Separated by 213 miles and almost two years, the battlefield of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Appomattox Court House in Virginia must be two of the most significant sites of the American Civil War, a war that ravaged the country for more than four years from April 1861, and cost more than 700,000 lives (a higher proportion with respect to population than any other conflict in which the USA has been a belligerent).
If they know anything about the Civil War at all, many people will have heard of Gettysburg, an unexpected and unplanned battle that took place in central southern Pennsylvania over three days from 1 July 1863, and just over half way through the four year struggle. And remembered not just for President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on 19 November 1863 (of which more later). Gettysburg was perhaps the pivotal moment of the war in favor of the Union, as Confederate General Robert E Lee’s invasion of the North faltered and he retreated south back into Virginia.
Appomattox Court House will perhaps be less familiar. It’s the site, in central Virginia, where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lt. General Ulysses S Grant’s Army of the Potomac on Palm Sunday, 9 April 1865. The surrender came after one of the last engagements of the war (in which Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry played an important role). And while the war did linger further west for a couple more months, it was effectively over when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
During our recent road trip through ten northeast and Atlantic states, Steph and I took in both Gettysburg and Appomattox Court House.
I have been interested in American Civil War history for quite a number of years, and take the opportunity, whenever possible, to visit historic sites. I made a special beeline for these two sites on this year’s road trip. I wasn’t sure whether Steph would be as keen as myself, but she assured me that the visits were equally interesting to her. Made more so, I believe, by the excellent facilities, exhibits, and literature provided by the National Park Service (NPS) of the US Department of the Interior (doing a great job despite the ‘attacks’ on its budget by the current Trump administration).
The bloodiest battle
The Gettysburg battlefield covers a huge area (map), and more or less surrounds the town of the same name which, in 1863, had a population of around 2500, quite sizeable for that era.
The first engagements began to the northwest of the town center, when Federal (Union) and Confederate units ‘collided’. Over the next three days, the battle spread south and east. While much of the terrain is rolling and open, wooded areas provided cover for units on both side from which to attack. And in a couple of places such as Culps Hill and Little Round Top, the armies clashed over steep and rocky terrain.
The attacks and repulses on both sides were savage, and attrition rates high. For example, the First Minnesota regiment lost 85% of its men dead or wounded in one day during Gettysburg, the highest of the war.
The only other major battlefield I’ve visited before was the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, where Custer’s 7th Cavalry was defeated by an alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876.
Gettysburg is on a far greater scale, and monuments (some small, some very large indeed) to the dead and wounded of many regiments are scattered but numerous right across the battlefield.
Our tour of the battlefield took about four hours. Rather than follow the recommended chronological route, taking in the locations of the battle as they unfolded, we headed first to Culps Hill where there is an observation tower that gives an excellent view over the entire battlefield. Another tower, on the west side affords views over sites where the Confederates were dug in, near the Virginia Monument (a huge statue of Lee on horseback) and near where the disastrous Pickett’s Charge by Confederates on the Union center was repulsed on 3 July, and Lee was forced to withdraw.
It was a bright sunny day on our visit, a quiet morning that was so different from what was experienced 156 years ago. It was very moving as well. In this video you can experience something of what we did during our tour of the battlefield.
Our final stop was the Soldier’s National Monument where, on 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, just 272 words long (POTUS 45 could learn something from Lincoln’s brief but telling oratory).
Lincoln had arrived in Gettysburg by train from Washington the previous day (exactly 85 years before I was born), and stayed overnight in David Wills’ house in the town square, just a block from the station.
The Confederates surrender
Two days later, we were at Appomattox Court House, which lies a couple miles east of Appomattox Station (town). Yes, there is a county court house there, but it was a small settlement that had grown up before Appomattox itself.
There are more than 30 buildings on the site, some original and some reconstructed (the NPS clearly indicates which). But the fact that some buildings are reconstructed does not detract in any way from the importance and significance of the site.
The court house was originally built in 1846 but burnt down in 1892; it was reconstructed in 1964 and is now the Visitor Center which houses an excellent museum on two floors.
The most significant building however, is the McLean House, a fine residence over three floors with outhouses for slaves, where the deeds of surrender were signed by Lee on 9 April 1865.
This house is also a reconstruction. After the surrender ceremony was over, and Lee had returned to his army to announce the terms of the surrender, Union officers relieved the McLeans of many pieces of furniture, including the two tables at which Lee and Grant sat. Today, these original tables are carefully preserved in museums, but the McLean House has faithful replicas on display. The poignancy of the surrender room, the front parlor, cannot be underestimated.
Wilmer McLean was a well-to-do farmer who had brought his family west after the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, the first of the Civil War. His farm was in the middle of the battlefield. Four years later, he was again surrounded by conflict—and peace! He is reported to have stated: The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.
Grant offered Lee generous terms of surrender. Soldiers of the Army of North Virginia were paroled, allowed to return home, and even take their horses with them. Paroles were hastily printed in the Clover Hill Tavern just across the street from the court house.
However, the optimism of peace was shattered less than a week later when Lincoln was assassinated by secessionist sympathiser John Wilkes Booth in the Ford’s Theater in Washington.
During our trip we saw two very different aspects of the Civil War. But the war is not just battles and statistics. It’s also about people. The average age of soldiers on both sides was 20. They were mostly single and Protestant. Many came from farming stock. In one way, the Civil War is unique. It’s probably the first war that was fully documented photographically. Not only do we know the names of the soldiers who served. We also have recorded, for posterity, their likenesses in early photographs.
I’m currently reading this excellent book published by National Geographic (that I picked up, secondhand, in St Paul for under $10). And the human cost of war is certainly brought home in the various accounts and anecdotes retold therein.
After the war, there was (as might be expected) considerable analysis and introspection about the causes of the war, its conduct, outcome, and why soldiers served as they did. The NPS has put together three excellent pamphlets which I have combined in the image below (just click to open a larger image).
In two road trips, this year and two years ago when we crossed the Appalachians from Georgia through Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, I have traveled through much of the territory where the armies of the Union and Confederacy came to blows. It’s unforgiving terrain, and the thought that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many poorly clothed, with ill-fitting shoes (or no shoes at all!) tramped backwards and forwards across these hills at the behest of their commanders fills me with awe and horror. This short video, taken from the top of Brasstown Bald (the highest point in Georgia) is typical of the terrain over which much of the conflict was fought.