Last week of the Civil War (Virginia)

Living in Central Virginia, Civil War history is all around us.  With much of the war taking place in the area, there are many battlefields, historic homes, and museums with their own history from the war.  This week marks the 155th anniversary of the end of the war – from the fall of Richmond on April 3rd to the last battle at Sailor’s Creek on April 6th to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9th.  Here is the timeline of that week’s events and some spots to visit, both virtually and in person, to learn more about this important time period in our nation’s history.

Please note that in person visits at most sites are not available currently due to the COVID-19 health crisis.  Please check the site before you visit and abide by the local stay-at-home order by the Virginia Governor.

 

April 2 – 3: Richmond

On the morning of April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was sitting in his pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond, just steps from Capitol Square.  A message was brought to him in the middle of the service, and upon reading it, he stood up and left.  That note carried the message that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces had been defeated at Petersburg and that Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, could no longer be defended.  The citizens of Richmond began to panic, fleeing their homes, along with the Confederate government, which burned valuable documents and headed south on the last train out of the city.  As the Confederate Army fled, they set fire to the city’s warehouses, which ended up burning down most of the city south of the Capitol.  The Federal troops, arriving on the morning of April 3rd, put out the fires.

Spots to visit:

  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: You can still see the pew where Jefferson Davis was sitting when he received that fateful message.  This church was also used as a hospital during the war and its prayer cushions were used as pillows for the wounded soldiers.  Check out this image from 1865 to get a full picture of what the church would have looked like during the war.  You can also view its interior on Google.  
  • U.S Post Office and Customs House: This building, across the street from the Virginia Capitol, housed Jefferson Davis’ office on the 3rd floor.  While this building now serves as a Federal courthouse and cannot be toured, you can stand on the Capitol grounds and view the building. This building was one of the few buildings south of the Capitol to survive the evacuation fire.  See the Google street view of the building here.

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  • Virginia Capitol: The Capitol served as both the seat of Virginia’s government and the Confederate Congress during the war.  Read my review of it and take this great virtual tour.  Your kids will love learning about the different rooms and statues.

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  • Evacuation fire marker: There is a historical marker in downtown Richmond at 9th and Main Street that discusses the devastating evacuation fire.  You can view photos of the fire here.
  • American Civil War Museum: This excellent museum contains stories and artifacts from the entire war, including the fall of Richmond.  Check out my review of it and its new virtual learning site for more info.  Its buildings, once the site of the Tredegar Iron Works, also burned during the evacuation fire. 

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  • The museum also has preserved the White House of the Confederacy, which includes Davis’ home office.  

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  • James River bridge: Visit the banks of the James River to see remnants of the burned bridges from the evacuation.  Check out this Google Maps view from the Potterfield Bridge.
  • Richmond surrender marker: See the historical marker on Osborne Turnpike where Richmond’s mayor surrendered the city to the Union troops.
  • Virginia Museum of History and Culture: This important museum has many artifacts from the Civil War, including a window from the notorious Libby prison.  Tour virtually here!

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  • Stewart-Lee House: Located at 707 East Franklin Street, this house is where the Lee family lived during the latter part of the war and is where Gen. Lee returned to on April 15th, after the surrender at Appomattox.  While very close to the evacuation fire, it was spared. It is not open to the public but there is a historical marker in front of it.
  • Watch a Richmond National Battlefield Park ranger talk about the fall of Richmond here.

 

April 4: Richmond

On the morning of April 4th, President Abraham Lincoln visited the still-smoldering ruins of Richmond.  He was meeting with Union military leadership a few miles down the James River in City Point and brought his 12-year-old son, Tad, with him (on Tad’s birthday!).  He proceeded through the city, with massive crowds of former enslaved people following, to the White House of the Confederacy.  

Spots to visit:

  • Watch this fantastic video tour by Richmond National Battlefield Park ranger, Mike Gorman, as he walks you through Lincoln’s visit to Richmond.  This is a great map to use with his video tour.
  • Abraham and Tad Lincoln statue at the American Civil War Museum

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April 6: Sailor’s Creek

As Lee’s forces retreated through the Virginia countryside, there were still several skirmishes with the Union troops.  One of his last futile attempts at escape was at Sailor’s Creek.  This battlefield, 60 miles southwest of Richmond, is a great place to visit as most of its sites to see are outside.  There is a small visitor’s center but also a driving tour with interpretive signs and a car tour via radio.  Check out these Google Maps photos of the driving tour.  

 

April 9: Appomattox

155 years ago tomorrow, the Civil War effectively came to an end at Appomattox Court House, 95 miles southwest of Richmond.  As Lee’s army continued its retreat without needed supplies and reinforcements, he realized that he couldn’t sustain the fight any longer.  He sent word to Gen. Grant early in the morning of April 9th to set up terms of surrender.  The actual surrender took place at the McLean house in Appomattox Court House.  Ironically, Wilmer McLean had been involved in the war’s first battle at Bull Run, and he fled that site to settle far away from the battles, only to have the war end in his own parlor!  

Spots to visit:

  • Appomattox Court House National Historic Park: This site is a great place to visit, once the travel restrictions have been lifted.  It has several buildings to see, including the McLean house (if you have visited the “choose your own adventure” cabin activity at the VMHC, you will recognize these buildings!).  Check out the site’s 360° virtual tour and its historic photos.  There is also a GPS-enabled Appomattox app to enhance your driving tour of the area.  For schooling at home, be sure to check out the site’s teacher packets for more information on this important event!
  • American Civil War Museum – Appomattox: A few miles from Appomattox Court House is the American Civil War Museum’s outpost in Appomattox.  Check out Google images to view some of its collections (click on “By Owner”).  There are also some outdoor exhibits in cabins. 
  • Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Washington, DC): This museum houses the original table and chairs used by Gens. Grant and Lee for the surrender.  You can see them virtually here!

 

The end of the Civil War did not guarantee harmony but it did signify the end of the unimaginable bloodshed that left over 700,000 dead and the freedom of almost 4 million enslaved people.  The sites involved in the last week of the war are important and should be visited, whether in person or virtually.  Take some time during this home quarantine to “tour” these sites!

 

Books to Read:

See my book list on Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative.  This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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