South Carolina: Hunley Legend Altered by New Discovery
For nearly 150 years, the story of the Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic has been Civil War legend.
And it has been wrong.
Scientists have discovered a piece of the Confederate submarine’s torpedo still attached to its spar, debunking eyewitness accounts that the Hunley was nearly 100 feet away from the explosion that sent a Union blockade ship to the bottom of the sea off Charleston in 1864.
Instead, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were less than 20 feet from the blast. And that changes everything about the story — and possibly even provides a clue as to why it sank.
“I would say this is the single-most important piece of evidence we have found from the attack,” said Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project.
Basically, Hunley conservators found a piece of the torpedo’s copper shell, peeled back from the blast, when they removed a century of hardened sand and shell from the submarine’s 20-foot spar. The torpedo was bolted to the spar, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the torpedo was planted in the side of the Housatonic with a barb like a fishing hook, slipped off the spar and then detonated by rope trigger when the sub was a safe distance away.
Instead, the Feb. 17, 1864, attack off Charleston was a dangerous, close-quarters assault that risked the sub and crew.
“This changes some things,” said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, longtime chairman of the state Hunley Commission. “They were much closer to the explosion than we believed, but I don’t believe this was a suicide mission.”
When the Hunley was built in 1863, it was originally intended to attack ships using a contact mine towed from the end of a long rope.
The idea was that the submarine would dive under a ship and drag the mine into its flank, by which time the Hunley would be safely on the other side of the ship.
After the towline got fouled in the Hunley’s rudder and propeller during a test run in Charleston Harbor, engineers decided to refit the sub with a spar similar to the ones used by ironclads, picket boats and Davids, which were low-profile stealth boats.
The engineering quickly evolved through trial and error. In October 1863, a David attacked the USS New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, ramming a torpedo into its flank. The blast didn’t sink the ship, but did serious damage.
The explosion also threw a plume of water into the air, some of which extinguished the fire powering the David’s steam engine. Jacobsen said that attack prompted Confederate engineers to refine their method of attack. If the main thrust of the blast was up, the mines would have limited success hitting the side of a ship. They would do more damage if they were planted under the ships.
The Hunley was equipped with an adjustable spar that could be raised or lowered. The torpedo was fixed on the spar at an angle, so that when the spar was lowered for an attack, the torpedo was sitting dead horizontal.
Jacobsen knows this because of a detailed drawing of the “torpedo used to sink the Housatonic” that survives in the papers of Confederate officials in Charleston during the war. But until Hunley scientists found the remains of that exact torpedo, they couldn’t be sure those drawings were accurate.
The torpedo, like the Hunley, had been upgraded through trial and error. Because triggers and detonators on these torpedoes were woefully unreliable, the Hunley’s torpedo had three triggers, any one of which would blow the charge.
And, because the David’s 65-pound torpedo did not sink the Ironsides, the Hunley’s torpedo was packed with more than double the gunpowder — 135 pounds.
The Hunley left Sullivan’s Island shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1864. Two hours later, it was spotted off the port bow of the Housatonic when it was several hundred yards out.
Instead of directly ramming the sloop-of-war, Jacobsen said, Hunley commander Lt. George E. Dixon maneuvered the Hunley around the Housatonic’s bow and aimed for the starboard rear flank.
On the Housatonic, the ship’s hull curved upward and inward toward the stern. The Hunley planted its charge on the side of the ship beneath the bilge line, ensuring that an upward blast would go through the ship.
And it did.
The blast left a hole in the Housatonic so large that accounts say a couch floated out of the breach sideways.
But what did that blast do to the Hunley and its crew, which were also above the blast and less than two dozen feet away?
“This is a riveted iron structure. How well would it hold up against shock waves?” Jacobsen said.
That is a question that may not be answered soon. The Hunley’s hull is still covered with a shell of hardened sand — concretion — that scientists are leaving in place to protect the metal until the conservation process begins. When that concrete-like casing is removed (current plans are to do so next year), scientists at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center should get a better idea of what, if any, damage the blast caused the sub.
It could have buckled hull plates, allowing enough water into the sub to sink it. But the crew, under enormous pressure to break the blockade, had no way to test the effects of shock waves from the blast on the sub.
“They were pressed for time, they were pressed for resources, but nothing indicates this was a suicide mission,” Jacobsen said. “They just had to get the job done.”
In other words, the crew had to take a risk.
