The Trip to Appomattox:
Kenyon's "Civil War Hat Guy" visits a famous "Court House"From the time I was in grade school onward, the Civil War has been a significant feature of my life. I barely remember when I first cracked a tome of my father's and learned the names Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. It was in high school that I began wearing a kepi--a military cap with a flat, round top and a visor--purchased on my first trip to Gettysburg. My classmates called me "The Hat."
Despite this, I continued to sport it in Gambier, where friends stuck me with the moniker "Civil War Boy." (I no longer wear the hat.) At Kenyon, people I didn't know would question me about the war, which was fair: I spent the last fourteen months of my college career studying it for my thesis. My admitted fanaticism drove me to take several trips to historical locations and then, after graduating, to Northern Virginia.
Last year, I finally took advantage of living in Washington, D.C., to see a major Civil War site. I had already been to Arlington Cemetery, Lee's home, and Fort Ward (a defense-of-Washington fort where I now volunteer). But on a Saturday early in spring, I journeyed farther afield to Appomattox Court House, the small rural village where, on April 9, 1865, Lee was cornered by Grant and surrendered. Most history books will tell you that the war ended here, regardless of the several months of continued fighting.
I'd lived here in Washington for half a year by then, but this was the first time I'd left the beltway heading South. That was getting embarrassing, because the close proximity of so many sites was one reason I told myself I'd moved here. The trip was different from any I ever took before, as for once I didn't need to rush. When you live in Maine, as I did growing up, or study in Ohio, as I did in college, going to a Civil War battlefield requires being free for several days. At Kenyon, I remember meeting a fellow student who grew up in Gettysburg and almost resenting her for "stealing my birthright."
This time I could skip parts of the itinerary and just say I would come back to see them (and not mean sometime years into the future). In the past, I'd raced the sunset at some battlefields. On a trip to Richmond, Virginia, I'd sneaked out to Dewrey's Bluff and looked around after the sun was long down (which is illegal) because I was leaving town the next day. Now, I was only trying to beat a forecast of rain. It turned out to be fortuitous that I lived close because it was still a day-long trip. I was gone for fourteen hours (ten of which were actually spent touring), covering the 125-mile retreat route, which took me all over backwoods Virginia. It was a great day; I love returning to my natural element.
But, man, there was nothing out there. Dirt roads that only went a few hundred yards into big fields but still had state route numbers. Narrow paved roads with fifty-five-mile-per-hour limits that took sudden right-angle turns without warning. Sleepy little towns of a handful of rundown stores struggling to survive. And dogs running loose everywhere. I even saw a pig wandering down the road; he didn't even flinch as I flew past him. Now that, to my mind, is the South!
The sites on the route were, for the most part, just pull-offs, so I simply sat in my car and listened to a tape. At a few places there was an old building or two. These are not famous sites; I didn't see another visitor until I reached Appomattox itself. Most were just little spots where a handful of units had grappled as the last few men to be killed in the war met their fate. They were grim encounters, where the Union forces won a key crossroads or captured a railroad. Although not particularly significant in themselves, these skirmishes closed options for the retreating army. They were strategic maneuvers that cut the Army of Northern Virginia off from its preferred route, forcing Lee farther west to the sparsely populated lands of Appomattox County. I had never followed an entire campaign before, only battlefields. It required a different type of thinking, watching as Grant checked Lee's maneuvers, often just in time to stop him from running South to combine with another Rebel army.
I finished up at the surrender site, where visitors can wander around the little rebuilt nineteenth-century village. It was amazingly realistic (I think it helps that it's in such an isolated area). At dusk, I looked back at Appomattox, and there, from about a mile away, was the black and white photo I knew, only it was in color. You never get that anywhere else. I would call it the best site I've ever visited.
It was also the first big Civil War attraction I'd toured since I spent more than a year conducting research on death in the war for my comprehensive exams in history. Now, I found myself thinking along different lines--less about the armies and more about the men. The scope of my thoughts had matured. Of course, Appomattox was different, too. There was no battle there, so there is no military strategy to study; there's just the story of men.
What I kept thinking about was the Rebs. I would guess that, even as they were witnessing the destruction of their once proud army, they had to imagine that Lee was going to get them away. I would have. Their faith in him prevented the army from dissolving. He had worked miracles so many times before; the army had an almost divine faith in his ability. Because of him, they pushed themselves to the limit of their endurance. They were marching more than thirty miles a day--and marching day and night. They stopped to fight when they had to, and they usually took it in the teeth. And they did all this on almost no rations; they ate horse forage. It is the story of an army on retreat while their country is collapsing.
These were not all veteran soldiers, either: some were bureaucrats forced into service when Richmond, the Confederate capital, fell on April 2, 1865. They fought in fighting as tough as there was in the war. Their battles were fought without artillery support, in situations so bad their Union attackers urged them to surrender because they could see no reason for them to fight on. They were civilians with guns, but they believed in Lee. At some point they had to realize it was over. And then Lee surrendered, and they knew it. I think it was so devastating not because they had lost the war--they probably knew in their hearts that it was coming long before, and most in the ranks were not much concerned about policy--but because their hero had been beaten. It took the will to fight on out of them.
The Rebels had been forced to the edges of civilization. In 1865, the population of Appomattox Court House numbered just one hundred and fifty, and it was the only town in the county. The woman working the drive-thru at the local Dairy Queen told me it is just seventeen hundred strong today. Grant had pushed Lee into a no man's land, with few roads and perhaps fewer people. It was not land that could support a dying army. The accounts of the retreat tell of men slowly breaking down as they marched on empty bellies, gnawed by pain, of weakened friends collapsing on the side of the road and left behind. It was a death march. With the Federals blocking the roads that could get him to where he wanted to go, Lee accepted the inevitable and gave this town the fame that drew me to it. At the end it was purely a question of survival for the Rebels. Exhausted and hungry, they were impressed by the kindness of the Yankees in sharing what food they had once the surrender occurred. It was the first step toward national recovery.
It is said of history that it repeats itself. I have often mulled the truth of that statement. I see some parallels with the Civil War and other points in history. I also see differences, which is nice because I wouldn't want to owe the Stafford Loan people the money that I do and realize I'd wasted those four years of college. When I started reading about the Civil War, I thought I was experiencing it. I was young, and the stories were enthralling. My parents didn't understand my fixation, but they shrugged and bought me the books I wanted. It was years before I went to one of the places I had read about. As I studied the war during my years at Kenyon, my goal changed to understanding it. That process cost it some of its luster for me. At Appomattox, the fascination with the war returned, even as I took strides toward understanding it.
Noah Seferian, who pursued a double major in history and political science and a minor in philosophy at Kenyon, graduated with honors in history with the Class of 2000. He also won membership in Pi Sigma Alpha, the national honorary society for political science. A native of Gorham, Maine, Seferian is currently a data analyst for Lexis-Nexis in Washington, D.C.
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