Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
Appomattox Court House.
The Place Where Lee Surrendered
McLean’s House and the Historic Apple Tree–Where Grant and Lee Met to Talk Over Matters. The Last Ditch of the Confederacy.
G. M. in Philadelphia Times.
What I take to be the common idea of the whereabouts of the out-of-the-way Court House and its apple tree is that they are lying around loose somewhere within an hour’s ride or so of Petersburg. At least that was my notion until I tried to get here. I had forgotten that when Lee left his Cockade City lines and that when Grant unleashed his army in hot pursuit the worn veterans of the one and the jubilant host of the other pushed westward on level land for five full days. So it was that when, with a fellow-traveler of chance acquaintance, I got out of the cars at Appomattox Station on the Southside Railroad I was surprised to learn that the smoke of busy Lynchburg could be seen on clear days just over among the mountains to the west. The station is a scraggy collection of stores, which apparently have more clerks than customers. The ride thence to the Court House is three miles northward, across flat fields and through thick timber. Until we issued upon the Appomattox Valley the only thing that relieved a trot otherwise tiresome was the sight of a score of little darkeys
AT PLAY AROUND A SCHOOL-HOUSE,
on the top of which sat the white-haired and strong-armed swinger of the hickory gad.
But as soon as we got out of the woods and drew near the village the whole surroundings took upon themselves that which forced our close scrutiny and admiration. The Court House landscape, made up of a little valley and its bordering hills, seemed to me to be as soft and pleasant a picture as one could wish to see. To the right from the roadway stretch rolling lands, and to the left are similar clearings with a plantation house a quarter of a mile distant, in the midst of its field. Beyond, and in the direction we were driving the road runs down a long declivity. At the foot of the hill is the Appomattox, and crossing this stream, here a mere rivulet, the road ascends at slight grade until it is lost to sight in the horizon line to the north. Up the valley are hillocky fields, and down the valley, which curves to the south, are hillside groves. Where we now rein in our horses to get a mental picture of the stretch of rolling earth Grant once stood, as with field-glass he scanned the tent-dotted slope whereon Lee’s last bivouac was made. The sunlight is soft, the sky is one of pearl, the air is perfumed with the breath of the pine, the oak and the locust, and far away rise the Peaks of Otter, pyramids of blue beauty, standing as sentinel towers hard by the gateway of the sun.
Slightly below the point from which we see these sights is the Court House village. It is snuggled up against the hill, half way down the slope, and is nearly hidden by shade trees. As we move on we pass a grave yard that covers less than a square rood of ground. Within the enclosure, as our driver tells us, are buried the last victims of Lee’s last campaign. The only slabs in the place of burial are wooden ones, and the only tombstones are such rude rocks as have been gathered from the highway. A few hundred yards further along the road we come to the McLean House,
THE PLACE OF SURRENDER.
and a moment later we hitch our horses in front of the Court House, in the heart of the little settlement.
It is plain at first glance that the village was built with an eye to the geometrical. The half acre of grassy ground in which squats the Court House is of octagonal cut and hedge. Four short streets form a square around the octagon and along the outer sides of the streets are the one hotel, the three stories and the thirteen dwellings that constitute the village. The Court House is a brick building of low pitch, in a grove of locusts. Stone steps lead in steep succession up to a porch, passing which, judge or jury finds himself in the hall of justice.
We went to the McLean house and were pleasantly greeted by its occupant, Mrs. N. G. Ragland. It stands, with slight change, as it stood at the surrender. In 1861 Wilmer McLean, a quiet citizen, owned a farm near Bull Run stream, in Prince William county. When on Sunday, the 21st of July, in that year the great armies clashed for the first time his fields were devastated and his home despoiled. He jumped at the conclusion that the war would be waged in front of Washington, and so, to get away from the fuss, he pocketed his household goods and moved southward to the untroubled hills of Appomattox. Strange does it seem that he should have beheld the first act and the last act of the war in Virginia, but it was immediately around him that the conflict had its beginning and end. He was at Manassas when the gay young rebel, sashed and plumed, gave McDowell that first sockdolager, and he was here at Appomattox when the same rebel–ragged, shoeless, shirtless, the recipient of a thousand blows–stacked arms forever. In Mrs. McLean’s parlor
GRANT AND LEE MET
to agree upon the terms of surrender. The house is a two-story brick structure, with a porch extending the full length of its front. It was intended originally for a tavern. The yard is a large square grass plot, bordered by six towering locust trees. A huge willow that stood at the time of the surrender has been cut away, stump and all. In the middle of the yard is a well of sweet water. The summer house that once covered the well is gone. At the edge of the porch are a number of geranium pots with flowers in bloom. The palings are white with a fresh coat of lime, and altogether the property is as neat and pretty as it is possible to make it. A wide hall leads from the porch through the middle of the house. It was with one room only–the parlor to the left of the entrance–that the commanders had anything to do. An alleged engraving of the historic conference hangs over the parlor door, but the villagers say that several of the Federal officers who show their fine uniforms in the picture were not present except in the engraver’s accommodating eye. The room would seat comfortably fifty or more persons. There is a window at each end and both windows are wide. The fireplace is screened by a pictured board. Around the room are portraits of Ragland and beauties and beaux, and while Mrs. Ragland’s furniture and ornaments make the historic parlor quite pretty they also make it commonplace. The big chair in the corner suggests tender courting episodes rather than
INCIDENTS OF HARD CAMPAIGNING.
