It’s just a place. Nothing special about it. Rolling hills, small farms and lots of sky. A place that just happened to be in the way, so to speak. Like a lot of places where famous events, especially battles took place, they weren’t picked ahead of time and agreed upon. Appomattox is essentially the place where the Army of Northern Virginia ran out of steam.
Appomattox Court House (two words, meaning the court house instead of one word meaning a town name) is beyond Lynchburg out in the middle of all that beautiful southern Virginia farm country. It is an unlikely spot.
It was originally a stagecoach stop much like Abingdon or Jonesborough. When the railroad was built a few miles west, the town, the importance of the place, the reason for its existence, dried up overnight.
Blame the railroad for shutting off Appomattox Court House, but give it credit for bringing the town of Appomattox to life. Since those days bypasses have rent destruction on countless small towns.
At Appomattox Court House, the court house is not the central focus of the history. The war across Virginia funneled this direction without any purpose other than to keep on fighting.
The surrender of the army itself was all that was negotiated and signed in the McLean House. This became a place of monumental importance to the soldiers doing the fighting, their families waiting for their return, and the place that stopped the conflict.
The opposing generals met in a space not much bigger than two parking places, with ordinary furniture, a couple of windows (opened to let in the spring breeze?), two small tables, and a carpet under assault from 14 pairs of boots.
Outside, in the sun, almost within in sight, over 80,000 hungry, tired soldiers paused hoping perhaps that they will not have to fight, again. Probably turkey vulture and black vulture hung in the breeze, sniffing the trailings of these huge death machines.
Two signatures and a handshake.
It was over. You had to believe that all the soldiers were relieved. I suppose they felt like they should continue but both sides were worn out. The Confederates were running on fumes and it must have been bittersweet to stop but the eventual carnage would have been just senseless.
Four years of wiping out a generation of men in endless blood baths followed by endless funerals and crying and sadness. It was time and here was the place.
At Appomattox Court House, the world knows what Lee and Grant did, no matter what they might have said. Grant was honorable enough to recognize the Confederate soldiers now, rather suddenly, had lives to live and families to attend. It was time to quit killing and get on with living.
There was still a conflict to be solved. Not just over slavery in the immediate, but rather when does a union hold together and when does it not? When is it right to throw off the bounds of government that Jefferson talked about?
These conflicting concepts haunted the still young United States and maybe still do today. Why do I think the boys in blue and in gray probably did not carry the contradiction around in their heads as they were pushed through the night, hungry, tired, in a part of the world they barely knew existed? But the surrender at Appomattox Court House was, as we know now, more of a pause.
There is a peculiarity to this place. As monumental as any in the United States, right here reminds us of such awful times and lionized bloodletting. Yet, it must have been a quiet place. No planes. No cell phones. Wind in the trees. The smell of wet forest, hay and a few cows. Wonderfully beautiful blue sky, like today.
Places like Appomattox Court House don’t elect themselves to host monumental events. Valley Forge comes to mind as well as Shiloh, Little Big Horn River, Dayton, Normandy, Birmingham, Khe Sanh and Shanksville. Nobody asked permission.
Events, decisions, opportunities brought people to places. It is people who memorialize those places because our own need to remember and our own need to remind future generations.
Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.