McConnell said that there is one tantalizing clue that suggests a shock wave hit the Hunley hard. Dixon’s pocket watch is stopped at almost the exact moment the Housatonic crew said the Hunley attacked. Did the blast actually stop a clock?
“I think we are now narrowing our focus some to look at what effect the concussion of that blast might have had,” McConnell said.
Until the sub itself is examined more closely, scientists will use this new information and data to simulate the blast. Jacobsen said that will offer a better idea of what impact the blast had on the Hunley. She said that will be a time-consuming and costly project, one that will require the lab to partner with an outside source.
They will begin with computer simulations and may eventually move to scale models of the attack. And that ultimately may shed further light on one of the most mysterious legends of the Civil War.
Arkansas: Civil War History Remembered on Stage
BATESVILLE — For George Lankford, the community theater show he is directing is much more than just another performance. The show marks the culmination of 20 years of research into what life in Independence County was like during the Civil War.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War this year, the Batesville Community Theatre and the Independence County Historical Society will present War Chronicles II: Independence County’s Civil War, 1863-1864,written and directed by Lankford. The play follows Part I of the story, which was presented in 2011.
“One impression I hope people will come away with is that Batesville had a really complicated Civil War,” Lankford said.
As the reader’s-theater-style show goes on, members of the cast put up a Confederate or Union flag depending on which army was occupying the town at the time.
“The whole play is marked by those changing flags,” Lankford said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch as a group of citizens try to maintain a normal life while they’re being essentially occupied again and again.”
Lankford started researching Independence County’s Civil War 20 years ago when he began reading diaries kept by area residents during the war.
“I came up with the idea that you could shuffle the entries chronologically, with every item lining up to date,” Lankford said. “It worked, and I began finding more letters and diary entries and adding that information in.”
As Lankford added to his research, he got help from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, identifying each of the military units that were stationed in Batesville. Armed with that information, he was able to locate other collections of letters and diaries from soldiers in those units. A grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council paid Lankford’s way to visit archives in Missouri and Illinois to glean information from letters and diaries of men stationed in Batesville for short periods of time.
Located on the White River, Batesville and Jacksonport became key places to defend Little Rock from invasion by Union forces. The cities were similarly strategic in preventing Confederate invasions of Missouri.
“It was naturally a place where armies would gather,” Lankford said.
Much of the diary information Lankford found from around the Batesville area was written by three young women who lived in the town. Though the diaries contained little military information, Lankford was fascinated by the way the women wrote about trying to maintain a normal way of life.
“They would get into a very interesting ethical problem, which probably seemed very important for teens at the time,” Lankford said. “They focused on the issue of whether an upstanding Southern girl should attend parties for the Federal troops. They were constantly being invited because when the troops were in town, it was party time. Everyone loved Batesville, and it was never the scene of major battles.”
As his chronicle of the war’s impact grew, Lankford realized that because of its size, few people would take the time to read the account. At more than 200 pages of single-spaced, first-person narrative, only real Civil War buffs, Lankford thought, would take the time.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe a play would work,’” Lankford said.
When Lankford first came to Batesville in 1976, he was quickly cast in the Batesville Community Theatre’s performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He performed with the group for years as an actor before eventually switching to backstage work and directing, then drifting away from the theater altogether 10 years ago. The idea of writing his Civil War play brought him back.
“I looked at everything I had and began to strip away all the stuff that didn’t belong to the overall story,” Lankford said. “I knew right away that it would be too large for a single play.”
The first installment, performed in January 2011, told the story up until the end of 1862, and the second installment picks up there. The show is performed by costumed actors on a minimal set with limited movement. Many of the actors in the 12-member cast also participated in the first production.
Independence County Historical Society member Nancy Britton saw Lankford’s first show and is excited to see Lankford’s telling of the end of the war, especially how he tells the stories of freed slaves in the area, part of the story that is rarely researched.
“I think it’s amazing,” Britton said. “So much of what most people know about the Civil War now, they’ve gotten from movies.”
The show will be performed at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 and 2 and at 2 p.m. Feb 3 in Independence Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville. Tickets are $8 for adults, and $5 for children and seniors. UAACB students and faculty get in free, and the Feb. 3 performance is free for Independence County Historical Society members.
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.
Georgia: Battle of Stone River Remembered
DALTON, Ga. — Following the October, 1862, Battle of Perryville, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg was anxious to silence his critics. Though the battle itself was a tactical Confederate victory, Bragg’s Kentucky Campaign had stalled and his Army of the Mississippi was now on its way back to East Tennessee.
