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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Burgess’s Mill (October 27, 1864)

Armstrong's mills and rebel works on "Hatcher's Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin," as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

“Armstrong’s mills and rebel works on Hatcher’s Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin,” as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade doesn’t note it in his letter of October 27, but this movement of the Army of the Potomac and the fighting at Burgess’s Mill marked the end of active campaigning for 1864. Here’s how I describe the fighting in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Meade had another narrow escape later that month during the Battle of Burgess’s Mill on October 27. Once again Grant had Butler attack the Confederates north of the James, while Meade moved against the Confederate right in an attempt to capture the South Side Railroad. Hancock and the II Corps were to be the tip of the spear, supported by the V and IX Corps under Warren and Parke. Grant and Meade rode out to the front on the damp and dreary morning of October 27 to observe Hancock’s position. The II Corps faced the Confederate right near Hatcher’s Run at a spot called Burgess’s Mill on the Boydton Plank Road. The fighting here was brisk, and a shell exploded near Meade–so close that Horace Porter thought it must have killed him. But again Meade emerged unscathed. Grant also had a close brush with a bursting shell, and then his horse got one leg tangled in a fallen telegraph line. An aide had to carefully free the horse’s leg while Grant remained exposed to enemy fire.

By then it was apparent that the rebel entrenchments extended much farther to the west than anyone had anticipated, and Grant called off the attack. Hancock prepared to withdraw from his exposed position the next morning. The Confederates, as they often did, had different plans. Finding a weakness, William Mahone’s men made a stealthy passage through swamp and forest toward the Union right. Hancock had thought Samuel Crawford’s division was moving up to connect with him there; instead, the rebel forces swung around his flank and attacked. The Federals managed to recover from their surprise and force the Confederates back, but Hancock decided to withdraw his forces that night despite the rain and the darkness.

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

The Battle at Burgess’s Mill finished the active campaigning for 1864–and it marked the end of Winfield Scott Hancock’s time with the Army of the Potomac. He had been summoned back to Washington to raise a corps of veteran soldiers. The Petersburg Campaign had been one disappointment after another for Hancock, who seemingly had reached his own high-water mark at Gettysburg. One of his last actions was to make an official complaint to Meade about the reporting of Edward Crapsey, whom Meade had allowed to return to the army. Meade advised Hancock to write up charges and said he would have Crapsey tried by a commission.

I moved to-day with the greater portion of the Army of the Potomac, intending, if practicable, to make a lodgment on the Southside Railroad. We, however, found the enemy so strongly entrenched, and the character of the country was such, we were not able to accomplish reaching the road. We have had some quite sharp fighting, principally Hancock’s Corps on our side, in which we successfully resisted the attempts of the enemy to check our advance or dislodge us from positions taken. We shall, however, I think, be under the necessity of returning to our entrenched lines. General Grant has been on the field all day, sanctioning everything that was done. At one time both Grant and myself were under a heavy artillery fire, but luckily none of either of our large corteges were touched.

Theodore Lyman has been strangely quiet since his letter from October 17, but he finally breaks his silence today. Here’s his letter home about the day’s events. His pen will remain busy over the next few days.

I won’t write at length till I get a decent chance. I caught the greatest pelting with all sorts of artillery projectiles to-day, you ever saw, but no hurt therefrom. I could not help being amused, despite the uncomfortable situation, by the distinguished “queue” of gentlemen, behind a big oak! There was a civilian friend of Grant’s, and an aide-de-camp of General Barnard (a safe place to hold), and sundry other personages, all trying to giggle and all wishing themselves at City Point! As to yours truly, he wasn’t going to get behind trees, so long as old George G. stood out in front and took it. “Ah!” said Rosey, with the mild commendation of a master to a pupil: “oh! you did remember what I did say. I have look at you, and you did not doge!” It don’t do to dodge with Hancock’s Staff about; they would never forgive you. At length says the General: “This is pretty hot: it will kill some of our horses.” We came out on a big reconnaissance, which may be turned into a move or not, according to results. I rather fancy the enemy’s line is too long to be turned by what troops we have to dispose.

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. 237. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 250-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.