Connellsville author shares details of conclusion of Civil War
My birthday is April 12, so perhaps that's why I've always been fascinated by the Civil War, which began on April 12, 1861, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, off the port city of Charleston, S.C., and ended at the sleepy village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia — four years to the day, on April 12, 1865, the last day of the surrender ceremony that followed the signing on April 9.
“Mists Over Appomattox,” stories in my audio book, produced by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, were designed to whisk audiences back in time 150 years to that historic Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, when the long and bloody Civil War came to an honorable, poignant end.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the world learned this democratic republic could survive violent internal dissension and rise above it to become a great nation, a nation that may well be, in the words of President Lincoln, “... the last best hope of mankind.”
Federals and Confederates began to rediscover their shared American heritage at the formal surrender ceremony, April 10 through April 12, 1865, that echoed the tone Grant and Lee had set on April 9.
The presiding Federal officer was Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, a former college professor from Maine, who was wounded six times and who would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Presiding over the Confederates was a recurrent adversary of Chamberlain, Gen. John B. Gordon, himself wounded five times.
As Lee's defeated army approached the village of Appomattox Court House, Chamberlain watched the worn gray ranks as they trudged with heart-wrenching dignity over the muddy road toward his waiting division. Spontaneously, he gave the sudden order for Federal troops to “shoulder arms!” A bugle called, and all along the road Union soldiers raised muskets to shoulders, the salute of military respect.
A very surprised Gordon instantly wheeled his horse, pulling the animal in so sharply, that it nearly sat on its haunches. Then he spurred the horse to a half-rear, whipped out his sword, bowed and dropped the tip of that sword to his booted toe in acknowledgment. The fierce-looking Georgian then ordered his men to “shoulder arms!” in response, honor answering honor.
For this book, I pulled from years of research, garnered from actual eyewitness accounts that I checked and rechecked with historians at the Appomattox Court House National Park. I remember that years ago, when I first began research on this work, I had my original focus on Lee, whom I admired greatly, but as my research progressed, it didn't take me long to balance that focus. I wanted my audiences to be moved by Grant as well, mud-spattered, weary, admiration tinged with compassion readable on his rugged features — not perhaps a courtly gentleman, but an equally great one.
The surrender was signed in a private home within the village of Appomattox Court House (the seat of Appomattox County), Va., in the parlor of the McLean house. So many folks make the mistake, as did a reporter who interviewed me recently, that the surrender was signed at the village courthouse; but since it was Palm Sunday, the courthouse was closed.
Fate had played a strange trick on the McLean family. The perils and horrors of the American Civil War followed them through Virginia, making the head of the family, Wilmer McLean, feel like a “cursed magnet.” He often said after Lee's surrender that “the war started in my kitchen and ended in my parlor!”
An upper middle-class family, the McLeans had been living, at the outset of the Civil War, on their plantation at Manassas in northern Virginia. During the first Battle of Bull Run, a cannon ball tore through their kitchen, exploding into a pot of stew.
In the autumn of 1863, Wilmer moved his family south to the village of Appomattox Court House, where, as fate would have it, in the spring of 1865, the war ended, just as McLean said, in his parlor.
In addition to the move being a business decision for McLean, who was a sugar broker. He had hoped that relocating his family farther south would keep them from the worst dangers of the war. But the long and indiscriminate arm of the Civil War touched lives throughout America, including the lives of children.
What is not known by many is that there was a silent witness to the historic event in the McLean's parlor, and that was the rag doll, remembered by McLean descendants as “...lovingly handmade by a doting mother” and belonging to Wilmer and Virginia McLean's youngest daughter Lucretia, called by family and friends “Lula.”
Sometime before the surrender conference commenced, the McLean children departed for a neighbor's. Seven-year-old Lula had been playing in the parlor, and in her haste to leave the house when her mother anxiously called to her, she left her favorite doll — and constant companion — on the horsehair sofa. Lula would never see her doll again.
When the meeting between Grant and Lee ended and both commanders departed, a few of Grant's younger officers spied the doll. Grant's junior officers began tossing the small cloth figure from one to the other, calling it the “Silent Witness.”
The doll was taken, under ardent protests from Wilmer McLean, from his property by Capt. Thomas W.C. Moore to that Union officer's home on Long Island, N.Y., where it remained a treasured trophy, captive in a glass dome, for 128 years.
Late in 1992, an elderly lady visited Appomattox Court House National Park. A descendant of Moore's, she had always wanted to visit Appomattox. At the National Park site, she told no one who she was, but when she returned home, she made a decision and telephoned park officials. The Moore descendant donated the Silent Witness in December of that year to the Appomattox Court House National Park, where the spellbinding poppet is now on permanent display.
History's tiniest and longest-held prisoner of the American Civil War had finally returned home.
There were several Pennsylvania units involved in the hard fighting that led to Lee's surrender including the 142nd Pennsylvania Regiment H-Company of which was mustered here in Fayette County. These Fayette County soldiers were actively engaged in the Appomattox Campaign that raged from March 28 to April 9, 1865. And they were present at the surrender ceremony that followed.
The 142nd's drum resides in the Connellsville Carnegie Free Library, upstairs in the museum.
The 142nd's H-Company's muster revealed many familiar Connellsville surnames, such as Balsley, Connell, Demuth, Dull, Durbin, Firestone, and Kurtz, among others. H-Company's captain was Joshua Dushane, about whom I wrote in my “County Chronicles PA History Series.”
Afterword, around 9 in the morning following the surrender, Grant with his staff rode out toward the Confederate lines, where they were abruptly halted by gray-clad sentries and told they could not pass, that a message would be sent to headquarters, asking for instructions.
As soon as Lee heard that Grant was there, he rode out at the gallop to receive him. The pair met, saluting respectfully, each by raising his hat, and sat their horses for over a quarter of an hour, side by side, on a grassy knoll overlooking the lines of the two armies, their officers grouped round them in a semi-circle, out of earshot.
Later, Grant divulged in brief that the two had discussed details of the impending surrender ceremony, such as the manner of relinquishing arms and property, along with their mutual hope for peace and harmony to be restored to the country.
After President Lincoln, whose life would come to a violent end on April 15, 1865, no one would do more toward healing the nation than Grant and Lee. History can only speculate on the depth of their conversation that misty April morning after the surrender.
Lee went on to become president of Washington College in Lexington, Va. He served with the utmost distinction in that position from 1865 until his death on Oct. 12, 1870. The following year, the name of the institution was changed to Washington and Lee University. Ever the soldier, Lee's poignant final words were “Strike the tent!”
In 1866, Grant became the nation's first four-star general, after which he resigned from the army (1869) to become the 18th president of the United States. Though himself an honest man, his two terms were marred by widespread graft and corruption.
Grant had no understanding of politics; his talent was in leading a war-time army.
A week before he died in 1885, Grant (in order to leave means of support and a legacy for his family) finished writing his recollections of the war years, the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Dying of throat cancer, he could hardly swallow, and he had periods when he could not speak above a whisper, but his memoirs, his final voice on the past, echoes down the tunnel of the ages as one of the great war commentaries of all time.
Ceane O'Hanlon Lincoln is a Connellsville area author. “Mists Over Appomattox” is the second audiobook by Ceane O'Hanlon-Lincoln produced by the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative. The first audiobook is “A Sentimental Journey,” World War II memories. She has also written a Pennsylvania history series “County Chronicles.” For more information on her books, call 724-626-1817 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.