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!

The Rebellion Has Gone Up (April 2, 1865)

A dead Confederate soldier in the trenches before Petersburg (Library of Congress).

A dead Confederate soldier in the trenches before Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman gives an account of the events of April 2, when the Union forces finally broke through the Confederate lines around Petersburg (on ground that is now part of Pamplin Historical Park). A note indicates that Lyman really wrote this very detailed account on April 13. A note by the editor says that the only thing Lyman actually wrote home to his wife on April 2 was this:

Headquarters Army Of The Potomac
Sunday, April 2, 1865 11 P.M.

My Dear Mimi:

THE REBELLION
HAS GONE UP!

Theodore Lyman Lt.-col. & Vol. A.D.C.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully detailed recounting of the great events that spelled the doom of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lyman does a great job of communicating the confusion and excitement of the day’s events.

The “old house” where Lyman spotted Grant writing orders amid the scattered papers of the rebels who had been posted there is the Banks House, another part of Pamplin Historical Park.

Last night was a busy one and a noisy. Some battery or other was playing the whole time, and, now and then, they would all wake up at once; while the skirmishers kept rushing at each other and firing, sometimes almost by volleys. All of which did good, because it wore out the enemy and made them uncertain where the main attack might come. At a quarter past four in the morning, Wright, having massed his three divisions in columns of attack, near Fort Fisher, just before daylight charged their works, burst through four lines of abattis, and poured a perfect torrent of men over the parapet. He then swept to the right and left, bearing down all the attempts of the enemy’s reserves to check him; a part also of his force went straight forward, crossed the Boydton plank and tore up the track of the South Side Railroad. The assault was, in reality, the death-blow to Lee’s army. His centre was thus destroyed, his left wing driven into the interior line of Petersburg, and his right taken in flank and left quite isolated. At the same moment Parke attacked the powerful works in his front, somewhat to the right of the Jerusalem plank road, and carried the strong outer line, with three batteries, containing twelve guns; but the fire was so hot from the inner line that his men could get no further, but continued to hold on, with great obstinacy, for the rest of the day, while the Rebels made desperate sorties to dislodge them. In this attack General Potter received a wound which still keeps him in an extremely critical condition. You may well believe that the musketry, which had spattered pretty well during the night, now broke out with redoubled noise in all directions.

Under the excitement of getting at my valise and having some fresh paper, I am moved to write you some more about the great Sunday, which I so irreverently broke off I was saying that the musketry broke out pretty freely from all quarters. Do you understand the position of the troops? Here is a rough diagram. On the right Parke, from the river to west of the Jerusalem road; then Wright and Ord, stretching to Hatcher’s Run; then Humphreys, forming the left wing. To the left and rear were Sheridan and Griffin, making a detached left wing. Humphreys’ left rested somewhat west of the Boydton plank. Ord and Humphreys were now crowding in their skirmishers, trying for openings in the slashings to put in a column. Ord tried to carry the line, but could not get through; but the 2d division of the 2d Corps got a chance for a rush, and, about 7.30 in the morning, stormed a Rebel fort, taking four guns and several hundred Rebels; in this attack the 19th and 20th Massachusetts were very prominent. About nine o’clock the General rode off towards the left, from our Headquarters near the crossing of the Vaughan road, over Hatcher’s Run. He overtook and consulted a moment with Grant, and then continued along our old line of battle, with no “intelligent orderly” except myself. So that is the way I came to be Chief-of-Staff, Aide-de-camp, Adjutant-General, and all else; for presently the Chief took to giving orders at a great rate, and I had to get out my “manifold writer” and go at it. I ordered Benham to rush up from City Point and reinforce Parke, and I managed to send something to pretty much everybody, so as to keep them brisk and lively. In fact, I completely went ahead of the fly that helped the coach up the hill by bearing down on the spokes of the wheels!

The Banks house as it appears today.

The Banks House as it appears today.

