Surrender at Appomattox Battlefield Tour Report

The Surrender at Appomattox: 150 Years 

Tour Report by Fred Hawthorne.


6 April 2015 to 13 April 2015


Day 1 – Monday, April 6th - British Airways flight 217 landed Dulles International Airpor on-time and the group were able to get through US customs and immigration relatively quickly. The weather was pleasant – sunny and fairly warm and we had a traffic-filled drive to Richmond, arriving at 6pm. Ice was broken at our first evening meal and I sketched out the week ahead over margaritas and beers.


Day 2 – Tuesday, April 7th - Weather forecasters had been predicting a stalled cold front and damp, disagreeable weather for several days and Tuesday, April 7 dawned overcast and as disagreeable as predicted. In fact we would not see a clear day again until the weekend. As a lot of our early trip required some walking I picked up some large umbrellas for use of the group and most took one on the walks for insurance. We arrived at the Richmond National Park Visitor Center and American Civil War Center just after nine am, and with so much to see between the two facilities we stayed almost until midday before departing. I'd planned to do a walking tour of Civil War Richmond then but with a forecast for heavy showers  I changed the order of the day and took the group to the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate “White House.”  

Following an excellent tour, and with slighty improved weather, we walked through the historic part of the city showing buildings that survived from the era and the fire that engulfed the southern Capital at the close of the war. No chance of fire this day as several brief but heavy showers brought out the umbrellas and sent us scurrying to the cover of friendly building overhangs. We ended up at the Virginia State Capital Building and I took the group in to see the old legislative chamber where the Confederate Congress sat for four years. Today, the hall contains statues of many southern leaders including Robert Lee – the latter standing on the spot where General Lee accepted command of Virginia troops at the beginning of the war.  We took a driving tour of the city’s sites such as Libby Prison, the old Stone House, the Edgar Allen Poe house, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial which overlooks the city and the plateau on which Chimborazo Hospital once sat - before heading through another downpour to our hotel and evening meal. 


Day 3 – Wednesday, April 8th was largely to consist of outdoor activities rather than city buildings and museums and it was disappointing to see the weather forecasters were absolutely correct with more light rain and overcast. But fortunately the steady and heavier downpours of the prior evening had subsided. Stops were made at Drewry’s bluff where we had a pleasant walk back to a very well preserved fortification overlooking the James River. Though the naval battle for this fortification occurred in 1862 it was still pivotal in the protection of the Confederate Capital during the last days of the war. I had promised we would return to the city to drive along the historic and scenic Monument Avenue. By the time we arrived the skies looked brighter so I asked if anyone would like to walk along this beautiful road lined with a wide variety of lovely homes dating from the early 20th Century. Of course the main attractions of Monument Avenue are the heroic size statues of southern heroes. So we spent perhaps forty-five minutes with a leisurely walk up one side of the avenue to each monument and pointing out to each other interesting architectural features of the old homes.  

Back in the car we drove out of the city to Cold Harbor passing the lonely grave of Confederate General A. P. Hill – plopped right in the middle of a busy Richmond intersection. At the Cold Harbor Visitor Center we viewed their well done fibre optic map followed by a hike along the wonderfully preserved Confederate earthworks. One of our guests, who had done an eastern Civil War trip with another company before and had visited Cold Harbor previously, was amazed they even existed and so close to the road his prior tour bus had been on. They were not pointed out to him then!  

Our goal today was to concentrate on some of the sites of the Siege of Petersburg NORTH of the James River so following our walk at Cold Harbor I drove to those sites via the 1862 battles, the New Market Heights battle area, Fort Gilmer, Fort Harrison and at Deep Bottom along the James River. The final stop of the day was at City Point – Ulysses Grant’s headquarters during the final campaign. Just as we left there light rain again returned and followed us on the short drive back to Chester.

Day 4 – Thursday, April 9th. This was the actual 150th Anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox Court House but we would spend the entire day at Petersburg. I had warned everyone that we had a full day ahead and would dine somewhere en route back to the hotel in the evening and to be prepared.  The day again was overcast but remained basically rain free following bad storms overnight. The weather was also noticeably warmer and more humid. Our first stop was the Petersburg National Battlefield eastern front area. Following the viewing of the park’s mediocre orientation program I conducted a walk around the first southern fortification to fall, Battery 5 then we drove to the site of Battery 8, now the site of a set of reconstructed field works which, following the rain, was a perfect example of muddy entrenchments. Two additional stops were made so we could walk the route of the Confederate’s last grand offensive at Fort Stedman, and a Union attack the preceding summer at the battle of the Crater.

