Sunday, April 12, 2015

Civil War Sunday - The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Today, I have a challenge.  More and more, foreign readers enjoy my United States-based blog, and I have to make Sundays, when I write about American history (specifically our Civil War), interesting to them.  I also want to make history interesting to all of my readers, because too many of them were taught history in a way that makes them equate history with boredom.

So, today, lets go back 150 years and a handful of days.  Back in 1861, a portion of the United States had split off, formed the Confederate States of America, and had been fighting a war against the United States for some four years.  Let's go back to April, 1865.

On April 9, 1865, according to what too many of us seem to have learned in school, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and the Civil War was over.  Right?

Not exactly. The true story is fascinating, and, to tell it, I need to backtrack a bit.

Starting with the election of third party candidate Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States in November, 1860, certain Southern states felt the need to secede from the United States.

To this day, the first state to secede, South Carolina, has a copy of the Ordinance of Secession in an honored place in their state capital at Columbia, which I visited last month.

Then, in April, 1861, shots were fired at a fort in Charleston Harbor (again, South Carolina) called Ft. Sumter and active hostilities began.

The first major battle was fought near  Bull Run Creek near Manassas, in Virginia and that, in a way, is where today's story starts. The Battle of what Northerners call First Bull Run and Southerners call First Manassas (yes, both sides even named the Civil War battles differently)  started with shots fired at a house owned by a man by the name of Wilbur McLean.  His house was being used as a headquarters by Confederate General, P.G.T. Beauregard, who was also the Confederate general who commanded the defenses of Charleston, and whose aides ordered the shots be fired on Ft. Sumter.

So First Bull Run was fought on McLean's property.  A cannonball even fell in his kitchen.

In August of 1861, a major battle was fought many miles away, in Missouri - Wilson's Creek - which so many people have never heard of because the Western battles are almost never mentioned.  As I've blogged about so many times, the western events of the Civil War tend to be ignored in our popular education.  (I'll get back to that, later, too.)  But for now, back to McLean.

Some time after the First and Second Battles of Bull Run/Manassas, McLean decided things weren't too safe in his part of Northern Virginia for him, his family, or his business, so he moved south, to a small settlement he felt was safely away from the war.  Its name was Appomattox Court House.

The keen reader may see where this story is headed, but please bear with me a few more minutes.

On January 31, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of the Confederate forces. On April 2, Petersburg, Virginia (which had been under siege for months) fell.  Lee felt the nearby Confederate capital, Richmond, was no longer defensible. He withdrew his troops and Richmond fell on April 3.

Lee, realizing he was surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, started to send dispatches to Union General U.S. Grant on April 7 while he continued to fight on.  On April 9, 1865, Palm Sunday, Lee met with Grant in a parlor in the most impressive house in a nearby community....yes, Wilbur McLean's house in Appomattox Court House Virginia.

As I've said so many times before, you can't make this stuff up.

After Lee's surrender, troops from both sides swept through the house. They bought (or took) McLean's belongings from the parlor where the surrender had taken place as souvenirs.  General George Armstrong Custer (later of fame at Little Big Horn) ended up with the table that the surrender was signed on.  (Custer's widow bequeathed the table to the Smithsonian.)

But, Lee did not surrender the entire Confederate Army, just the army he personally commanded, the Army of Northern Virginia.  And the Civil War was not over.  This wasn't even the largest surrender of Confederate troops, which would not take place until April 26, at Bennett Place, between Greensboro and  Raleigh, North Carolina. And the war dragged on in the West.  The last large Confederate surrender came at Galveston, Texas, on June 2, 1865.  Once again, the western theatre of war has been neglected.

And, in my view, the war never ended - just the active hostilities.  In fact, a Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state capital in Columbia, South Carolina.

But the first surrender made the other surrenders of the various Confederate armies just a matter of time.

With Lee's surrender, though, you may wonder if I intend to continue Civil War Sunday.  Yes, at least for the immediate future.  Some of the after-stories are just as fascinating as the war stories.

History, after all, is the history of US (as someone else said) - the United States, and the human race.


  1. I live very near Wilson's Creek! My great, great grandfather was a bushwhacker. Love your Civil War history!

    1. Thank you! I never wrote a post on the visit I made to the Wilson's Creek Battlefield in early September, 2013. I should!

  2. Please continue! The Civil War was the major event in U.S. history and continues to effect us today. Just because the anniversary celebrations are winding down doesn't mean that interest for the topic is winding down too!

    1. I will continue, at least for now. I agree the Civil War affects us in so many ways even today, even as we move on to other war anniversaries.

  3. You're right, most Confederate troops didn't surrender until May 1865, but essentially the war ended with the fall of Richmond and Lee's surrender, which left the Confederacy with no effective leadership. Would you say the war ended by December 1865, when the 13th amendment became effective, or did it end in the Reconstruction Era, when the rebel states were re admitted to Congress? Though for some people, the war continued until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950's and 1960's.

  4. Yes, hostilities still rage in many civilizations of the world. Bit, the danger is worse when it is within one country. Take North and South Korea. I was surprised to hear on a quiz show last night that the British destroyed the White House the first time. That would make a good story because I don't know anything about it. Is it civil war?

    1. No, that was during the War of 1812. There are some stories about First Lady Folly Madison saving a portrait of George Washington from the burning White House.

  5. Hi Alana,
    This is awesome information thanks for sharing :) Very interesting about our history thank you!


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