History friend Mel and I found a place to stay on Airbnb in nearby Lynchburg, VA. Lynchburg is a really cute city and the loft we stayed in was a refurbished shoe factory. It looked old and historic on the outside and was right on the James River. Actually, it was a fantastic location and we enjoyed the few places in town we visited. I would consider living in Lynchburg. [ Please note, it was named after John Lynch in 1757, and *not* because people got lynched there…just clarifying because I had this conversation with someone.]
We arrived at the Court House on the 9th of April just after a reenactment of Lee’s surrender to Grant. (I noted with some sadness it was not Al Stone of Lee’s Lieutenants.) We spent the rest of the day weaving in and out of clusters of people while looking through the buildings. There was a lot of history to absorb while avoiding people and horse droppings. The National Park Service was the designated authority on this site, and between herding people and answering questions, they too were discussing the historical events and aftermath surrounding Appomattox. Park Rangers make me so happy.
There was a bell ringing ceremony, where a bell of some significance that I can’t recall was rung solemnly four times, once for each year of the war, while bells tolled across the nation. The person ringing the bell was also descended from someone famous/important. Afterwards, all of the generals lined up on the steps of the McLean house for photographs. It looked very historical. Well done, generals.
We had the chance to take a quick tour of the McLean house. It was quick because the line was long and the Rangers pushed us through at a brisk pace because of the volume of people. The rangers/guides were able to provide a lot of information on the house and the surrender. (It is also ironic to note that I used to live by McLean, VA and felt like I was following Wilmer McLean’s journey.) The room where the surrender happened looked just like the famous painting by Tom Lovell.
After the house, we went through the Union encampment and engaged in conversation with two infantry soldiers of the Irish Brigade, First Division, 2nd Corps under Gen. Thomas Meagher. We ran into them at a Christian Commission stand. They were obviously there for the lemonade and a place to sit that wasn’t in mud, but had a lot of information about what the Christian Commission did: provide food, coffee, clean socks, but no medicine. The CC’s modern day equivalent is the YMCA, which surprised both me and Mel. I would have said they sounded like a precursor to the Red Cross because of the coffee/noms duties. The soldiers themselves were more into WWI an WWII reenacting, but the Appomattox 150th is an event no one wanted to miss. They had a lot of strong opinions on the Surrender (especially Grant’s leniency) and how Reconstruction could have been a lot different, especially in modern times (Ferguson, MO was a hot topic at the time.)
Some other miscellany of the day included playing with a printing press that had been set up to print replica parole passes. After the surrender, the former Confederate army received passes that guaranteed unmolested travel home. We got our own replica passes, printed on lined paper, so I guess I can say I have one now?
The museum itself had a pretty good display and flow of information, considering everything had been retrofitted inside an original Victorian-era building. I was sidetracked by an older gentleman, Joe Spence, who, unprompted, gave me briefly a life story of his great (2x or 3x) grandfather of the same name who was in Stonewall Jackson’s second brigade. He was quite friendly and insisted on exchanging contact information. He had a large sticker on his chest that said he was an actual descendant of an original Appomattox participant, and he had a photocopy of his ancestor’s unit’s muster list as proof.
Outside the Court House building, a Confederate band had stopped for a rest and were playing several tunes. The rest of their unit was set up on the steps and looked just like a period-appropriate photograph. I love historical vignettes.
Then there was the very enthusiastic guy with a go-pro camera who wanted pictures. He had been waiting for this event for a loooong time. He was from North Carolina somewhere (asheville?) and wanted me to take his picture. Then he really wanted a REALLY good picture as his last shot before the battery died, so I suggested he take a picture of a Park Ranger because they’re the ones who were really making the event work. He almost tripped over himself in excitement and ran to the first park ranger he saw, a very bemused woman who asked where he was from because “I like to know where I’m going.” Then the camera died, the Tarheel went to locate his family, and the Park Ranger sort of shook her head and kept walking.
Mel and I took our leave of the Court House after a fun and history-filled day, headed back to Lynchburg. Upon recommendations from our Airbnb host, we had dinner at the Depot Grille across the street, a place which lived up to its strong referral, then went back to the apartment to get ready for Day 2. Stay tuned!