As our tour bus carried 55 Roanoke Valley senior adults back to Salem in late April, Dr. John Selby of the history faculty of Roanoke College remarked, “Some people say history is dead…I say not when this many people brave a cold wet day to slop around Appomattox.”
Well, we did slop as – after a dry spell of several months – about four inches of rain, accompanied by a blustery north wind played out winter in the Central Virginia community where the Civil War finally came to its acknowledged end 152 years ago.
Being the Civil War buff that I have been since childhood, it was not my first visit to the place where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee signed surrender documents to victorious Union Gen. U.S. Grant. I had gone to see the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy when it opened in 2012 on a similar day tour. Wanting to immerse myself more fully in the small museum and its National Park Service acreage, I drove back the next summer.
The weather was pleasant those days despite a violent thunderstorm I encountered at Montvale on the way home.
With college staff members Tanya and Selby as our guides, we braved the miserable weather day with rain shoes, coats and umbrellas and thought of how the poor soldiers – especially the exhausted, hungry and dispirited Confederates – must have felt as they went through the ceremony of stacking arms and prepared for their long treck back to places like Louisiana and Texas. Many didn’t make it.
And in the small museum filled with photographs of the young men who fought on both sides along with their guns, letters sent home, tattered uniforms and accounts of some who had survived the war only to die the very morning of the surrender. The gloomy day set a certain mood.
The story has been told so many times in fine well-researched accounts of the waning days of the rebellion, in places like Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Atlanta and Petersburg. Oral tradition prevailed in 1896, when many veterans on both sides were still alive in the devastated Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. My ancestors lived within miles of both these areas.
Besides the histories and biographies novels like “Gone with the Wind,”, “Action at Aquila” and more recently “Cold Mountain” have transported readers to the terrible time.
The original Museum of the Confederacy is in Richmond in the house where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived. I was there in childhood. A century later the house became so filled with the relics of the war, presented by veterans and their families, that the decision was made to develop several smaller museums in outlying areas of the commonwealth. Appomattox as the site of the surrender and the vast federal military park was a logical choice; it’s a two-hour trip from the Roanoke area.
On such a trip one can absorb the significance of the tiny tobacco and cotton farming village with its courthouse and trans-state railroad to which Lee’s battered but still unreconstructed veterans fled after the fall of Petersburg and Richmond the first week in April 1865.
Our guide Selby presented his short lecture on events of the surrender from the warmth of the bus as pouring rain and the chill wind discouraged strolls on the lovely acres the park service has maintained since the 1930s.
As culture changes, historical interpretation follows. Historic houses, such as abound in Virginia, now include restored slave cabins and often enlightening materials about how the ancestors of African-Americans lived and died.
The rise into the middle class of many educated black citizens has brought this about. There is interest today in how people cooked, were taught and went to church. As Selby said, for some at least, the past informs our present.