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Suggested Trip

Relive the Closing Days of the Civil War


A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Four years after the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the American Civil War came to a close in the sleepy town of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.  On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all US forces.  Appomattox Court House National Historical Park interprets the closing days of the Civil War with over a dozen historic buildings, a visitor center with a museum that shows an introductory film, and a bookstore.  

As I left my vehicle and strolled along the gravel pathway towards the town it was like stepping back in time to 1865.  I was quickly surrounded by picturesque landscapes, and the noise of traffic and modern-day life faded away.  To begin my tour I headed towards the visitor center housed in the reconstructed Appomattox Courthouse building.  On the particular Saturday afternoon I visited, a National Park Service ranger politely greeted me and offered park brochures.  The ranger provided a brief orientation and presented the day’s schedule of guided programs that included living history and ranger lead talks.  If you think it’s possible that any of your ancestors were present at Appomattox at the time of the surrender, the park offers a free research service that could help you find them.  Although the park is compact in size, there are many options for exploration.  I quickly realized that I was in for a treat and would need several hours to fully experience the park’s offerings.

I made my way to the second floor of the visitor center and began in the theater.  The 15-minute orientation film, produced in 2014, is excellent.  It provides an overview of the final days of the Civil War and the details surrounding the surrender.  The film also highlights the important contributions African Americans made at Appomattox.  In addition to the theater, a modest-sized exhibit space is also on the second floor and incorporates text panels, an electric map, and many period artifacts directly associated with the site.  One artifact I found particularly moving is an original letter from a soldier to his mother written while he was severely wounded on the nearby battlefield just prior to the cease-fire and surrender.  I recommend setting aside 45 minutes for the visitor center before moving outdoors to explore the village.

I decided to visit the McLean House first.  Originally constructed in 1848, the surrender took place in the home’s parlor.  In addition to hosting the greatest generals of the Civil War, the McLean House has an interesting history in its own right.  In 1893, the masonry home was dismantled by speculators.  The plan was to relocate it to Washington, DC and make it a tourist attraction and museum.  The scheme never came to fruition.  Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument was created by Congress on April 10, 1940.

Although the McLean House is a reconstruction, it nevertheless provides an appropriate setting for contextualizing the 1865 surrender.  I noticed that period paintings and drawings most often depict over a dozen men gathered in the parlor as witness to the surrender.  It seemed to me, though, that the parlor is rather small, so it must have been a very intimate setting for such a momentous event.  A tour of the upper level and ground floor of the home helped me imagine how how life in rural Virginia would have been in 1865.  

The McLean House is a self-guided tour, but several National Park Service volunteers were available  to answer my questions.  A small kitchen and slave quarters are located to the rear of the home, as was often the case in Virginia during the Civil War era.  After studying the exhibit  about slavery and African Americans’ participation in the Civil War, I visited the slave quarters, a small, two-roomed, wood-frame building.  Compared to the 19th century “luxury” of the McLean House, the conditions of enslavement were inhumane.

I was also able to visit the Clover Hill Tavern, an original building from 1819, where the US Army printed thousands of parole passes for Confederate soldiers immediately following the surrender.  These passes allowed Confederate troops to return home and obtain food at US Army-controlled stations throughout the south.  To the rear of the tavern is a bookstore with an excellent collection of Civil War related publications and Appomattox memorabilia.  I visited in summer and could easily explore the entire park and all of the buildings, but be cognizant as some of the buildings are “authentically” not air-conditioned.

Just a 30-minute drive from Lynchburg, Virginia and approximately an hour from Charlottesville, Appomattox is an ideal location for a day trip.  After visiting the park, you can continue learning about the Civil War experience at The American Civil War Museum just two miles away.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is comprised of many original historic structures along with several reconstructed buildings on approximately 1,700 acres - including the site of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee.

Robert Kelly

Robert Kelly is the President of the Fort Monroe Historical Society and serves as Vice-President of the American Friends of Lafayette. Robert and his wife reside on post within historic Fort Monroe in 1875 Officers’ Quarters. When not researching, writing, or lecturing, Robert enjoys boating the Intercoastal Waterway and visiting Third-System fortifications across the country.  

January 9, 2020

Main image: Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, all photos by Robert Kelly
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