the park has as its bookends the sites of the field headquarters of Lee and Grant, but its centerpiece is the preservation and reconstruction of the original hamlet of Appomattox Court House. [The village of about 100 residents was abandoned three decades after the war; the present-day town is 2 miles southwest of its namesake.]
The rebuilt original village has a half-dozen historically precise structures, including a tavern-inn, a store, and the courthouse, which serves as the park’s visitors center. Across from the courthouse is the McLean House, the site of the surrender.
The battle was more mad marathon sprint than another blood-soaked fratricide. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, having been stretched 53 miles thin to the point of fracturing in a nine-month siege, had fled Petersburg, the final sentry to the Confederate’s capital of Richmond. His only hope was a desperate flight from the pursuing Union army — now four times the size of his — to join Confederates in North Carolina. At Appomattox, he was to meet a train packed with food for his starving men, who were marching 30 miles a day and melting away, exhausted, into the countryside. However, a Union cavalry unit under George Custer got to the supply train first, seizing it and blocking Lee’s escape.
One last desperate charge by Lee to break through the US cavalry line on the morning of Palm Sunday briefly succeeded, until tens of thousands of Union infantry reinforcements arrived.
Lee had little choice but to look for a place for a meeting with Grant.
Wilmer McLean, one of the few townsmen to stay in Appomattox during the battle, reluctantly offered his parlor. The furnishings of the room are faithful to that fateful day, including the stately marble-topped table where Lee sat and the spindly wood table brought in for Grant. On the mantel lay the doll of 7-year old Lulu McLean. Union officers nervously tossed the doll among themselves as they awaited the proceedings, calling it their silent witness to history.
At 16 by 20 feet, the room is so small it’s hard to imagine it could hold such luminaries as Lee and Grant, plus the contingent of 15 or so Union officers, including Robert Lincoln, whose father would be dead six days later.
Along the lone stagecoach road outside, three days after that surrender, the ragged remainders of the Confederate army would silently stack their rifles. For anyone versed in the history of Civil War, reimagining this scene here is humbling.
“Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and suffering, nor the fact of death . . . could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect,’’ said Union General Joshua Chamberlain, Bowdoin professor, hero of Gettysburg, victim of six Confederate bullets over the course of the war, and the man designated to accept the rebels’ arms.
Said the man who led the surrender, General John B. Gordon, himself shot through the face in 1862 at Antietam: “As my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes — a token of respect from Americans to Americans.’’
The battlefield also yields nuggets of history compelling on a more personal level:
■ McLean had moved his family to Appomattox, as he related, in search of a refuge from the war. His previous home was 150 miles to the north, in Manassas, and the first major battle of the war was fought upon his fields. He was, in effect, a witness to the birth and the death of what many considered a second American Revolution.
■ Hutchins would live through the most horrific days of the war, only to die in a brief skirmish at his campsite. He would be one of the last of about 620,000 Americans to lose their lives in the war.
■ Thomas Tibbs, a Confederate lieutenant, would find himself upon familiar turf on that day. After fighting the Yankees over the fields of northern Virginia for months, he would at last lead his men in battle across his family farm at Appomattox.
These stories and dozens of others are offered in a series of intimate exhibits in the visitors center. The park also offers talks by rangers and living history actors, including rotating portrayals of a townswoman, a Union soldier, and a Confederate soldier.
As you reach the McLean House along the stagecoach road, seek out the story of Martha Stevens in the adjacent slave quarters. At 13, she was a slave of the town’s merchant and the nurse for his baby. Told to prepare for Armageddon on the day of the battle, she had hidden with the baby in a ditch as soldiers a few feet away fought the war’s last pitched battle.
After the cannons quieted, a soldier with a white flag spotted her in the hollow and halted.
“Little girl,’’ he said, simply. “It’s all over now.”
Michael Bailey can be reached at email@example.com.