APPOMATTOX, Va. (Reuters) - The site where Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago on Thursday, effectively ending the United States' bloodiest war, is proof that history's biggest turning points can occur in the smallest places.
Ceremonies, re-enactments by thousands in Union and Confederate uniforms, and bell ringing will commemorate the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at the village of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, ending four years of fighting that cost 620,000 lives.
The handful of buildings had been a backwater with a few score inhabitants when Lee's exhausted and badly outnumbered army was cut off by Grant's forces, said Ernie Price, chief of education services at the small Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, about 3 miles (5 km) east of the town of Appomattox.
"It's arguably the most pivotal place in all of American history. I feel that the modern United States was born here," said Price, seated on the front porch of the Clover Hill Tavern, where Lee's men marched past to stack their arms.
The surrender of Lee's 28,000 men at Appomattox Court House meant that the United States would remain intact and abandon the system of slavery that had propped up the southern economy. Increased wartime production of munitions and uniforms also helped the nation lay the groundwork for its growth into an industrial giant over the next century, he added.
The Civil War's end game started when Grant broke through Lee's lines at Petersburg, Virginia, about 90 miles (145 km) to the east, ending a 10-month Union siege. The loss of Petersburg ensured the fall of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, and put rebel President Jefferson Davis to flight.
The Army of Northern Virginia retreated west, with Lee hoping to unite with General Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina.
But Grant - whose motto was "Strike him (the enemy) as hard as you can, and keep moving on" - outraced Lee and cornered him in the rolling hills and tobacco fields near Appomattox Court House.
Lee and Grant exchanged letters touching on surrender from April 7 to 9, with Lee saying he shared the Union commander's "desire to avoid useless effusion of blood."
The men met at the house of sugar speculator Wilmer MacLean on April 9. Lee, 6 feet tall with a full head of gray hair, wore a new uniform and a sword with a jeweled hilt, boots with red silk stitching and spurs with rowels.
By contrast, the stoop-shouldered Grant was spattered by mud and dressed in a private's uniform with trousers stuffed in his unspurred boots. The only sign of rank for the future two-term president was his three-star shoulder strap.
After he and Lee reminisced in MacLean's parlor about their army service during the 1846-1848 war with Mexico, Grant rapidly wrote out surrender terms. They included releasing Confederate soldiers who promised not to take up arms again and allowing officers to keep their horses, baggage and side arms.
When Union soldiers began to fire salutes marking the surrender, Grant ordered them to stop.
"The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again," he said.
Following Lee's surrender, other Confederate commanders gave up, with the last battle taking place in May in Texas. The final act was in November 1865 when the Confederate ocean raider Shenandoah lowered her colors in Liverpool, England.
The Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is expecting up to 7,000 visitors for five days of commemorations, Price said.
Other commemorations around the country include an event marking Lee's surrender at Fort Myer, Virginia; the dedication of a Civil War memorial at College Station, Texas; an exhibition at Anchorage, Alaska; and a ceremony at the site of the surrender of Johnston's army at Durham, North Carolina, on April 26.
The National Park Service is inviting U.S. churches, towns and other institutions to ring bells on April 9 to mark Lee's surrender. The first will sound at Appomattox at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT), the hour that Lee and Grant's meeting ended.
Other bells will follow at 3:15 p.m. (1915 GMT) and sound for four minutes, one minute for each year of the war.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Ted Botha