The Layers of Appomattox Court House History I
Bill Long 6/12/11
In Honor of Jon Hagmaier, Interactive Achievement
While on my recent trip to SW Virginia I had the pleasure of joining a former student, who now heads a significant company in Roanoke VA, on a trip to Appomattox Court House VA, the place of Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysees S. Grant's Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865. Most school children know of the event, but the fact of the surrender is all that most people, and not just children, ever know. My interest in visiting the site was to see how and what the place would teach me more than 145 years after that event. I was not only interested in a thick description of events surrounding that fateful day in 1865 but in events both well before and after 1865 in Appomattox Court House. In short, I am fascinated by what you might call an "archaeology" of a place, and my interest is in isolating, describing, imagining and enjoying the various layers of history that give a place meaning--all the way from the founding of the place to my lunch at Granny Bee's in Appomattox on Saturday June 11, 2011. Aiding me in the "thick description" part of the task was a book that Jon, my student, bought me: The Surrender Proceedings, April 9, 1865 Appomattox Court House, a densely annotated account that provides copious, and sometimes difficult to follow, quotations from various individuals who wrote on the surrender events.
These two essays don't attempt to give such a thick description--it would take a book or more to do it. They do try, however, to identify the method that such an inquiry should pursue, with due attention to the questions that motivate the inquiry and some quotations or issues that enrich it.
I. Before Appomattox was Appomattox
The town of Appomattox Court House is of surprisingly recent origin. In fact, it was founded as Clover Hill in the second decade of the 18th century, and it grew up slowly as a stop on the Richmond-Lynchburg pike. At first, then, we have a story of farmers and an inn, an inn that provided rest and refreshment for travelers about a day's journey east of the terminus of the pike. Of interest also would be the growth of the settlement into a town, the change of name from Clover Hill to Appomattox Court House, derived from the name of a nearby stream, and the criteria in mid-19th century VA for forming towns. A guide informed us that decisive was the old English concept of the "hundred"--i.e., the state legislature would only honor a petition for a new town when the village population had risen to 100. Well, the site we visited became the seat of the county of that name in 1845, and its official name, Appomattox Court House, simply indicated that it was the county seat of that county. The plain but commanding court house building was erected in 1846.
Just three years after the founding of the town another inn was built near the Court House. It would later be known as the McLean House, the place where the surrender papers were signed on April 9, 1865. This higher class place enabled travelers of means not to have to mingle with the riff-raff who occupied the older public house. By the time the McLean's took over the inn, in 1862, and converted it to a private home, the economics of Appomattox Court House had dramatically changed...
II. Appomattox Court House--1852-1864
The second layer of Appomattox Court House history would only span a little over a decade, but it was decade that changed the fortunes of that little town. I suppose when the investors in the upscale inn built it in 1848, they thought that they would be richly endowed for many years to come. The only thing they didn't count on was the development of a new techonology or, better said, the redirection of that technology (the railroad) a few miles southwest of the Court House. The Norfolk & Southern completed its tracks 3 miles away from the "old town," and a new town of Appomattox rapidly grew up, leaving the pike town to fend for itself. Of course the "old town" didn't die or even decline overnight, but if we understand the effect of an interstate skirting a town in the late 20th century, we have a little understanding of the way that Appomattox Court House might have been affected by this change. No wonder the new inn couldn't survive, and the Wilbur McLean family bought it in 1862.
Much would have to be said about the Wilbur McLean family--that the family had moved from Manassas Junction VA in 1862 so that they could escape the ravages of the Civil War (the first volleys of war happened on their farm in 1861); that Wilbur had married a wealthy woman, who demanded a prenuptial agreement, regarding property; that Wilbur made a handsome profit off the war by shipping sugar from Caribbean plantations through Richmond to his farm and other places in the confederacy.
III. The Days of April 1865
But the largest section of our layered history would be devoted to the first 15 days of April 1865, where Lee's troops, famished and defeated after the breach of Confederate lines at Richmond and Petersburg on April 1 and April 2, made a hasty retreat West, trying to ouflank the Union troops to their south so that they could reconnoiter in NC with Johnston's troops and perhaps mount a (last?) stand someplace further south. That is, the Confederate troops were actually north of the Union troops as they headed westward towards Lynchburg. One plan would be to slice south someplace east of Appomattox Court House; if that failed the ultimate desire was to be restocked by provisions at the Appomattox station before high-tailing it to Lynchburg where other rail lines could take them south. But the further west the Confederate troops went, the more they encountered difficulty as the quickly moving troops of Ord, Grant and Meade met them first at Five Forks and then in a few standoffs to the west.
Finally, on April 7, 1865, where our enormously detailed book (cited above) begins its story, Grant and Lee began to exchange letters probing the topic of surrender. Among the topics this "layer" of the history would examine would be: (1) the exchange of letters: round 1 on April 7; round 2 on April 8; round 3 and 4 on the morning of April 9 until a meeting time and place was established at the McLean residence; (2) the determination of what made Lee, who was always so precise and straightforward in his language, to take a tack in letter 2 that seemed more evasive than usual (I think it was because he was trying to "buy time" to feel out Grant's approach to surrender more fully); (3) the determination of when, actually, Lee decided that it was futile to fight any longer. I believe this happened about 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 9, when he changed into his spanking new general's uniform and told his assistants that since he was about to become General Grant's prisoner, he might as well look the part of a general.
Care would also have to be given to: (4) understand the pre-surrender-conference skirmish on the morning of April 9. I think the skirmish happened because there were some in Lee's leadership rank (and Lee may still have entertained this hope) who believed that only the Union cavalry, which they could break through, stood between them and Lynchburg. In fact, Ord's (northern) infantry men had gone on a forced march in the previous 24 hours, covering nearly 40 miles, and met the Confederate troops not just with horses but also with bayonets; (5) then there is the usually ignored conference of the generals (not including Grant and Lee) at the Court House about 10 a.m. on April 9, which led to a cease-fire/truce until the "big guys" would meet and decide on surrender. The truce was a sensible decision, sparing unnecessary bloodshed while waiting the results of the conference.
The next essay gives the rest of the story.