No matter where you stand politically, it’s hard to argue that we are not watching history unfold before our eyes. Traveling around Virginia, “the grandmother of all states,” Jeff and I are learning so much about how history has shaped and continues to influence even over a hundred years later. Just a few weeks ago, Jeff and I visited Appomattox, a small, historic town where General Robert E. Lee surrendered the south in the American Civil War thus ushering in a whole new chapter of American history.
About thirty minutes outside of Lynchburg and ninety minutes from Roanoke, Virginia sits Appomattox, a tiny town named for the Appomattoc Virginian Indian tribe who were originally associated with Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father. But it is also a major railroad depot connecting Lynchburg to Petersburg. (The more you know!)
That particular rail line became instrumental in the Confederate surrender at the end of the war. General Lee’s plan was to transport his army south by rail toward Greensboro, North Carolina after facing defeat after defeat. But Federal troops stayed hot on their trail, arriving at Appomattox on April 8, 1865 and started the Battle of Appomattox Station. The Union captured all of the supply trains cutting off any relief for General Lee and his men. The Union chased the Confederates up the Lynchburg Stage Road, and it was obvious the war was over.
Before I go into the town of Clover Hill or Appomattox Court House, I do want to mention a couple places of note inside the town itself. We did think there would be things to do in Appomattox, but what we found were only a few shops and one restaurant called Granny Bee’s. Most of the other attractions mentioned in the visitor’s center revolve around being outside and on the James River.
However, right next door to Granny Bee’s was Baine’s Books and Coffee. Not hungry for lunch yet, we stopped into this used book retailer and had some delicious coffee as we browsed the shelves. Known for their live music events, Baine’s has a huge collection of LPs, art, and knick knacks for the tourist or local. It was a really fun place to hang out in for a bit since two floors of this converted town home were all book shelves filled to the brim.
However, the real reason we were in Appomattox was not for the books or coffee; it was for the history. About 3 miles east of the town is the National Park where Appomattox Court House sits.
What I learned: When “Court House” is two words, it means “town,” but if it’s one word, then it’s the actual building of a “courthouse.” Once I was told that, it became a lot clearer as to why many towns around the area were called Court House.
Along the 3 mile stretch between the downtown area and the historical site are several places to pull over and either walk or observe the park. The first was the North Carolina Memorial. It was a short walk from the small parking spot over to the stone tablets detailing the North Carolinian soldiers who fought in the final battle on April 9, 1865.
It was a beautiful and very brisk day when we visited the area, but it did make us wish we could see the park in the spring when we weren’t gunning for the warmth of the car. But outside we would remain because right across the highway from the NC monument was the Confederate Cemetery.
In this small site, 18 Confederate soldiers are buried, six of whom are unidentified. They all died in the last two days of the Civil War, including one unknown Union soldier buried as well. But more than 100 men died in the last battle of Appomattox. One man buried in this site was Jesse H. Hutchins. He enlisted immediately after the war began at Fort Sumter, and he died 24 hours before the war ended. The graves were marked with Confederate and American flags to denote who fought for which side.
The path or roadway that leads from the small cemetery to Clover Hill (aka Appomattox Court House) is the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. This was the road General Grant road up to meet General Lee at the McLean House for the surrender.
We hopped back in the car and made our way to the National Park Service location for the small museum on site and tour of the McLean House, but what we found was Appomattox Court House, being a small village or town, has several little buildings to explore and see. The McLean House is only one.
We managed to catch a tour just as they were starting, so we got to hear our guide go into the history and function of the town. And our first stop was the house. We walked the 100 meters (give or take) over to the gorgeous and restored, two story brick home and walked where the famous generals did.
The room is mostly preserved or made to look like it did on April 9, 1865 when General Lee and General Grant spoke for several hours before the South surrendered. Recreations and enactments occur every spring to bring history to life depicting when the Confederate soldiers were told to leave their weapons, but they could keep their horses.
Our tour concluded, and Jeff and I walked over to the small, preserved house that held many, many pictures of soldiers as well as a recreated set up of the printing press that supplied the Confederate soldiers with their pass.
What was funny to us was that inside the McLean House, the original furniture is no longer there where the dueling generals sat, but we had seen the original chairs and desk just a few weeks before in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian.
We did walk through the small museum on the upper level of the main National Park Service house, and it was quite informative. The short film that plays every 30 minutes was also incredibly insightful and helpful in putting everything we had just learned and seen in context.
The grounds of Appomattox Court House are stunning with the perfectly manicured lawns, the wild woods off in the distance, and the quiet solitude of not many visitors in the winter.
If you find yourself in central Virginia and you’re looking for the Civil War Trail, this place cannot be missed.
Note: In between the downtown area and the historical site, there is the American Civil War Museum, which looks to hold lots more information than the NPS site; however, we didn’t make it before closing time. When we go back in the spring, we plan on visiting this site to learn more about the battles that happened so close to our new home.