A pleasant breeze was swaying the tops of the locusts as we left the McLean house and passed once more through the village, clear over which my companion swore that he could knock a base ball in sky-scraping curve. Here at this wheelwright shop fell the dashing Root, the last officer of the Army of the Potomac to die. Further along we see an oak and black gum, uninteresting of their own account, but which enable the villager to get the bearings of the now up-torn locust where Grant and Lee first met to talk. That spot is in an open field, about two hundred yards north of the Court House and well down the slope towards the Appomattox. When we forded that stream the clear, spring water flowing over sandy bottom did not so much as wet the hubs of our buggy-wheels. It is less than ten yards in width at this time, though in stormy weeks, when the red soil above takes to itself something of the fluidity as well as the color of blood, the rivulet truly swells into a river and passes eastward its one hundred and fifty miles to the James with rush and roar that tell of the highland bed wherein it was born. The source of the stream is three miles above–a spring that is visited daily by darkey boys who balance buckets upon their heads with as much dexterity as the thumb of the sweet swell at Long Branch throws into the twirl of his cane. The spot where
STOOD LEE’S APPLE TREE
is soon reached, as leaving the creek we go a part of the way up the slope and halt by a roadside orchard. Persons have said that the hole left by the removal of the stump is now visible. If so it is microscopic. The driver showed us “near ’bout” and “put nigh” the place where the hole ought to be. The day after the surrender the tree was removed, root and branch, by soldiers who wanted relics to take home to their wives and sweethearts. And as apple wood is apple wood, several other trees in the same orchard were cut up into relics also. This season a crop of oats was taken by farmer E. G. Hicks from the field, and September stubble now makes the whole hillside brown. It is true that Lee held a brief council under the apple tree, and the story of the tree is not a myth.
The weary leader was hemmed in on all sides. The thousand days of fighting were over and the one day of parley had come. The Army of Northern Virginia had spent its strength in many manoeuvres, in tireless marches and in terrific battles.
HUNGRY, SORE AND SICK,
the poor remnant of a once seemingly invincible host now, under the bright light of an April moon, slept its last sleep with the knapsack for its pillow. From the apple tree the rebel chief sent out his white sign of peace–a poor, torn rag, but how fateful! Riding down hill and across the stream he met Grant near the locust. County Clerk George T. Peers saw Grant and Lee meet. They saluted, chatted, touched hats, wheeled and rode in opposite directions. To appearances, it was an ordinary meeting of two mounted men. Soon afterwards Lee returned from the further side of the creek, and , with Grant, entered the McLean house. Then the vanquished captain rejoined his comrades, and under a poplar, now flourishing in its growth on the farm of J. W. Flood, one mile northeast of the Court House, bade farewell to battle-fields.
Here ended the long, fierce, pitiless struggle, which, in the record of the world’s wars vastly overtops all others. Following the lines of scarred earth from Manassas hither, a youth predisposed to carp becomes aware of the smallness of closet critics and of after-battle valiants. He feels that the war was waged under mighty impulse and that those who fought overcame obstacles to which the labors of Hercules were as the tricks of toys. The footprints of the grand armies will outlast the generation that made them, and grow to gigantic breadth and import for those who come after. Myriad graves border the grounds of combat, but peacefully above each battle-field the flag of the Union has its place.1
- “G.M.” “Appomattox Court House.” National Tribune 17 September 1881. 1:3-4. ↩