Site marking end of U.S. Civil War is big history in small place

Mon Apr 6, 2015 7:04am EDT
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By Ian Simpson

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.   Continued...