This is a little bit late, but better late than never, I say. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my birthday than by taking an extended weekend trip to Appomattox Court House and going absolutely nerd-wild. Can you?
Keep reading behind the cut…
On the morning of April 9, 1865, after a brief but losing battle at Appomattox Court House, Robert E. Lee formally surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the Federal forces and headquartered with the Army of the Potomac. Grant had chased Lee all through central Virginia, at every turn cutting off Lee’s retreat further south. By separating Lee’s forces from supplies and reinforcements, Grant guaranteed his superior forces would prevail. Lee knew the end was near and chose to surrender rather than sacrifice his few and dwindling forces for no profitable reason.
Later on April 9, Lee and Grant met in the sitting room of a house belonging to Wilmer McLean (who had fled his home in Manassas when fighting broke out four years before). The terms of the surrender were lenient, meant for restoring good will between both sides as fast as possible. (It was congress under Andrew Johnson who were set upon exacting revenge from the South.) Grant let the Confederate army keep their horses (it was planting season), gave them a bite to eat, and told his own men to refrain from overt celebrations. General Chamberlain, USA, even ordered his troops to salute the valiant enemy while said enemy stacked their arms for the final time before going home.
Fast forward 150 years, and Appomattox Court House was once again bustling, but of a totally different nature as history nerds from all over the country descended upon the town to commemorate the Sesquicentennial.
The Powers That Be had been preparing for this weekend for literally years. New traffic lights and sidewalks were installed in anticipation of the volume of tourists. Police and security personnel from multiple jurisdictions were working together to direct traffic and ensure everyone got where they needed to go. There was a continuous stream of shuttle buses taking people to all the stops – the Court House, the reenactment/vendor site, the Museum of the Confederacy, modern Appomattox, and the various parking sites along the way. For what it was, the 150th had really good infrastructure and the organizers ought to be commended.
History friend Mel – who shares a love of Col. Chamberlain and all things history – and I took a four-day weekend to go participate in events and conclude the previous Sesquicentennial commemorations that we had been following for four years.
It was a little weird to see how the event had been commercialized: for example, the nearby WalMart had giant banners of Lee’s and Grant’s faces, with some cannons placed in the parking lot corner. Or the street lamps with smaller banners of Lee’s and Grant’s faces each emblazoned with “The Long Road Home,” which was the theme of the weekend. But I suppose if any place had a right to turn an event into an Event, it would be Appomattox, especially on the 150th anniversary of the event that made them famous.
“The Long Road Home” definitely puts a sepia-colored lens of nostalgia over the conflict, but I think it was fitting for the participants who spent years, innumerable hours, and thousands of dollars winding up for this event, who will get home, look at all their gear they have to wash and put away, and then wonder what they do next. But until we get to that point in my narrative, we can appreciate the research, organization, and dedication of countless volunteers that made this event possible.
Hopefully this weekend sparked new interest for history in some and rekindled the flame in others. It was educational from the historical perspective and it was educational to see all the different ways in which people chose to experience the weekend. The next several posts document my experience. Stay tuned!