I grew up near Gettysburg and as a result, have a soft spot for Civil War battlefields. Sure, it seemed like there were school field trips there every other year, but it was also a popular destination for our family – tired of the pool all summer long? We’d head over to Gettysburg for the day where we’d find entertainment.
On a recent trip to Lynchburg, I realized how close to Appomattox we are. I mean, I knew this because I had been there once when I was pregnant with Edie, for a meeting concerning the elementary school the architecture firm I was working for at the time was working on, but I had never been back. It was also at this moment, I realized that while we’ve driven through numerous battlefields (Wilderness, Manassas, Antietam and yes, Gettysburg) countless times, I’ve not actually done any tours of them with Edie. Clearly, I needed to amend that. And while I cannot remember to pick up milk at the grocery store, the date Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox is blazed upon my memory, so I realized the 150th anniversary of that date – April 9, 2015 -would be during her spring break and wouldn’t that be a fabulous thing to do, to go visit Appomattox Courthouse on the anniversary? Surely there would be events going on to commemorate this.
I’m not entirely sure she agreed, but Edie was willing to play along and when asked what she was doing for spring break, I’d hear her share this item with people, all of whom replied with enthusiasm as to how cool that was and I think eventually it caught on. Sort of.
We spent the night following our adventures at VMFA and the Confederate Chapel with our friend Ryan in Richmond and headed out towards Appomattox the next morning. On the road, we found ourselves behind a jeep with the Robert E. Lee Commemorative License plate and what appeared to be a rolled up Stars and Bars flag in the rear. I felt pretty surely we were behind a reenactor (which he was) and so proceeded to follow that vehicle the rest of the way to Appomattox and into the satellite parking lot the thousands of visitors were being shuttled in from. We proceeded to spend the rest of the day bumping into this fellow, so eventually I introduced myself and we discovered his name was Mark, he lived in Alexandria, interned at Fort Sumnter, and has been to at least a few of these events. I also had Edie take my picture with him, so that we didn’t seem like we’d been stalking him since halfway from Richmond, which we pretty much had been.
But I get ahead of myself.
We parked in the muddy field (it had been raining for a few days, including some big storms that came through the night before) we had been directed to park in and hopped on one of the continuously running shuttles the National Park Service had brought in – our bus was from Chinatown in NYC. The day itself was chilly, damp and overcast, but we didn’t get rained on while we were there.
Walking through the parking lot, we played the license plate game – of course Virginia was represented, as was Maryland, both Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Alaska – and that was just the row we had parked in.
Seated on the bus, I heard the woman in front of us speaking with her daughter – clearly, they had planned this trip for months and I suddenly felt woefully under prepared with my ‘hey, let’s go to Appomattox next week and just check it out’. They were rattling off which events they were most looking forward to and how they were going to find each other in the crowds at these events. Behind us, I could hear several reenactors talking about their various experiences celebrating the Sesquicentennial events at all the various battle sites over the last four years. It was fascinating – apparently, the weather at Fort Sumter was divine, Manassas was just plain gross and Antietam was the most authentic experience of them all, because there were no nearby town lights to obscure the night sky. Several of them were looking forward to the stacking of arms that was going to conclude the weekend as well.
When we got to the actual park, our lack of a plan become evident. We just sort of wandered aimlessly, taking in the sights. A good number of the thousands of people there were in period costume – as I walked around snapping photos, Edie was horrified. I assured her, people who came to events like this in costume wanted their pictures taken. She was not buying it. She may have tried to lose me in the crowd at least once. Thankfully, she was wearing her leopard print rain boots, so all I had to do to find her was to look down.
We got in line to view the McLean house – the site of the actual surrender. Little did we know, we were the last people they allowed in before shutting it for the Governor’s tour and the reenactment of the surrender. Turns out wandering around aimlessly without a plan landed us in quite a good spot to watch the main show!
Lee’s surrender to Grant was reenacted in real time. The National Park Service was doing a live feed of the ceremonies on their website – we watched a ranger pull aside a soldier nibbling on his hard tack to talk to the folks watching around the world (there was a shout out to viewers in Germany!) about said hard tack and just general life of a soldier stuff, while standing around waiting for Grant to arrive, a half hour after Lee (as happened historically). There was much standing around, with the Union soldiers keeping everyone within the prescribed areas, which was off the path Grant was due to ride in on. I may have been scolded by more than one soldier as I confusedly wandered about with my camera, stepping into that path repeatedly. While I protested we still had time for the arrival, my companion was once again horrified.
After Grant entered the building, the soldiers closed ranks on the fence around the house, dispersing the crowd a bit, prompting us to wander. We had just spent a good hour and a half standing around watching everyone walk into the house, nothing was slated to happen again outside for another hour and a half, so we headed over to some of the other sites around the village of Appomattox Courthouse. We saw more of the Confederate reenactors over there than we had previously seen (I guess because we were hanging out near two Union encampments). The grey uniformed soldiers seemed to be far more jovial than their blue suited counterparts (I guess their jobs were done?). It was about this time Edie realized that all these people I was snapping photos of were actually posing for them – that I was right, people dressed in costume for historical events really did want their pictures taken. I got her to pose with a group of Confederate soldiers who were having photo ops with anyone who asked. And then we ran into Mark again, so I got Edie to snap a shot of us.
As we wandered, we realized at least one of the ceremonies we listened to in the distance was the dedication of the new stamp. How about that? We got to see the Governor, a reenactment AND a stamp dedication ceremony all within the same hour. The line to buy them was horrendous, as were all the lines for everything, so we bagged most of the activities and decided to head back to the car.
In all my visits to Civil War Battlefields, I had never seen any reenactments and although we missed the battle reenactment, we did get to see the surrender. Hanging out, we learned all sorts of tidbits of history – like how Grant did not take the time to put on his dress uniform, as was the custom in those days, because he did not want to keep Lee waiting longer than he had to, which could be considered as rude. Of course, it was considered slightly rude he showed up in his battle blues, but I guess you can’t win them all, can you? It was fascinating to see so many people interested in the minutia of history and so many in the spirit of the original event. As we headed back to the car, we ran into friends of ours who had also decided to just go check it out for the day, so it was nice to see we weren’t alone in not entirely having a plan. (Also, how funny to run into the Hutters in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere and yet also, perfectly fitting we ran into them.) Edie thinks her father would make a great reenactor – something to do with facial hair I think – but I suspect it’s her way of saying she thought the whole day was pretty neat. I definitely see some more historically flavored field trips in our future. Maybe even in a hooped skirt….