A Visit to Pamplin Historical Park (and Beyond)

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A view from the aptly named High Bridge.

Rather than posting a Meade or Lyman letter from 150 years ago, here’s a dispatch from the present day.

Some time ago I received an email from A. Wilson Greene, the executive director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier outside Petersburg, Virginia. Pamplin Park is a great facility. It has a wonderful museum but also has acres of land that contain original Civil War entrenchments—and includes the spot where the Union VI Corps finally broke through the Confederate lines on April 2, 1865. I had interviewed Will and explored Pamplin Park when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, and included an account of the visit in the book.

A view of the Appomattox River from High Bridge.

A view of the Appomattox River from High Bridge.

Will got in touch to ask me if I would participate in a tour and symposium based around the events of April 1865. Of course I said yes, even though the prospect was a little intimidating. I would be part of a program that included top-notch Civil War scholars—Bill Marvel, who has written a bunch of books, including his new biography of Edwin Stanton; J. Tracy Power, author of the acclaimed book Lee’s Miserables; Elizabeth Varon, who is getting raves for her new book on Appomattox; William Cooper, an authority on Jefferson Davis (and, as it turned out, Will Greene’s former professor), and Will himself, who has written extensively about Petersburg and the Civil War. It was even more intimidated when I learned that the symposium had sold out, and I would be speaking to an audience of some 90 people who all knew a thing or two about the Civil War.

Well, it was a great experience. I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday, April 3 (meaning I missed the pre-dawn walk to the breakthrough point on April 2, 150 years ago exactly after the attack occurred), and the bus tour to Sailor’s Creek, but I did tag along for the April 4 tour. It was a long and eventful day, starting with a drive to the High Bridge outside Farmville, the site of fighting on April 7. The Confederates had used the breathtaking railroad bridge (2,400 feet long) to cross the Appomattox River, and then tried to burn the span behind them. They only partially succeeded, and Union troops were able to seize the wagon bridge that ran below the train tracks and continue their pursuit. Today the current bridge is part of a rail trail administered by the Virginia State Park system. The bridge reopened a few years ago as a pedestrian walkway (it was still being worked on when I visited while working on the book, so I had not been able to see it). You can now hike across the bridge and peer down at the brick pilings from the original Civil War structure. People with a fear of heights might think twice about making the crossing. In fact, one woman in our group asked me to walk directly in front of her so she should stare at my back and ignore the precipitous drops on either side of the bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen explains the fighting around the High Bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen explains the fighting around the High Bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen provided a running commentary about the fighting that took place here, and also an interesting story about local men back in the 1960s who found a huge cache of Civil War ammunition buried in one of the Civil War forts that guarded the approaches.

Will Greene and the president of the Appomattox 1865 Foundation explain the fighting at Appomattox Station.

Will Greene and the president of the Appomattox 1865 Foundation explain the fighting at Appomattox Station.

After lunch in Farmville, the tour continued west. We stopped to visit the site of the fighting that took place at Appomattox Station. The Civil War Trust has saved this land and the Appomattox 1865 Foundation/Friends of Appomattox Court House will open it to the public just in time for the 150th anniversary. We then visited the little village that provided the setting for Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. We entered Appomattox Court House along the remains of the original road that Confederate General John B. Gordon and his men used when they marched in to formally surrender on April 12. It was an absolutely gorgeous spring afternoon as we followed in Gordon’s footsteps, so it was difficult to share the sense of gloom and despair his men must have felt at the time.

A ceremony at the Confederate cemetery outside Appomattox Court House.

A ceremony at the Confederate cemetery outside Appomattox Court House.

That night I did a talk about George Gordon Meade and Ulysses S. Grant, and the next afternoon I participated in a panel discussion with all the other speakers. In that company, I felt a little outgunned, but I think I acquitted myself honorably.

The memorial arch at Blandford Cemetery.

The memorial arch at Blandford Cemetery.

The Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery.

The Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery.

After the symposium ended, my wife and I bolted to see just a few places in Petersburg. I wanted to visit Blandford Cemetery, the spot Meade had designated as the objective point for the troops moving forward after the explosion of the Mine back in July 1864. They never reached here. General William Mahone, whose mausoleum stands in the cemetery today, formed his men in the cemetery to counterattack the Union troops. The cemetery provides the burial places of many other Confederate soldiers, as well as veterans of the War of 1812 and actor and Petersburg native Joseph Cotton (who starred in one of my favorite movies, The Third Man).

The marker at Rives Salient.

The marker at Rives Salient.

Our last stop in Petersburg was at the marker erected to mark the spot where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was nearly killed during attacks on June 18, 1864. It’s nice that Chamberlain has a marker, but it’s a pity that it stands in a parking lot, all traces of the battlefield paved over and turned into commercial space. Time marches on.

It was a tremendous experience and I thank Will Greene and the staff of Pamplin Historical Park for making it happen, and for all the participants in the symposium their interest and enthusiasm, and for helping keep history alive.

Nice to see: Searching for George Gordon Meade is available at Appomattox Court House!

Nice to see: Searching for George Gordon Meade is available at Appomattox Court House!

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Relations (September 27, 1863)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the Wises. He’s speaking of Henry Wise and his family. Wise was a relative—his first wife (deceased) had been Magaretta Meade’s sister, making Henry Wise Meade’s brother-in-law. He was also the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. Once war began Wise joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when the Union army attempted to capture it in 1864—a battle in which Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was badly wounded.

Chamberlain later wrote of an encounter he had with Wise immediately following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Hearing a Confederate general railing at his own troops, the Union general decided to ride over and offer him some words of solace. He saluted and remarked on how well the men on both sides were responding to the surrender. “This promises well for our coming good-will,” he said. “Brave men may become good friends.”

“You are mistaken, sir, we won’t be forgiven, we hate you, and that is the whole of it,” Wise snapped at Chamberlain. He gestured towards his chest. “There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

According to another story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

We are having lovely weather at present; our camps are beautifully situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge, with the mountains in view, with pure air and plenty of good water; the best country in Virginia we have yet been in.

I had a visit yesterday from the Rev. Mr. Coles, Episcopal minister at the village, who told me he had seen Mr. Wilmer some few weeks since, and he had talked a great deal of me, and told him I had been his parishioner. He says Mr. Wilmer is not connected with the army, and has no church, but occupies himself in works of charity, and when he saw him he was on his way to visit the sick and wounded of the Confederate army, after its return from Pennsylvania.

I have tried, but unsuccessfully, to get some news of the Wises. Mr. Wise’s command undoubtedly went with Longstreet to Tennessee, but whether he went I am not able to ascertain.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 151. Available via Google Books.