At noon we left the National Park and drove a short distance to Blandford Cemetery and its church – now a Confederate Memorial Hall - where we were led inside by the docent who explained the symbolism of the various southern state’s memorial Tiffany glass windows. En route to the Pamplin Civil War Park I made a stop at the remote site where Confederate Lt. General A. P. Hill was killed during the final breakthrough of the Petersburg lines April 2. The small memorial back in the woods had recently been rededicated and I had to remove the memorial wreaths to allow all to see what lay underneath. We then drove across the road to Pamplin arriving about 1315. I briefly explained the vast expanse of the park and its various attractions, and all were left go to pursue their individual interest. However, I accompanied two of our guests on a 1.7 mile walk along the original Confederate defense works where the final Union breakthrough occurred.

At 3pm there was to be a nationwide ringing of church bells to commemorate the final surrender meeting of Generals Grants and Lee at Appomattox some one hundred miles west of us - although of course those of us on the walk could not hear these ceremonial bells!  I accompanied one guest on a tour of the on-site plantation home, Tudor Hall, where we both were nearly trampled in a stampede of sheep being put in the barn for the evening!  We though it best to beat a safe retreat to the main building where we located the rest of our party in the museum of the Civil War soldier or the book store. We drove back via an unscheduled stop at Union Fort Fisher – the largest field fortification in the Petersburg entrenchments. It was from this site that the final Union attack was launched that broke through Lee’s lines at Pamplin Park.

Our final stop of the day was to be the Five Forks battlefield and we arrived after the main building had closed. A short stop was made at the actual road crossing and a description given of the battle here and its impact on Lee’s decision to abandon both Richmond and Petersburg. I decided to avoid the evening traffic and return cross country using back roads.

 

Day 5 – Friday, April 10th. An early start this morning with a long drive west to get to the Appomattox 150th Anniversary commemoration. Heavy storms were predicted for the afternoon and As we left a dense fog had covered the region making visibility a problem for the first hour or so of our trip. However, we were able to follow fairly closely the actual route of Lee’s retreating columns and we spent most of the morning on Virginia’s back-country roads – some unchanged in the past 150 years save for some paving. Normally I would be providing narration to the group and navigational instructions to the driver, but being the driver on this tour too meant that I had to concentrate solely on the road! Anticipating this I provided written transcripts of each of the audio stops along the Lee’s Retreat tour route. Luckily all but one of the audio stations along the route were operating so brief stops were made at each and I supplemented the audio narration with my interpretation and elaborations.  By the time we arrived at Sailor’s Creek at around 11, the sun had come out burning away the morning fog. We stopped about twenty minutes at the new state park Visitor Center and then proceeded out on a short battlefield tour of the last major battle site of the Civil War – where fully one-quarter of Lee’s troops were killed, wounded or captured. 

The 150th Anniversary at Appomattox was to be commemorated at three entirely different sites organized by three different organizations. The National Park Service event was held on the actual Courthouse site, the Museum of the Confederacy sponsored an encampment of Confederate cavalry and artillery and the Appomattox County Historical Society was sponsoring a large encampment and actual reenactment of the two small actions that took place just prior to the surrender. With multiple site tickets for our group, we started at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmonds. This is a wonderful new facility that opened several years back and predominantly concentrates on the end of the war and artifacts related to the surrender. With an hour to peruse the museum itself, we were also able to witness an artillery firing demonstration and several group members took advantage of getting close to that and talking with the reenactors encamped on site. All-in-all this was an excellent event.

At 3pm we reconvened and immediately left for the Historical Society sponsored reenactment held on the site of a local industrial park. The Battle of Appomattox station scenario was to take place at 1600 and we wanted to see this before heading over to our hotel in Lynchburg.

The reenactment was a challenge as the rains of prior days made the site a veritable mud pit. It was not sponsored by the NPS but by a local historical society and at a farm not near the actual park. Unfortunately, their foolish policy of allowing reenactors vehicles to freely come in and out of the site made even walking a challenge. Intermingled with soldier tents were cars, trucks and other forms of motorized transport all cutting huge, muddy ruts in the ground. Another idiotic planning foul up had the battle site nearly a mile from the parking area - tromping through all the mud, campsites, and so on! Despite that we were able to view a decent Battle of Appomattox Station though it was a cavalry battle in reality and I personally saw less than a half dozen cavalrymen dashing around.  But such is the way of reenactments! All said they felt it was an enjoyable event and the threatened heavy rains never materialized.  Indeed - the evening was pleasant; the skies were clear and the air refreshingly warm. 

