Appomattox Court House Pano

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

In the predawn mist of Sunday, April 9, 1865 two exhausted armies faced each other across the fields surrounding the small village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  For the past week the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee commanding, and the Army of the Potomac, Ulysses S. Grant commanding, had engaged in a running campaign west from the trenches of Richmond-Petersburg where they had faced each other for the previous six months.  The Confederate Army had been in a race for its very survival ever since.  Lee's first objective had been Amelia Court House, where much-needed rations were supposed to have been delivered.  Disastrously for Lee's army, no rations were found upon their arrival.  Lee had no choice than but to continue running west, Grant's forces hard on his heels.  Starving and exhausted, what remained of Lee's force arrived in the vicinity of Appomattox during the day on April 8.  Grant, however, had beat them there.  When the Confederates arrived they ran into a strong force of Union cavalry which was quickly being reinforced by infantry.  After a series of quick and unsuccessful attacks, in an attempt to push the Federals out of their way, the armies fell into camp the night of April 8-9 while the generals discussed their options.

For General Lee, there really were only two options.  Grants ever-increasing forces were now blocking his path.  He had nowhere else to go.  He could either go down fighting in an all-out attack, one that would almost certainly be catastrophically bloody and futile, or he could do the General Grant to discuss terms of surrender.  General Lee could not see the value in what Grant had previously termed "a useless effusion of blood."  After calling a final war council Lee voiced to his generals that "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths."  As the mists slowly lifted that April morning soldiers of the Army of the Potomac watched as a lone rider came towards them from the Confederate lines bearing a white flag of truce.

The letter was addressed to General Grant but Grant had not actually arrived yet in Appomattox.  The Union general had been waging his own battle against a debilitating headache the previous few days.  Lee's letter reached him about five miles from town and, upon reading it he later commented, "I was still suffering with the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured."  He quickly penned a note back to Lee:

"General R. E. LEE:

In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by U. S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General."

Grant would also do Lee the courtesy of allowing him to choose the location of the meeting.  The courthouse at Appomattox would have been the obvious choice but, as it was a Sunday, it was closed.  Instead, a stately home just down the road from the courthouse was selected.  This was the home of one Wilmer McLean.  McLean was originally from northern Virginia and had, in fact, been living at a farmhouse in Manassas, Virginia when, in 1861, the first major battle of the Civil War was waged in part right outside his front door.  Eager to move his family as far from the dangers of war as possible he settled in Appomattox in 1863 where he hoped no army would ever pass.  Thus, by a strange twist of fate, it has been said that the Civil War "started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor."  The general and their accompanying staffs arrived at the McLean home just before 2:00pm.  The surrender was discussed, revised, and signed within the hour.  Shortly after 3:00pm General Grant and General Lee stepped out onto the front porch of the McLean home, shook hands, and parted ways.  The Civil War, while not over, was at the beginning of its end.

Over the following days the formalities of the surrender were carried out.  On April 11th the Confederate artillery was assembled and surrendered.  On April 12 the bedraggled, starving, but still-proud remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia marched into town to stack their arms and battle flags.  In a dramatic display of soldier honoring soldier, General Joshua Chamberlain ordered the surrounding ranks of Union troops to salute their former adversaries.  The Confederates, more than a little shocked at this display of respect, returned the salute in kind.  The paroling of the Confederates then followed, a process which lasted until April 15.  In all some 28,231 soldiers of Lee's army were paroled.  Terms of their parole were simple.  Soldiers of the southern army were to simply return to their homes and refrain from ever again taking up arms against the United States.  As noted previously Appomattox, though not the official end of the war, marked the beginning of the end.  On April 26, the other major Confederate Army still in the field, under General Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Durham Station, NC.  By the end of June 1865 armed resistance in the south had ceased.  After four bloody years which cost the lives of more than 620,000 men, the Civil War was over.

Today, Appomattox Court House National Historic Park preserves 1,774 acres of the original townsite and portions of the battlefield.  The town itself was relocated in 1892 from its historic location to its present location, about 5 miles west along the all-important Petersburg-Lynchburg rail line.  The Park Service took over management of the old town site in 1935 and set about restoring or reconstructing many of the original structures, including the McLean home and the original court house.  Today the village contains over a dozen structures which date back to the time of the surrender.  You can walk through the McLean home in its entirety and stand in the very parlor where Grant and Lee signed the surrender.  Appomattox Court House now stands as a fantastic window back to, arguably, one of the most momentous days in our country's history.  Come on along with me as I explore this amazing park...

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