A number of factors contributed to this reversal of fortunes, but among the most significant of these was that Bragg had run out of ammunition and provisions. Cold and dispirited, his soldiers straggled south until they reached the railroad at Morristown, Tenn. There they boarded the cars for Chattanooga.
Instead of giving his men time to rest and refit upon arrival, Bragg issued orders for the army to continue by rail to Bridgeport, Ala., where it crossed the Tennessee River by ferry boat and moved north to Tullahoma, arriving toward the end of November. This was the staging point Bragg had chosen for an advance on Nashville.
Burning with desire to restore his reputation, Bragg wanted to mount an immediate thrust on the Union supply depot at Nashville and destroy the army garrisoned there. This was the same force that he had engaged in Kentucky, but the Army of the Cumberland was now commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. Significantly reinforced, Rosecrans had 80,000 men at his disposal.
During the first week in December, Bragg put his newly renamed Army of Tennessee in motion for Murfreesboro. Most of his 37,000 soldiers had no winter clothing, yet snow covered the ground. One of these soldiers, Pvt. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, commented after the war that Bragg “loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more of a hang-dog look they had about them the better was General Bragg pleased.”
By mid-December the Confederates were deployed just north of Murfreesboro in a line that stretched almost 50 miles to guard the major roads leading down from Nashville. Rosecrans accepted the invitation thus presented and put his columns in motion on the day after Christmas. Leaving almost half of his available force at Nashville, the Federal commander marched south with 47,000 men. Skirmishing began almost immediately.
Apparently surprised by Rosecrans’s aggressive intentions, Bragg hurriedly consolidated his forces into a battle line running southwest to northeast with Stones River dividing it into two parts. On the night of Dec. 30, with the two armies now in range of each other, regimental bands on each side began a back-and-forth concert that could be heard by everyone on the field. This spontaneous musical interlude concluded with all of the bands joining together in “Home, Sweet Home.”
Battle begins at dawn
Determined to strike the first blow, Bragg gave orders for a dawn assault against the Federal right flank. Early on the morning of Dec. 31, two divisions from Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s corps struck Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s Union corps, catching it by surprise and rolling it up at a 90 degree angle. Stunned, Rosecrans was not able to mount much of a response. That afternoon, Southern troops assaulted the other end of the Union line but the attack was poorly coordinated and gained nothing. The day ended with a Confederate victory all but assured, and Bragg predicted that Rosecrans would retreat that night.
But Rosecrans did not retreat. Instead, he spent Jan. 1 fortifying the Army of the Cumberland’s lines. Caught off balance by this unexpected response, Bragg did nothing until the afternoon of Jan. 2 when he launched another attack against the Union left. Too few troops were thrown into the effort and it failed.
On Jan. 3, Bragg held a council of war with his subordinate field commanders. Casualties had reduced the Army of Tennessee’s strength by 30 percent and it no longer packed much of a punch. Everyone present agreed that Bragg must retreat to save the army for another day, and that night the withdrawal began.
The Confederate army limped back to Tullahoma and went into winter quarters. Rosecrans, having lost 25 percent of his soldiers as casualties in the recent battle, was in no position to pursue. Even when spring came, the Union commander resisted all efforts to get moving, despite the Lincoln Administration’s repeated entreaties. It would be June before the Army of the Cumberland could be stirred into action.
In the meantime, trouble was brewing for Bragg. Since being elevated to command of the Army of Tennessee in June 1862, Bragg had planned and executed two major offensives: one into Kentucky and the other toward Nashville. In both cases his army had won tactical victories only to retreat immediately thereafter. This pattern spawned internal dissention among Bragg’s subordinate commanders and severely tested the morale of his soldiers.
War front near Dalton
Six months after the Battle of Stones River, Rosecrans finally launched an offensive toward Chattanooga. Flanking Bragg out of Tullahoma and then Chattanooga with barely a shot fired, the Army of the Cumberland edged into the northwestern corner of Georgia in early September. Rosecrans, by this time flushed with success, assumed that Bragg’s army had fallen back to Rome or perhaps even Atlanta. Little did the Union commander know that the Army of Tennessee was preparing for his destruction along the banks of Chickamauga Creek.
Meanwhile, residents in Dalton anxiously awaited news from the front as Federal columns crept closer. Unless Bragg could find a way to stop the bluecoats, everyone knew that the Dalton area and the Western & Atlantic Railroad would be Rosecrans’s next target.