 

Day 6 – Saturday, April 11th. Over dinner the prior evening we had discussed the plans for the next day. A second and final battle reenactment was to take place at the Industrial Park at 11am and we decided to get up extra early, have breakfast and arrive when the site opened at 0830. That would allow sufficient time to wander through the small sutler area, roam around the encampments and make it to the reenactment arena. The plan was to depart immediately after this and head to the National Park where we would spend the balance of the day sampling the Park Service’s many activities.

The day was the best by far with temperatures in the high 70’s, plenty of sunshine and clear, blue skies. It was perfect. After a good breakfast, we were among the first cars to arrive when the reenactment site opened and were directed into a field that was absolutely abysmal. More heavy rains overnight coupled with the use of the field for parking the day before made it simply impassable yet their parking attendants – college boys with vests - directed us on it. Four wheel drive vehicles and some trucks plowed through the morass with no problem. Our van promptly bogged down and despite several parking attendants trying to push we were mired in hub deep with wheels spinning. Incredibly, the so-called "organizers" continued to try to ram cars through and did so even though all were getting stuck. We sat in amazement for an hour watching this fiasco until a tow vehicle arrived. Fortunately, being first stuck - we were first to be hauled out! Once they managed to haul us a quarter-mile to hard road pavement we made good our escape. During the hour we sat there chatting and joking about mud marches and the like - all agreed that was enough of that fiasco and decided to head straight to the National Park and spend additional time there. So “Plan B” was implemented.

The National Park Service’s organization was far superior and the parking attendants much more professional. Straw and sand were constantly being applied to that field when spots began to deteriorate and we had no further problem and spent a wonderful, beautiful, sunny and warm spring day walking around better laid out encampments, watching battle demonstrations, etc. One building had three presses printing parole passes as they had done historically. On the demo field infantry, artillery and cavalry movements and firings took place every bit as interesting as that at the actual reenactment site. At 11, the surrender of the southern Artillery was reenacted and this was really quite impressive. Later that afternoon, several thousand lined the old Lynchburg Post Road to watch the solemn laying down of arms.

Since no reenactment was planned for Sunday and we had all seen everything the National Park Service had put on during our extended stay there I surveyed the group and all agreed they did not need to return to Appomattox on Sunday.  So we returned to our hotel and after a quick break to refresh ourselves, walked the three blocks to the Main Street Eatery for our farewell dinner at 1930. All of us were impressed with the restaurant, atmosphere and food and we had an enjoyable evening discussing all of our experiences the past week.

Day 7 – Sunday, April 12th. With a late evening flight, we had a fair amount of time to work our way back to the airport so I suggested a plan for the day that the group readily agreed to, and which started with a hearty breakfast at a local pancake restaurant.  We stopped at Rivermont park on the outskirts of Lynchburg to view the remains of the canal packet Marshall which carried the body of Stonewall Jackson to his burial place in Lexington, Virginia. I opted to take the group along scenic Virginia 130 to Lexington which climbs over the Blue Ridge Mountains through the water gap created by the James River. A couple of impromptu stops were made for photographs at particularly scenic areas.

We arrived at Lexington about 11:30 and made a stop at the Stonewall Cemetery to see the famous soldier’s grave and then drove onto the campus of the Virginia Military Institute for a quick tour and a short visit to the museum. Returning to our van we drove over to the neighboring campus of Washington and Lee college in time for the opening of Lee Chapel at 1pm. We were given a tour of the chapel, the famous statue known as the “Recumbent Lee” and walked down into the burial crypt where Lee and his family members are interred today. Some time was allotted to see the museum and the office of the general left much as it looked the day he died.

Shortly before 2pm, we began the long drive north through horrendous Sunday interstate traffic. We had a stop for lunch in Harrisonburg, Virginia and then drove over to the entrance of the Skyline Drive – a scenic road along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several stops were made at scenic overlooks to view the mountains and the famous Shenandoah Valley. Coming down off the mountain we drove to the airport where I said farewell to the departing group.  

I believe the trip was a great success with all promised and published itinerary items covered, with an excellent group of friendly like-minded people on board. I hope that, with some modification, we will be able to offer this tour again in the furture as an alternative, more in depth look at the final stages of the Civil War.

 

View details of this tour - The American Civil War : Surrender at Appomattox

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