Appamattox Court House National Historical Park

Location: Appamattox, Virginia

Webpage: National Park

General Description: During the winter of 1864-1965, General Grant continued to put pressure on the Confederates under General Lee at Richmond and Petersburg.  Over the spring and summer the Union army had forced Lee to protect the Confederate capital at Richmond and began the process of cutting off all supplies to the city.  This began to the east of Richmond and the capture of City Point which became Grant’s supply center for materials and men from the sea.  Rather than attacking Richmond directly, the plan was to cut off all supply lines to the Confederates, which meant the capture of Petersburg to the south where all rail lines, except one, converged.  This forced Lee to protect both cities and stretched his man-power very thin.  Over the fall and winter Grant began the encirclement of Petersburg, systematically cutting off the railroads and roads leading into Petersburg from the southeast and south.  When the South Side Railroad was taken at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Lee knew it was time to leave.  The Confederate Army vacated Richmond and Petersburg and proceeded west with plans for these forces to converge at Amelia Court House where supplies and food would be waiting.  The plan was to turn south into North Carolina to join with the Confederate army under the command of General Johnston.  However, General Grant anticipated this strategy and set out to block the Confederated from turning south.  Thus began a week long running battle between the two armies.  Significant clashes occurred at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek and Battle of High Bridge on April 6, where once again Lee was stopped from turning south along the railroads.  Lee had no choice but to continue west towards Lynchburg with Meade and Sheridan nipping at his heels and Grant attempting to get ahead of the Confederates to cut them off.  On April 8, the Union cavalry under the command of General Custard managed to do just that capturing Appomattox Station and the Confederate supplies that had been brought there from Lynchburg.  Thus, the Union army blocked the Confederates from the west, south and east and the James River to the north effectively boxed in the Confederates.  On the morning of April 9, Lee attempted to break out to the west believing he was facing only cavalry along the post road.  He was initially correct and began to sweep the cavalry out of the way.  However, in a forced march all night from Farmville, the cavalry was soon joined by two corps of infantry that once again blocked the road.  By this point General Lee knew he was trapped and refused to accept advice from his staff or the standing order from President Jefferson to dissolve the army into small bands of guerrilla fighters.  Instead he choose to surrender to General Grant and for the last several days had been trading communications with Grant as the condition of his troops continued to deteriorate.  For his part, General Grant had recently met with President Lincoln at City Point and believed in Lincoln’s wish to simply end the conflict and not punish the soldiers or officers.  To simply allow them to return home and end the war.  Thus they needed a location to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate Army and since this was all agricultural land the only location was Appamattox Court House, which at the time consisted of about 100 residents and a dozen buildings, including the court house.  While Appamattox Court House is known as the locations where Lee surrendered, the court house itself played no role in the surrender, only the name of the town where its most wealthy citizen lived, Wilmer McLean.  McLean had the distinction of claiming he witnessed the beginning of the Civil War in his front yard at the first Battle of Manassas in 1861, at which time he moved to central Virginia to escape the war only to witness the end of the Civil War in his parlor.  While this is not technically either the beginning or the end of the Civil War, this is still quite a story.  In any case, he offered his parlor for the historic meeting between Generals Grant and Lee on the afternoon of April 9.  Lee arrived around 1:00 in the afternoon and Grant around 1:30.  After exchanging pleasantries about the Mexican-American War that they both served in, Lee asked they get to the matter at hand.  Grant wrote out his terms of surrender in the form of a letter to Lee in pencil and handed it to Lee for his approval.  After making a minor, but important, correction to the terms, which Grant accepted, he wrote a letter in response accepting the terms.  This was done in the forms of letters because any formal document, such as a treaty, would in essence recognize the Confederates as a separate nation that could be negotiated with, instead of a rebellion against the American government.  Simply put, the terms required all officers to sign a parole for he and his men that they would no longer take up arms against the government (notice again the implication that this was a rebellion and not a war between two nations) and the arms, artillery, and public property was to be stacked and turned over.  This did not include private property, such as side-arms, baggage, or horses.  This last concession was especially important since most of the soldier’s horses were brought with them and were essential to their livelihood once they returned home.  Finally, each soldier would be allowed to return home, “not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside”.  This in essence pardoned every officer and soldier, so long as they returned home.  The soldiers were also provided rations and subsequent orders provided public transportation and rations at federal posts for anyone carrying the pass.  Thus Lee and Grant began a very long process of reconciliation and reconstruction following the Civil War, which might had been more successful if President Lincoln was not assassinated a week later.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) Appamattox Court House was a small rural town at the time of the Civil War, providing much needed legal services for the county along the post road between Lynchburg and Richmond  This was it’s only claim to fame.  In fact, soon after the court house burned down in 1892, the town was abandoned in favor of the new town and courthouse in Appamattox, a few miles away along the railroad.  The old courthouse was reconstructed in 1963-63 to serve as the Visitor Center for the National Historical Park.  Inside there is a very good film about the Battle of Appamattox Court House and Lee’s surrender along with numerous artifacts from this important time in history.  I should note, that at the time of the surrender everyone on both sides wanted souvenirs, from the officers to the soldiers.  The tables used by Lee and Grant, along with the chairs were taken by Union officers, an apple orchard where General Lee was resting while awaiting word from General Grant was completely destroyed by soldiers wanting a piece of the wood, and regimental flags on both sides were cut up for souvenirs.

VisitorCenter

2) The National Park Service has reconstructed some of the homes, offices, and stores so the Historical Park looks much as it did in 1865.  The most notable is obviously the McLean House, which has it’s own strange history.  Although McLean was a wealthy man during the war, it was all in Confederate money, which quickly became worthless following the war.  The house, by then known as “The Surrender House” was sold in public auction in 1869, just 4 years after the war.  In 1891 it was purchased by Captain Dunlap of Niagara Falls, New York who, along with a group of investors, took the house apart with detailed plans with the intention of reconstructing it as an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.  When this fell through along with a later scheme to move it to Washington D.C. to become part of a museum, the house was left to rot in a pile of wood and brick in Appamattox.  Thankfully they had made detailed plans for the rebuilding of the house and although little remained except for some of the brick that could be used, the McLean House was reconstructed beginning in 1941.  However, World War II interrupted the efforts, so the house was not finished until 1949, when it was opened to the public.

McLeanHouse McLeanParlor

3) Other reconstructions include the Meeks Store, Woodson Law Office, Clover Hill Tavern, and Appamattox County Jail.  For each they have added period pieces, including small printing presses set up in the Tavern where they quickly printed the passes for the Confederate soldiers.

Town

4) A short drive east brings you to the site of Lee’s headquarters, which is nothing more than a spot in the woods as the Confederate army was here for less than a week before leaving for home.  There is also a nature trail maintained by the local SAF Chapter who painted and labeled many of the trees along the trail.  You can also take an extended hike from this location to Grant’s headquarters to the west.

LeeHeadquarters

5) A short drive west brings you to the Confederate cemetery along a ridge where the Union cavalry positioned its cannons on the morning of April 9 to attempt to block the Confederate army.  From here you can easily see the McLean House and Appamattox Court House about a mile to the east.

Battlefield

6) There is also the location of Grant’s Headquarters, which is really not correct since Grant did not arrive from Farmville until the morning of April 9 as he rode to meet Lee and he left for Washington D.C. on April 10 to inform President Lincoln of his victory.  He left the details of the surrender and parole to his subordinates.

GrantHeadquarters

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