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The emotion of Appomattox

Posted: May 1, 2014 8:33 a.m.
Updated: May 2, 2014 5:00 a.m.


(Note: this column first appeared in 1990.)

I know, this newspaper isn’t a history textbook, but I can’t help myself. I have to write another Civil War column.

Some time ago, I wrote about Gettysburg. Attempting to explain the fascination many southerners still hold for the War Between the States, I wrote, “It’s not because we’re still fighting the war. It’s because we feel so deeply about those who did.”

I have since found out there are many Kershaw County residents who indeed share that feeling.

Last month, when I visited Appomattox Courthouse, Va. -- where the war ended, for all practical purposes -- the pall that hung over that small village was so overpowering that I felt as if I had moved back in time to 1865, and Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant might come riding over the hill at any time.

There was really no particular reason for the armies of the North and South to be at Appomattox in the spring of 1865. Clearly, the tide of war had turned against Lee and his soldiers by then. Two years earlier, at Gettysburg, the South had nearly achieved a victory that well could have led to two separate nations.

But after Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge failed at Gettysburg, Lee was forced to retreat to Virginia. A year passed, and his army and Grant’s northern soldiers lay encamped around Petersburg for nearly another long year before the Union soldiers finally prevailed.

Lee again was forced to retreat, but this time he didn’t get far. The boys in blue cut him off at Appomattox Courthouse. Bullets flew; the Union won once again. Tired, hungry and weary of war, Confederate foot soldiers told Lee they were ready to keep fighting. But the great general saw the handwriting on the wall.

On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, Lee met with Grant in the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House. Ironically, McLean had moved his family there from Manassas in northern Virginia, site of two battles -- Northerners recall them as the Battles of Bull Run, Southerners as First and Second Manassas -- in order to escape the fighting.

Grant’s terms of surrender were generous. All Confederate soldiers were paroled and allowed to return home. Those with horses could take them, too. Officers were allowed to retain their sidearms.

But it’s not the strict historical facts which make Appomattox so impressive -- and so emotional. It’s the human interaction between members of two warring armies that is so touching.

When Confederate soldiers laid down their arms at Appomattox -- literally they did this, stacking their rifles -- they marched between long lines of Union troops who had gathered for the occasion. There was little whooping and shouting from the men in blue, as might be expected. Instead, the federal troops saluted their adversaries as the Confederates marched into Appomattox to put down their weapons for the last time.

Eyewitnesses said that at one point, Lee and Grant met on horseback for a half hour. They sat next to each other, Grant on his mount and Lee on his famous Traveler. No doubt their conversation was moving.

Appomattox is an emotional place. It’s impossible to go there and not feel a churning in the pit of your stomach. If you doubt that, listen to Lewis Anderson, a long-time Camden resident who visited Appomattox only a few days before I did.

“There is an aura of sadness there,” Anderson told me. “I got there early in the morning, about 7 o’clock. It was quiet. I felt a deathly stillness. I went to Grant’s headquarters and then to the Confederate graveyard. I went over to the old highway and looked down towards the village. It was foggy and there was dew on the ground.

“It was an awesome thing, this feeling that I had, thinking about the Southern soldiers and how they stacked their arms and the northern soldiers saluted them. It was a very reflective situation.

“I sat down and I felt like crying. You know, there’s nothing wrong with crying. My heart was feeling what my eyes were expressing.”

I can’t add anything to that.



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