Toward Appomatttox

In the footsteps of Grant and Lee

FACING ANOTHER stalemate, Grant shifted his troops out of the trenches at Cold Harbor and, for all that the baffled Confederates knew, into thin air. Lee was in the dark for several vital days as the Army of the Potomac moved not against Richmond but against Petersburg, below Richmond. If Petersburg fell, the supply line to Richmond would be cut. Starved of supplies, Lee would have no choice but to quit his entrenchments and fight it out with Grant in the open.

 

In the event, Grant managed to get his whole army across the James River (by a 2,100foot pontoon bridge) and to the gates of Petersburg before Lee knew where he was. But dithering by the Union generals charged with making the initial assault on the lightly held Petersburg trenches cost irreplaceable time. Taking advantage of it, Lee was just able to get enough men into Petersburg to cheat Grant of his victory and prolong the war by ten months.

The siege of Petersburg and Richmond that now commenced was a vast undertaking, with the opposing trenches covering nearly thirtyfive miles. Grant's strategy was to exploit his advantage in numbers by slowly extending his lines to the southwest of Petersburg. Lee would be forced to follow suit, and eventually his lines would thin out to the breaking point. To fill those stretched lines, Lee would in time contemplate the desperate step of drafting Negroes to fight in the cause of slavery.

No short article can convey the wealth of Civil War sites in and around Richmond - the visitor should pick up a map to history at the headquarters of the Richmond National Battlefield Park on Chimborazo Hill. The Petersburg National Battlefield takes two hours to tour by car. Its highlights include a remnant of the famous crater left when the Federals tried to blow up a section of the confederate line ("The effort was a stupendous failure," Grant wrote in his Memoirs, using one of his rare adjectives) and the place where Lee mounted his last offensive of the war - a bloody, failed attempt to punch a hole in the Union line.

THE CITY OF Petersburg itself is worth at least a day's tour. It boasts a fascinating Siege Museum, where the visitor can gain a vivid idea of what life was like under Grant's guns. In addition, many houses that were damaged by those guns are still standing, among them the house where Grant and Lincoln met on April 3, 1865, just after Lee had pulled out of Petersburg. The owner invited the men into the parlor, but Grant said, "Thank you, sir, but I am smoking," and he and Lincoln stayed on the porch. While they were sitting there, a courier rode up and Grant was handed a telegram announcing that Richmond had fallen.

The house where this historic event took place is today deserted, run down; it borders a tobacco factory, also deserted. Yet it was here that Abraham Lincoln knew what might have been the greatest happiness of his life. Think of it; picture it. Grant opens the envelope and says, "Mr. President, Richmond is ours…. And Lincoln, delivered from his years-long nightmare - how would he react to such news? He had only days to live; this was his blessed moment. That the place where Lincoln's dream came true (Richmond captured, the end of the war at hand) should be a shabby wreck is appalling.

When Grant's sidling to the southwest of Petersburg finally menaced the railroad connecting the city to the remaining Rebel supply depots in western Virginia and North Carolina, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. On forced night marches that left the roads littered with his exhausted men - scarecrows by now - he drove his dwindling army southwestward, hoping to link up with Joe Johnston in North Carolina, and then to turn on Sherman, coming up from the south, before dealing with Grant, coming down from the north. As everybody knows, he didn't make it. Surrounded at the village of Appomattox Court House, he surrendered the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865.

Every American who has read anything about the Civil War has been to Appomattox in imagination. It is the village of our coming together, the hallowed ground, where, all passion spent, we became the United States. The real Appomattox Court House matched my vision of it; rarely have federal dollars been spent more wisely than to keep it preserved as a nineteenthcentury village. Properly, in my view, the Park Service nowhere mentions that the McLean House, where the surrender took place, was virtually looted by Grant's souvenir-crazed staff after he and Lee had finished with History.

Five days after the surrender, on Good Friday, several hundred miles to the south of Appomattox, a ceremony was held at Fort Sumter to mark the fourth anniversary of its surrender by Union forces under Major Robert Anderson. Lincoln was invited, but he chose to stay in Washington instead - he and Mrs. Lincoln planned to go to the theater. Several thousand people, including many notables, did come to Charleston Harbor for the ceremony, and at the strike of noon they gasped as a sergeant handed Anderson, looking much older than his sixty years, the shot - ripped flag that had flown over Sumter throughout the bombardment that had set off the great war. A young woman from Philadelphia left this picture of the scene as Anderson prepared to run the old flag up over Sumter:

General Anderson stood up, bareheaded, took the halyards in his hands, and began to speak. At first I could not hear him, for his voice came thickly, but in a moment he said clearly, "I thank God I have lived to see this day," and after a few more words he began to hoist the flag. It went up slowly and hung limp against the staff, a weatherbeaten, frayed, and shel-ltorn old flag, not fit for much more work, but when it had crept clear of the shelter of the walls a sudden breath of wind caught it, and it shook its folds and flew straight out above us, while every soldier and sailor instinctively saluted.

THE PRESENT DAY isn't just an encroachment on history; since the days of the inn whose limitations gave Cold Harbor its name, accommodations and eating places have no doubt greatly improved. In the WildernéssSpotsylvania area a historically resonant place to stay is the Richard Johnston Inn, at 711 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg. Built in 1788, the inn offers period rooms at moderate prices ($50 for a single to $100 for a suite), which include a light but savory breakfast. Ask to stay in the "summer kitchen," off the patio: it has a private entrance, a huge fireplace, and a private bath. Just up Caroline Street is Chimney's Tavern, which, like most of the buildings in Fredericksburg, was built in the Colonial era. It serves a mixture of hearty fare, like roast rack of lamb, and the usual contemporary excrescences (did George Washington eat quiche?). In warm weather, lunch is served on the patio, to the pleasing accompaniment of live guitar music.

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Jack Beatty is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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