April Return to Appomattox

The chilly weather on the road to surrender was in sharp contrast to that balmy Palm Sunday of April 1865:  “As the blazing yellow sun climbed high overhead, the winding country lanes in the rural stillness of Appomattox couldn’t have appeared less suited for capturing the smoldering moment about to take place,” writes historian Jay Winik in his classic “April 1865: The Month That Saved America.” (page 183).  In April 2015, by contrast, a damp morning fog turned the surrounding pine forests into eerie specters.  The shadows in the mist resembled, in the mind’s eye, the ranks of grey-uniformed soldiers marching in retreat. 

Viewing the landscape also recalled the words of the second verse of God Bless America: “From the green fields of Virginia.”  But the cows munching contentedly on the green grass were in sharp contrast to what was found in April 1865.  Then all the cattle were dead or stolen away, as recorded in the mournful words intoned by singer Joan Baez in the folk classic The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. “In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive.”  No cattle then on the road from Richmond to Appomattox to feed the ragged, starving Army of Northern Virginia.

So what led to this April journey to Appomattox for the re-enactment of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant?  It was the dreams of my great-grandfather, Patrick Foley.  Born on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1829 in County Kerry, Ireland, Patrick got out of Ireland in a hurry not because of the potato famine but because of some illegal moonshining up in the Kerry hills.  He settled in the bustling new city of Chicago where he landed a job as a cook at one of that city’s upscale hotels.  His job reportedly led him to attendance at the Wigwam, a convention center where, on May 18, 1860, the newly formed Republican Party nominated a prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln as its standard bearer for president.  Patrick wouldn’t have seen Lincoln there though, as the nominee remained in Springfield to receive the news by wire.

Nonetheless, Patrick was hooked on loyalty to Lincoln for life.  When civil war engulfed the new president and the nation, Patrick answered the call.  A Civil War poster from Chicago carries the following recruitment information: “Mulligan’s Brigade!  Last Chance to Avoid the Draft!  $402 Bounty to Veterans!  $302 to all other Volunteers!  All able bodied men, between the ages of 18 and 45 years… the headquarters of Capt. J.J. Fitzgerald, of the Irish Brigade, 23rd Regiment Illinois Volunteers, Recruiting Officer, Chicago, Illinois.”

Patrick served under General Philip Sheridan and rose to the rank of captain.  In the Shenandoah Valley campaign in the summer of 1864, known in the South as “The Burning,” Sheridan’s objective was to put the crop-rich valley, the breadbasket of the Confederacy, to the torch.  There, on July 24, 1864, in the second battle of Kernstown (near Winchester, Virginia) Confederate Major General John Breckenridge, a former U.S. Vice President, led a devastating counterattack on Mulligan’s Brigade.  Colonel James Mulligan, critically wounded, uttered the famous words “Lay me down and save the flag.”  Mulligan died and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois, the same cemetery where Patrick Foley’s remains would join his former commander sixty years later in 1924.     

Patrick followed General Sheridan for the final stages of the siege at Petersburg, the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865 and the pursuit of General Lee’s retreating forces, including a final battle at Sayler’s Creek on April 6.   Of this battle, Jay Winik wrote: “Engaged and erect, Lee clutched the red silk flag as the sun gently set over the slaughter at Sayler’s Creek.  By now, he must have felt close to total despair. ” (page 137)

150 years later, these same Virginia country roads passed Amelia – now with a McDonald’s restaurant, the Appomattox River, swollen brown by heavy rains, Sayler’s Creek, Farmville, and signs pointing south to Burkeville where Sheridan cut off Lee, according to Jay Winik:  “Sheridan’s horsemen were now backed by two Federal corps strung out between Lee and North Carolina. The road of escape – through Burkeville – had been cut off.” (page 129)

A rail line on the road side could have been for the Danville train.  That train took Confederate President Jefferson Davis in flight after receiving word from Lee on April 2 that the Petersburg fortifications had been breached by the Yankees and that Richmond would fall.  “But it was not until eleven that Davis at last bade farewell to Richmond, as the train pulled away, jerking and clacking toward Danville, Virginia – the new capital of the CSA,” according to Winik. (page 107)

And finally arrival at Appomattox Court House.  At the surrender re-enactment at McLean House, General Lee was again impeccably clad in grey uniform and gloves, riding with dignity on his trusted steed Traveller.  General Grant, in blue, was his ruffled self, with muddy boots, chomping on a cigar.  150 years suddenly melted away.

Patrick had been at Appomattox for the original surrender ceremony.   Lee waited under an apple tree for Grant.  Later, as described by Jay Winik:  “The apple tree under whose shade Lee had rested before surrendering at Appomattox, was quickly sliced up, hacked away at, and peeled off by enterprising soldiers and within hours, had been stripped clean…every little piece of bark and wood taken to be enshrined as an heirloom, passing from one generation to the next.” (page 354-55)  A childhood memory is of my grandfather reverently unwrapping a cloth to show his grandchildren two small pieces of wood formed into a cross by his father Patrick from Appomattox. 

The ceremony held on April 9, 2015 was a surprise for its modesty.  Given the historic significance of the war, over 700,000 dead, by far the largest conflagration in American history, one would think that its conclusion would have drawn the attention of Americans – political leaders and the media as well as ordinary people –in this sesquicentennial year.  There was a large crowd, but empty seats were available.  Besides descendants, Civil War buffs, including “noble lost cause” celebrants of the Confederacy, were there. 

The crowd was overwhelmingly white. One African-American descendant of slaves from Appomattox County spoke poignantly of how she had to finish high school in Ohio in the late fifties because the Appomattox public schools were closed due to desegregation orders.  President Abraham Lincoln was shot five days after Appomattox.  Martin Luther King was shot 103 Aprils later.  In many ways the Civil War did not end at Appomattox but lives on with us today.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, the Park Rangers announced that bells across the nation, including the Liberty Bell, would ring at 3:15 to commemorate Appomattox.  I later asked friends from Chicago, Washington, Richmond and Williamsburg if they heard any church, university, or town hall bells ringing on April 9th at 3:15 PM.  Only a very few said yes.

But the bells, as Joan Baez sang, sounded loudly in 1865 and we should as a nation remember:

The night they drove old Dixie down
and all the bells were ringing.

Dennis P. Halpin is a Civil War descendant.