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission. To find out more about the commission go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Jim Burran Dalton Civil War 150th Commission
Kentucky: Grad Students Working on Kentucky Civil War Film
AUGUSTA, Ky. (AP) — Two Northern Kentucky University graduate students are working on a film about a Civil War battle and counting on internet donations to complete the project.
Steve Oldfield and Sean Thomas are using the philanthropic website Kickstarter to raise at least $10,000 for their documentary, “Hurrah for Kentucky: The Fierce, Forgotten Fight for Augusta,” The Ledger Independent reported (http://bit.ly/U3OykN).
Thomas is pursuing a master’s degree in public history from Northern Kentucky University and is also overseeing a long-term project on the Underground Railroad in New Richmond, Ohio and surrounding communities.
Oldfield, a broadcast journalist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, said about year ago at NKU he heard the historian Bill Baker speak about the Battle of Augusta and Oldfield suggested a project on the 1862 battle.
Together, Thomas and Oldfield first created a DVD and walking tour of the battle site using QR Smartphone capabilities.
In their Kickstarter introduction online, they explain the history of the battle and their interest in expanding the footage they acquired into a quality documentary.
“We had probably an hour of interesting footage from every person we spoke with about the importance of the battle,” said Oldfield, who is also finishing up a master’s of public history degree from NKU. “Augusta’s story and the battle is the story of what the whole country was going through and showed what a tragedy it was during the Civil War.”
“Only in recent years has the full story been revealed after a transcript from a court-martial over the battle was discovered at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The documentary features best-selling author Jeff Shaara and some of Kentucky’s most notable historians along with Augusta resident Nick Clooney, father of actor George Clooney, telling this important but forgotten story,” Oldfield and Thomas wrote in the introduction. “This is the first full-length documentary describing the events of that devastating day.”
Through Kickstarter, donations can be made to the project, which is only funded if the goal amount is reached.
The project is listed under the film/video category at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/augustadocumentary/hurrah-for-kentucky-the-fierce-forgotten-fight-for.
The project has a deadline of Feb. 11.
“We just need completion funding to get the documentary ready for broadcast and distribution,” Oldfield said.
Oldfield said he hopes the completed project will someday end up on Kentucky Educational Television or in a PBS distribution.
“It is a story that needs to be told,” he said.
North Carolina: Civil War Cat Bewitches Gunboat
KINSTON In the waning months of the Civil War, a young gunner from Virginia floated outside Kinston aboard the CSS Neuse, lamenting the cold, mourning the rebel cause and writing love-struck tributes to a giant cat.
Unlike his shipmates, Charles Porter didn’t fancy gawking at the young ladies of Kinston. Not once he found out they were snuff-dippers and pipe-smokers. You get the feeling from his letters that he took some teasing over his prudishness, even though he had a gal waiting for him back in Virginia.
So Porter found his own Kinston valentine: an outsized feline he named Miss Cathy Couber Grubble. As the war sputtered out, she assumed the role of unofficial mascot and whiskered wartime love.
“I have become engaged to a little Tar Heel girl,” Porter wrote in 1864, “She is about 3 foot, 8 inches high, with beautiful red hair and the most magnificent eyes you ever saw. They are fine gray eyes, about such eyes as Fannie’s cat has got.
“You know how I admire cats above all others. Well, this is my Tar Heel sweetheart. Now don’t say that I don’t have a sweetheart, too.”
The story of Miss Cathy, her improbable size and her bewitching power over Confederate sailors brings new life to the hapless CSS Neuse, sunk by her own crew in 1865 as the Union army approached.
The ironclad ship sat at the bottom of her murky namesake for a century. But now that she’s set to star in a new Civil War museum, which opens in Kinston this spring, glimpses of life aboard her decks are trickling in. Notably the appearance of Miss Cathy.
“Don’t you think it’s a handsome name?” Porter wrote. “And she is as handsome as her name is.”
Strange enough that a Civil War gunner wrote doting prose to an on-board cat, which apparently stood as tall as a 5-year-old human.
Stranger still that he wrote them to his girlfriend, Virgilia “Gillie” Boatwright, teasing her about the rivalry. Porter wrote his human paramour more than two dozen letters, which only surfaced in Kinston last year after an ancestor had them published.
Some excerpts from the front lines:
“Oh, if only we had our noble Stonewall Jackson … it would be here different.”
“Have you learned to weave yet?”
“I declare, Gillie, if I ever thought you would learn to dip snuff or smoke a pipe, I really don’t know what I should do.”