And now came the notice that the enemy were going at the double-quick towards their own right, having abandoned the whole of Ord’s front and some of Humphreys’. We were not quite sure whether they might not contemplate an attack in mass on Humphreys’ left, and so this part of our line was pushed forward with caution while Humphreys’ right was more rapidly advanced. We met sundry squads of prisoners coming across the fields, among them a forlorn band, with their instruments. “Did you not see that band?” said Rosie to me that evening, in great glee. “Ah! I did see them. I did them ask for to play Yan — kay Doodle; but they vould not!” About 9 o’clock we got to General Humphreys on the Boydton plank road, by Mrs. Rainie’s. It was now definitely known that the enemy had given up his whole line in this front and was retreating northwesterly, towards Sutherland’s Station. He was reported, however, as forming line of battle a mile or two beyond us. Immediately Miles’s division marched up the Claiborne road, while Mott, followed by Hays (2d division, 2d Corps), took the Boydton plank. Still more to our left, the cavalry and the 5th Corps were moving also in a northerly direction. Meanwhile, Wright had faced his Corps about and was marching down the Boydton plank, that is to say towards the 2d Corps, which was going up; on his left was the 24th Corps, which had formed there by Grant’s orders; so you will see, by the map, that the jaws of the pincers were coming together, and the enemy hastened to slip from between them! As soon as Wright found that this part of the field was swept, he again faced about, as did the 24th Corps (now forming his right), and marched directly up the Boydton plank to the inner line of Petersburg defences, rested his left on the river, swung the 24th round to join Parke, on the right, and voila the city invested on east, south, and west. I am afraid this double manoeuvre will rather confuse you, so here are two diagrams, with the corps numbered, in their first and second positions. By eleven o’clock the General had got all his troops in motion and properly placed, and the Staff had come from the camp. We all started up the plank road, straight towards the town. It was a strange sensation, to ride briskly past the great oak, near Arnold’s Mill, where we got so awfully cannonaded at the first Hatcher’s Run; then on till we came to the earthwork, on this side of the Run, whence came the shot that killed Charlie Mills; then across the Run itself, passing their line with its abattis and heavy parapet, and so up the road, on the other side, marked by deep ruts of the Rebel supply-trains. As we got to the top of the rise, we struck the open country that surrounds the town, for several miles, and here the road was full of troops, who, catching sight of the General trotting briskly by, began to cheer and wave their caps enthusiastically! This continued all along the column, each regiment taking it up in turn. It was a goodly ride, I can tell you! Presently we spied General Grant, seated on the porch of an old house, by the wayside, and there we too halted. It seemed a deserted building and had been occupied by a Rebel ordnance sergeant, whose papers and returns were lying about in admirable confusion. A moral man was this sergeant, and had left behind a diary, in one page of which he lamented the vice and profanity of his fellow soldiers. He was not, however, cleanly, but quite untidy in his domestic arrangements. From this spot we had an admirable view of our own works, as the Rebels had, for months, been used to look at them. There was that tall signal tower, over against us, and the bastions of Fort Fisher, and here, near at hand, the Rebel line, with its huts and its defenders sorely beleagured over there in the inner lines, against which our batteries were even now playing; and presently Gibbon assaults these two outlying redoubts, and takes them after a fierce fight, losing heavily. In one was a Rebel captain, who told his men to surrender to nobody. He himself fought to the last, and was killed with the butt end of a musket, and most of his command were slain in the work. But we carried the works: neither ditches nor abattis could keep our men out that day! You may be sure Miles had not been idle all this time. Following up the Claiborne road, he came on the enemy at Sutherland’s Station, entrenched and holding on to cover the escape of their train. Though quite without support, he attacked them fiercely, and, at the second or third charge, stormed their breastwork, routed them and took three guns and near 1000 prisoners. With this gallant feat the day ended, gloriously, as it had begun. We went into camp at the Wall house and all preparations were made to cross the river next morning and completely shut in the town.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 334-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.