Sometime around 3:00 PM on April 9th, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of his once vaunted Army of Northern Virginia to the combined armies of the United States under Ulysses S. Grant. The front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House provided the setting for this, the closing drama of the war in Virginia. The surviving soldiers of the opposing armies at Appomattox had come to the end of a long road that stretched through Farmville and Petersburg, through Gettysburg and Sharpsburg, along the Rapidan and Chickahominy all the way back to Bull Run.
The people of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania didn’t receive the news until the following day, the morning of April 10th, 1865. Few northern communities could claim to have experienced the full spectrum of the horror of the Civil War as did the residents of Gettysburg. Like nearly every northern town, many of Gettysburg’s residents volunteered to fill the ranks of northern armies. Most of them made it home, but not all. Men like Fred Huber who was killed at Fair Oaks or Alexander Cobean who numbered among the slain at Shiloh, brought the tragedy of distant engagements home to an otherwise peaceful community. Unlike nearly every other northern town, Gettysburg played host to a major battle. The destruction and carnage of war visited Adams County in a manner that was all too familiar in the south, but virtually unknown throughout the loyal states of the North.
The news of the surrender of Lee caused jubilation and celebration throughout Gettysburg. The Adams Sentinel reported the event with a headline proclaiming “Bright Skies! Lee Surrendered and His Whole Army!” and described the ensuing celebration which included the dismissal of all schools and “Cheer upon cheer…given for our victorious Generals, our Government, the Old Flag, and etc.” “This glorious news,” it continued, “is the precursor of Peace, and a triumph of our principles, which will tell upon the future of the great nation.”
The Civil War did not officially end that day or in that place, a fact those with more than a passing interest in the conflict are quick to cite, pointing to the April 26th surrender of Joe Johnston at Bennett Place, the May 1865 battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas or the furling of the ensign of the CSS Shenandoah in November of 1865, among a host of other “ends.” Yet, it’s tough to view the capitulation of Lee as anything other than the complete dissolution of the southern Confederacy.
Even if the war didn’t officially end that day, it has become the de facto conclusion for a four year long conflict that refuses to be anything other than complex and endlessly debatable. Even today, the word Appomattox conjures a feeling of finality…both for the Civil War generation, and for our own. Devoid a crystal ball and decipherable tea leaves, it seems likely that the current commemorative events at Appomattox will mark the end of the official sesquicentennial commemorations of the past four years, with the possible exception of the approaching anniversary of the Lincoln assassination.
In that vein, today at 3:15 PM in communities all across the United States, bells will be rung in commemoration of the conclusion of the American Civil War. Each bell will chime or call out for four minutes, each minute symbolizing one year of warfare. We invite you, should you happen to hear this sustained ringing where you live, to take four minutes, or even four seconds, out of your day to reflect on the significance of what happened one hundred and fifty years ago. Local churches in Gettysburg, the Lincoln Train Station, Gettysburg College, the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, and a host of others organizations will take part in this simple act of remembrance. We hope you will too.
Gettysburg National Military Park