But in three of those letters, he taunted her with Miss Cathy. Maybe this was a private joke between the two of them. Maybe human-feline relationships were rich ground for 1860s humor. Certainly, many ships have had cat mascots, including Unsinkable Sam, who survived the sinking of three vessels in World War II – both British and German.
Still, these lines strike me as evidence the young Navy gunner might be cracking under the pressures of war.
“I am not married to that old Tar Heel yet,” Porter wrote Gillie in late 1864. “When I am, I will send you an invitation. As flour is scarce here, we are going to have our wedding cake made of corn meal. If you cannot come to see us married, I will send a piece to dream on.”
The appearance of these letters solved a puzzle for the Neuse site’s modern caretakers. They had long possessed a drawing of the gunboat, sketched by Lt. Richard Bacot, but they couldn’t identify the curly-tailed beast portrayed on board.
“We kept going back and forth,” said Morris Bass, operations manager. “Cat or rat? Cat or rat?”
The letters cinched Miss Cathy’s species, but presented a new problem; 3-foot-8?
“She’s probably standing on her hind legs,” said Holly Brown, historical interpreter.
“As big as it is,” said Jennifer Wisener, who works at the site part-time, “it could be a Maine Coon.”
The story ends well, and mysteriously.
With the war finished, Porter married his human sweetheart and worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. “Darling Gillie” died in 1899; Porter nine years later. You can visit his grave in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, which also holds the remains of generals George Pickett and J.E.B. Stuart.
No one knows what became of Miss Cathy.
Perhaps her spirit wandered north to the doomed capital of the Confederacy, where she walks among the marble slabs over Confederate dead, rubbing her back against her old sweetheart’s stone.
Tennessee: National Archives Exhibit Coming to Nashville
The Tennessee State Museum is a bit of an odd-duck of a local resource.
For starters, it’s sorta buried in the bowels of TPAC – The Tennessee Performing Arts Center in downtown Nashville. You can see just part of it when you go to see a show there, in a large open lobby below the ground floor that you only see if you enter the building from Deaderick Street; even then, there’s really no way to tell that the best parts of the museum are below that, down the long escalator to a sub-basement.
But if you have never been there, or have no reason to know where it is, that will change next month if you are interested in the Civil War.
Coming Feb. 12, the Tennessee State Museum is going to host “Discovering The Civil War” a traveling exhibit from the National Archives featuring all manner of exhibits and memorabilia that are typically on display only at the Archives in Washington, D.C. And, oddly, despite that fact that most of the Civil War was fought in the South, The TN State Museum will be the only venue in the Southeast where this exhibit will appear.
But wait, that’s not all.
For a very limited time, from Tuesday, February 12 through Monday, February 18, the original Emancipation Proclamation — the very one that Abraham Lincoln signed — will also be included in the exhibit. That’s going to be very popular, and so reservations are required if you want to see it.
If that’s something you want to see, you might want to make reservations sooner rather than later.
Texas: Two Irishmen Found Entombed in Civil War Wreck
New 3D sonar imaging has provided a new look into the shipwreck of the USS Hatteras, a Union ship which was sunk off the coast of Galveston, Texas during the US Civil War. Only two men died the day the ship sank – Irishmen William Healy and John Cleary.
The Associated Press reports on the imaging of the ship, which has laid underwater since it sank in January 1863.
“This vessel is a practically intact time capsule sealed by mud and sand, and what is there will be the things that help bring the crew and ship to life in a way,” said Jim Delgado, the project’s leader and director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
“You can fly through the wreck, you’re getting a view no diver can get,” Delgado said.
On January 11, 1863, the USS Hatteras spotted and tracked down a ship that identified itself as British, then opened fire from 25 to 200 yards away and revealed it actually was the CSS Alabama, a notorious Confederate raider credited with some 60 kills.
Forty-three minutes later, the Hatteras was burning and taking on water. Commander Homer Blake surrendered, and he and his crew were taken aboard the Alabama as prisoners, eventually winding up in Jamaica.
Of the 126-man crew, two were lost and are believed to be entombed in the wreck. They were identified to be Irishmen William Healy, who was a 32 year old coal heaver, and John Cleary, a 24 year old stoker.
“Two of those guys paid the ultimate price,” Delgado said of the two Irishmen. “This is a place where history happened and people died … giving their all, making a choice to follow their captain and likely die, to try to do their duty and to serve.”
With the new sonar imaging, researchers are getting a better look and understanding of the USS Hatteras than ever before.
