The Ghosts of Appomattox

On an April day in 1865, thousands of Federal troops stood silently at attention along both sides of the Lynchburg-Richmond stagecoach road. Between them walked 28,000 bedraggled Confederate soldiers, on their way to the village green at Appomattox Court House to surrender their weapons. The Civil War, sometimes called the first modern “total war,” was finally over.

While Gettysburg is the Disney World of the conflict for Civil War junkies such as ourselves, Appomattox Court House, now a national park, is a quiet place to contemplate the costs and consequences of it all.

The village of Appomattox Court House.
The village of Appomattox Court House.

The surrender at Appomattox Court House concluded a battle by the same name, part of a campaign by the Union army to claim Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. A summary can be found here. The very short version is that by the end of this battle, General Lee realized that his troops, the Army of Northern Virginia, were exhausted, starving, and cut off from supplies. He surrendered because he had simply run out of options.

When the Southern troops heard of the surrender, many wept outright in disappointment. Many were certainly sobbing with relief as well. They had given the war everything they had. Now they were finally going home.

The Battle of Appomattox immediately preceded the surrender.
Some of the last shots of the Civil War were fired here.

Both Lee and General Grant, leader of the Federal forces, understood that the terms of the surrender would set the course for re-unification of the country. The terms were therefore lenient: Lee asked that his men be allowed to keep their horses and mules for spring planting. Grant gladly acceded to this request, and also provided rations for Lee’s starving men. No one was prosecuted for treason. In fact, presses ran for 48 hours straight to print parole passes to ensure safe passage for all the departing Confederates, and some took Federal trains at least part of the way home.

The McLean house, where the surrender treaty was signed.
The McLean house, where the surrender treaty was signed.
The living room as it was at the signing. Grant sat at this table.
The living room as it was at the signing. Grant sat at this table.
The printing press itself.
The printing press that produced all the thousands of parole passes for Confederates.

The park displays portray just what a sorry state the Confederates were in by April of 1865−and how difficult the surrender was for them. I had some sense of this from researching my own family. There were some slave owners in my all-Southern clan, of course, but most of my ancestors at that time were small farmers, owning little more than a log cabin and some livestock, if that much. Two of them, my great-great-great-great grandparents, Thomas and Sarah Ann (Simpson) Bembry, found themselves at the center of the storm.

Six of Sarah Ann’s seven brothers served in the Confederate army. Records are spotty, but it seems that three brothers died and two deserted. Of the deserters, one, just a teenager, ran away for the mountains of east Tennessee after the carnage at Petersburg. The other was probably shot. Only one brother out of the six who served made it all the way to the surrender at Appomattox. Sarah Ann’s family was truly decimated by the war.

Thomas and his brother served in the same Florida unit as most of Sarah Ann’s brothers–both were lucky enough to survive the war, but were permanently disabled by it, Thomas with a spinal cord injury from falling forty feet onto rocks at the battle of Fredericksburg. Just 14 or 15 years old when she got married, by the age of 32, Sarah Ann had at least six children and a handicapped, traumatized husband on her hands. Thomas was a farm laborer, illiterate, with no other marketable skills. His injuries were effectively a lifetime sentence to poverty with consequences that would persist for generations.

I knew all of this history, but somehow, standing right there in the stagecoach road where the war ended, it was all brought home to me. This is where one chapter ended and another began, both for my family, and for the entire country.

Union troops lined both sides of the stage road while Confederates passed between them on the way to stack their arms in front of the court house.
Federal troops lined both sides of the stage coach road while 28,000 Confederates passed between them on the way to stack their arms in front of the court house.
The last stretch of road.
The last stretch of road leading into the village.

While I enjoy learning about the Civil War on several levels, I do not glorify the Confederacy in any way. My generation of Southerners is finally over that (with a few exceptions). I see my tenant-farming ancestors as having been suckered by a slave-owning elite into fighting a war they couldn’t possibly win−a theme that runs throughout history into the present.

But they were people, after all, and we can learn what we can about them, appreciate the appalling sacrifices that they made, and salute those who somehow managed to make it through.These were some seriously hardy folks: I very much doubt that most modern Americans could endure what they did and survive.

So, here’s to Thomas and Sarah Ann for getting through it all−after all, if they had not, I wouldn’t be here!

Just a nice photo of a period kitchen from the McLean house.
A serene photo of a period kitchen from the McLean house.



  1. I recently visited there on a trip around Virginia, and was humbled by the disconnect between the peace of the place and the power of the events that happened here. Interesting to hear about your family history. Thank you for sharing!


  2. I am so moved by the sacrifices and the harsh realities those from both sides faced daily. Heartbreaking to know of the turmoil all had to face in the coming years……and the kindness Grant extended to the Confederate soldiers who did get to return home to their “new reality”…..but nonthe less…return home………all put into motion in that plain little building in Va.


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