The Appomattox Campaign: A Lesson in What You Know and What You Don’t

By Megan McNish ’16

The saying “you learn something new every day” has always held true for me, but little did I know at the commencement of my internship at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park just how true that could be. As a student of the Civil War, I believed that I had a firm understanding of the surrender at Appomattox Court House, not in the sense that I pompously believed that I was an expert, but rather, that I grasped why General Lee was in a little town in South Central Virginia. However, from the first days of my training at Appomattox Court House, it became clear that my knowledge was greatly lacking.
My education, since arriving at the park, on the Appomattox Campaign taught me that after abandoning the lines at Richmond and Petersburg, General Lee hoped to drive south and join forces with General Johnston’s army in North Carolina. As Lee pulled his men out of the cities, General Grant split his armies, sending one behind the Confederates to nip at their heels as the other moved around the enemy’s flank. The opposing forces met in numerous engagements between Petersburg and Richmond and the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Sailor’s Creek was one of the engagements that resulted in disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates suffered losses of close to 8,000 men, including wounded and captured. Among the captured were eight generals, including Richard Ewell and George Washington Custis Lee, General Lee’s son.

After the fighting at Sailor’s Creek, the armies continued west, with Lee seeking supplies at Appomattox Station. On April 8, 1865, his army met General George Custer’s cavalry at the station. In the resulting Battle of Appomattox Station, the Confederates were driven back towards the town of Appomattox Court House. By this time Lee knew that he had only two options, to surrender outright or attempt another assault in the morning to open an escape route. Thus on April 9th, Fitzhugh Lee and John Gordon attacked Federal cavalry in the final battle in the eastern theater, the Battle of Appomattox Court House. After initially opening the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, Federal infantry came in support of their cavalry west of town and closed the road, leaving the Army of Northern Virginia surrounded on three sides. By this point, General Lee understood that he had no choice but to surrender his army and contacted General Grant asking to meet him to discuss surrender. That afternoon the two generals met in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean and after an hour and a half the Army of Northern Virginia was no more.

Though this account is in no means thorough, it is more than many history books say about Appomattox. So many believe that there were no casualties at Appomattox Court House, the surrender took place in the courthouse in Appomattox, and April 9, 1865 is the day the Civil War ended. The fact is that there were casualties at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the surrender took place in a private home, and there were still armies to be surrendered after April 9th.

So many of us, including students and scholars of the Civil War, are not exposed to this information about the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the preceding campaign. Without it, understanding the close of one of America’s bloodiest wars becomes nearly impossible, but that is what training here at Appomattox Court House is for. Today I look back and wonder what it would have been like being stationed at the McLean House or the Visitor’s Center without having this sort of in-depth training. I know that I would not be able to take my place in the rotation five days a week and feel comfortable without it.

2 thoughts on “The Appomattox Campaign: A Lesson in What You Know and What You Don’t”

  1. Megan-

    You’ve made the “complete” story of the surrender of Appomattox come alive in a way that is both easy-to-understand and interesting. Bravo!

    Hope you’re having a great summer!

    Paul Felice

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