“Very exciting,” said Jami Durham, manager of historic properties, research and special programs for the Galveston Historical Foundation. “We knew the ship was out there, and to finally see the images. It seemed to make it more real.”
-Kerry O’Shea, Irish Central News
Virginia: Historic Appamatox Restored to Civil War Splendor
APPOMATTOX, VA. — When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, an unwitting farmer named Wilmer McLean suddenly found himself and his family caught in the middle of the momentous conflict’s first big battle in a Northern Virginia town called Manassas.
A Southern general commandeered his house as headquarters and Yankee shells were soon falling all around as McLean and his family cowered inside. Their barn was destroyed during the battle, in which more than 3,500 soldiers were killed or wounded on both sides.
After it was all over, McLean decided to pick up and move 200 kilometers south to a sleepy little village called Appomattox, where he thought his family would be safe.
Although everyone in both the North and the South had thought the war would be over in a matter of weeks, it dragged on for another four horrendous years during which a staggering total of 630,000 American soldiers lost their lives — more than were killed in all of the country’s other wars combined, including both the First and Second World Wars.
In an ironic twist of fate, McLean found his new home being commandeered yet again — this time by Northern forces — when Gen. Robert E. Lee was finally forced to surrender his battered army at Appomattox following a week-long retreat from Richmond on April 9, 1865.
The front parlor of McLean’s modest two-story brick home was where Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant agreed on surrender terms and signed papers that ended the war. Although there were still two or three pockets of resistance in other parts of the South, all hostilities ended a short time later.
In later years, it was said that “the war began in McLean’s front yard and ended in his front parlor.”
The McLean House is one of more than a dozen of the village’s original buildings, which have been restored or reconstructed to look exactly as they did in 1865 as the centerpiece of the 1,750-acre Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Park.
The rebuilt courthouse serves as the visitors’ center where you can get a detailed map for a self-guided tour of the village and its surrounding battlefield. On the second floor is a small auditorium where you can view an excellent 15-minute slide show on the war, Lee’s last retreat from Richmond and his subsequent surrender at Appomattox, which was home to fewer than 150 people at the time.
Among the village’s other carefully restored buildings are its original tavern, which houses a number of Civil War artifacts including muskets, swords and poignant letters home from soldiers on both sides; a country store full of colonial wares and bizarre-looking kitchen gadgets that look more like torture devices; and a county jail complete with iron bars, shackles and a ghostly voice-over recording of a hapless old “prisoner” guaranteed to scare the children out of their wits.
But the most fascinating of all the buildings is the McLean House, where you can walk up the same steps that Lee and Grant did on their way to the front parlour where a small painting in the doorway depicts the surrender scene with the two generals sitting at one of the room’s two small tables and more than a dozen aides hovering in the background. Dark red drapes, a faded red-and-green carpet and a stark black-and-white fireplace round out the picture.
As I stood there silently gazing back and forth from the painting to the parlour, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with an eerie feeling of being present at a great and dramatic moment in history.
But if it hadn’t been for the meticulous details in the memoirs of one of Grant’s aides, Col. Horace Potter, the recreation of the historic parlour scene might never have been possible. For as soon as the two legendary generals had left, a frenetic bidding war broke out for souvenirs from the tiny room and it was stripped bare in less than an hour.
One of Grant’s aides paid McLean $40 for Lee’s marble-topped table as a present for Mrs. Grant and the table at which Grant had sat was purchased for $20 by Gen. Phillip Sheridan. Even the upholstery on the chairs was ripped up and torn into small pieces as mementoes of the occasion.
When Appomattox’s courthouse burned down in 1892, the old village was abandoned and the town was moved five kilometres west to the railroad junction.
The new town was built around an old railroad station, which is now a well-appointed visitor centre with free maps and brochures for the thousands of tourists who visit the national park every year.
Also available is a walking-tour guide of the town’s 44 heritage houses, some of which date back to the late 1800s.
Although the town’s present-day population is barely 1,700, it has a charming town square similar to most other southern cities with the customary statue of a rebel soldier, an old cannon and a war memorial with the names of all its fallen heroes.
The biggest hero of them all though, was Lee, who is the focal point of a marvellous new $10-million Museum of the Confederacy that was opened just last March three kilometres west of the national park.
The museum’s pride and joy is the elegant brass-button coat that Lee wore to his surrender meeting with Grant, as well as his gleaming gold-handled sword decorated with the head of a lion. Also on display is the slender gold-nibbed pen with which he signed the surrender papers.
-Jack Hartline, PostMedia News