Friday, October 7, 2016

Today's MOZEN: War and Peace

Words and photos by F LoBuono
It had been a punishingly long day AND night covering the first, and only, Vice Presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. It has been a particularly contentious election season thereby generating a lot of media interest, particularly among the foreign press corp. Since my work involves dealing with them, I wound up working an 18-hour shift. But, at times like this, that’s not unusual. On the up-side, this day was reserved for travel. I just had to get home. Since I had booked an early evening flight, I had some time to explore.
I had noticed on the long, 2-hour+ trip from the Richmond airport to our hotel in Lynchburg that we passed a plethora of historic Civil War venues including Appomattox Court House, the site of one of the greatest moments in American history: the surrender of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac, effectively ending 4 blood-soaked years of the American Civil War. Since it was on my way, I love Civil War history, and I had the time, I planned to spend a few hours there.
I was not disappointed.
The road leading into Appomattox Court House
It's a very bucolic and peaceful place, seemingly frozen as it was in the middle of the 19th Century.  In fact, it was so peaceful that it was hard to conceive of the extreme violence that occurred here. General Grant had relentlessly pursued General Lee for months, driving him from the Confederate stronghold of Petersburg over 100 miles to the tiny hamlet of Appomattox Court House. Lee was attempting to get supplies for his exhausted and starving army at the rail head near the town. But, Grant had other ideas and managed to trap him there. Lee vainly attempted to smash his way through but to no avail.
The old stagecoach road In Appomattox Court House. Lee tried to use this road as an escape route.
He faced the harsh reality that his only option to avoid further bloodshed was to surrender. Grant knew this too. So, On April 9th, 1865 he sent peace emissaries to Lee to open negotiations for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. At first, Lee rejected the offer. However, as more and more Federal troops poured into the area, Lee knew that his situation was truly hopeless. He agreed to meet with Grant to discuss terms. They decided to meet the next day, Sunday, April 10th at the McLean house in the heart of the town. Grant's magnanimous gesture of rather lenient terms for Lee and his men sealed the deal and Lee surrendered his army. Even though sporadic fighting continued in certain areas, particularly in the West and deep South, for all intent and purpose the Civil War ended that day and it that place.
The McLean House
For a time, Appomattox basked in the glory of  the fame that was bestowed on the town for “hosting” this momentous event. However, late in the Century the town fell upon hard times and was virtually destroyed by fire. Beginning in the 1930’s, the National Park Service took over the site and started the painstaking process of rebuilding the village. Today, it looks much like (minus the tens of thousands of troops) it did in Grant and Lee’s time.
I have always been interested in history in general and the Civil War in particular. So, given the time and the opportunity I had to make a pilgrimage there. Who knows if I would ever be passing this way again? As soon as I entered the site I actually became emotional. I had read and heard so much about Grant, Lee, Appomattox, and the McLean House that they had almost taken on a mythical and surreal quality. Like so many other famous people and places, they seem to live only in our imaginations. To experience them is another matter. However, actually being there was as if I could truly FEEL what happened here. To walk where they had walked, to see what they had seen made it all come alive for me. And, it affected me. These were no longer figures shown only in paintings or grainy Matthew Brady photographs but real human beings who fought and died for what they believed in. I felt myself wipe away a tear. It was almost overwhelming.

Perhaps, considering the current political schism that seems to be fracturing our Country, my visit carried extra significance and that is why I felt my emotions so powerfully. The last time that we were as divided in our viewpoints nearly 800,000 Americans lost their lives to prove that their cause was the right one. The fighting was brutal and vicious to the bitter end. Brother killed brother. Families were torn apart. And, we are still feeling the effects even today.
But, now, the place was extraordinary peaceful and beautiful. Gentle, rolling hills were punctuated by fields where farmers grew tobacco and other crops. The site is far enough away from any major highway so the noise of modern traffic was minimal. And, the few people visiting were older, and extraordinarily respectful. They were obviously aware of what had transpired here and gave the site the respect and reverence that it is due. Everyone seemed to be speaking in whispers.
The Court House

Slaves quarters
What further interested me about the site was not only how people died there but how they LIVED, too. Virginia is very rural today so you can imagine what it was like over 150 years ago. Large farms dominated the area. But, there was also a need for a place for people to gather and for supplies that they couldn’t grow or make. And, they needed buildings to conduct the business of society, like a court house. Of course, the one in the county seat that was Appomattox Court House still occupies the heart of the town. And, like today, the various strata of society was also represented at Appomattox Court House. From the humble but surprisingly “cozy” homes of the slaves who were an integral part of Southern society to the modest but comfortable county clerk’s house to the grand and opulent McLean home, chosen for the surrender ceremony for that reason, the village proved to be a microcosm of not only the South but much of America. And, not a lot has changed today.
The Parlor of the McLean House
At one point, I stood silently in the parlor of the McLean House where the actual ceremony between Lee, Grant and their staffs took place, drinking in the moment. I tried to place myself at that most historic moment and FEEL what they must have felt: Grant, great relief that his tactics had worked and Lee, great despair that his had not. I was left to wonder, however, if both or either man had a sense that what they were about to do would change the course of history. They must have. And, it must have been awesome. The significance was not lost on me.

I encountered this type of transcendent experience only once before and under similar circumstances: As a young man, I was driving across the Country for the first time. On route, I noticed signs for the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Park. It was a good distance out of my way but I didn’t care. I had read so much and seen so many Hollywood productions about the battle that I felt compelled to go there. So, I turned off the main highway and headed my car in that direction.  

Unfortunately, (or, fortunately depending on your POV) I arrived too late and the Park was closed. But, I found that it didn’t matter. In fact, in some ways, it was to my advantage. NO ONE was there. It was so extraordinarily peaceful. There was no sound but the wind whistling through the tall grass and the singing of the multitude of birds who were my only companions. I could see through the fence to get a good idea of how the battle played out and could even see the monument erected where Custer fell. It was earie and incredibly powerful – a place that had only existed in my imagination was indeed real. Hundreds of men met their end here and, once again, history was made. I took a deep breath and sucked it all in. I could not miss the palpable presence of legendary figures like Custer and Crazy Horse who fought there. Their fierce spirits are still present in the wind – if you listened.

So it was at Appomattox. Although there were a handful of visitors, a short walk through town
Confederate soldier
brought one able amounts of privacy. It was easy to reflect on the significance of what had happened there and the people who lived it. To aid in the experience, actors re-enacted the lives of some of the less notable figures who none-the-less played important roles in the war’s final outcome. One actor played a Lieutenant Betts who, in a great bit of irony, after spending the previous 4 years fighting for the Confederacy all over the South now found himself in a desperate fight a few hundred yards from his family’s farm on the outskirts of town. It made the experience all that much more real.
I tarried a bit more, walking from one end of the town to the other and reflecting on where we’ve been as a Country and where we may be going. It struck that we may be at a similar crossroads now as our ancestors were in the middle of the 19th Century. There is now, as there was then, a great divide in our Nation. Two polar opposites are vying for the most powerful position on earth. And, we the people are faced with choosing one or the other. There is no other option. Whichever one we choose, and we must choose, should have the ability to reunite the Country as a single nation that respects ALL of its people. To fail is to invite disaster. And, in the end, the lessons of a place like Appomattox will truly be lost to time.

After a last, long look I returned to my car for the long ride back to the airport and the confines of my own, little village, safe in the notion that because of the men who fought and died at Appomattox, I am a free man.

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