For me it had become a “bucket list” item: to see first-hand the route on which Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia in those final desperate days that ended with Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. That chain of events started at what is now Pamplin Historical Park.
Pamplin is where, on April 2, 1865, Grant’s 14,000 Union soldiers broke through Lee’s defensive line, ending the nine-month, trench-warfare campaign for Petersburg and setting in motion Lee’s surrender one week later to the west. If that doesn’t tempt you, perhaps the $40 million spent on building Pamplin since the early 1990s will.
My interest was sparked a few years ago while reading Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. In it, O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard cover the final days of the Confederacy, as well as the final days of President Lincoln (and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth).
Tracing Lee’s Final Retreat Toward Appomattox
In some detail, the book documents the last week of Lee’s army after it was forced to evacuate long besieged Petersburg, Virginia, which also triggered Richmond’s evacuation. It was a life or death chess match between Lee and Grant, as Grant and his huge army countered every Lee westward movement, until he checkmated him at Appomattox.
Along the way, there were battles with names such as Five Forks, Amelia Courthouse, Sailor’s (or Saylor’s) Creek and High Bridge. I had heard and read a little bit about these final battles between Lee and Grant. O’Reilly’s book made me want to not only learn more, but to see it all in person.
So after a Memorial Day sojourn in Virginia’s Northern Neck, my wife and I set out to trace the approximately 94-mile “Lee’s Retreat” from Petersburg to Appomattox over two days, starting at Pamplin Historical Park.
We loaded up with Civil War brochures at the Virginia Welcome Center. And I had done a good bit of research in the weeks leading up to our trip. The route has lots of signage, displays, and information centers at the main battle sites. “Lee’s Retreat” took us through a lot of beautiful Virginia countryside.
We stuck with Highway 460 which is mostly two-lane and lightly used, so it was easy to take our time and pull over to read the many historical displays. Small parking areas accompany each, so safety is not an issue.
Pamplin Historical Park
The Pamplin Civil War site was a treasure to visit for the first time! It has only been around since the 1990s, and also features the excellent National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. And we picked a good day to visit – the day after Memorial Day. We really only saw a handful of other people the entire three-plus hours we were there.
Pamplin is located in Dinwiddie County, not far from Petersburg. Since it is privately owned and not a federal or state facility, there is an entrance fee ($13 for adults). But it is worth it due to the quality and detail within the gates of this vast site. With some justification, it was once called “the new crown jewel of Civil War sites in America” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson.
The significance of this site and what happened here in April 1865 is concisely laid out on this sign at the park’s entrance:
“April 2, 1865. Here the Union’s 5th Army Corps broke through the Confederate line defending Petersburg, during a series of attacks which eventually led to the evacuation of the city by Lee’s army that evening.”
The sign’s last line reads: “Nearby, Confederate General A.P. Hill was killed in the day’s fighting.”
The marker, which we made a point to locate outside the Pamplin park, reads as follows:
“To the memory of A.P. Hill, Lt-Gen. C.S.A. He was killed about 600 yards northwardly from this marker, being shot by a small band of stragglers from the federal lines on the morning of April 2nd, 1865. Erected by the A.P. Hill Camps Sons of Confederate Veterans – Petersburg, Va.”
There is a ground marker in the vicinity of these signs that claims to be the spot where Hill was killed. We didn’t know to look for that marker. Hill was a corps commander in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the time of his death. He was 39 years old.
Pamplin has an interesting history of private development. It is named for Dr. Robert Pamplin, whose descendants owned and lived on these 400-plus acres during the war. He is credited with rescuing these important historic grounds from suburban development. Read more about the park’s background here.
The Daily Life of Civil War Soldiers
On the museum’s walls are large and elaborate murals depicting the daily lives of soldiers. There are also displays of guns and other weaponry.
Visitors are given headsets to hear narrations to go along with the various points of interest along the museums halls and display rooms.
There is great attention to the often mundane soldiers’ lives, and what they did to pass the time. Visitors can select from about a dozen Southern and Northern soldiers, to hear perspectives of a particular man, gleaned from actual diaries and other writings.
Some of these men survived the war, some didn’t. You have to wait until the end of the tour to learn your “chaperone’s” fate.
Soldiers who misbehaved or worse had to pay the consequences. That is shown and described in detail, as well.
One of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldiers neatest exhibits is a wooded area you walk through and are fired upon by Union troops. It felt very realistic in conveying to some degree what combat must have been like.
One fallen soldier moves and opens his eyes as you walk by. He gave a startling chill to both of us!
Outdoor Displays: Trench Warfare and Rifle Pits
The big museum is just one part of Pamplin. Outside are many displays, including remains of the actual defensive positions the Confederates dug.
A replica trench and spiked defensive spears give a real sense of the trench warfare both sides endured (or died defending or attacking) around Petersburg during the 10-month Federal siege of the important transportation hub near Richmond in 1864-1865.
There are trails of various lengths (depending on your energy level and time to spend) that show in great detail the Confederate and Union troop positions and movements that culminated in the breakthrough that spelled doom to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Rifle pits and trenches are marked throughout the battlefield.
It’s amazing what Mr. Pamplin and all of his supporters, historians, and other workers have done to preserve and interpret what had been a little-known and documented crucial final stage of the Civil War!
The information on the many displays along the trail are so specific. You are literally standing and seeing where it all happened – that crucial Union breakthrough of what had been impenetrable Confederate fortifications. I learned that over time there were many Union units that claimed credit for the initial breakthrough. Pamplin seems to go with Vermonters on this matter.
One South Carolina man played a key role in the Confederate fortifications that had held strong for so long in this region. Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan was a lawyer from Abbeville, South Carolina who here commanded five regiments of some 1,400 men from the Palmetto State. McGowan, who commanded a brigade in Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps, was responsible for maintaining these fortifications from October 1864 until the Federals broke through in early April 1865.
McGowan, who was wounded at Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania, and his staff occupied this plantation house, which is part of the Pamplin park and open to visit.
The house displays excel in illustrating the Civil War lives here of McGowan and his staff who lived and worked here, and the family that found themselves dangerously part of the war. The lives of Mr. Pamplin’s ancestors are depicted in the house, along with the Confederate soldiers’ representation- an interesting mix.
Along with the restored plantation house, Pamplin features other buildings that would have been part of a prosperous plantation in the 1800s, including a tobacco barn.
Pamplin Park offers a complete Civil War education experience, with some hands-on fun too. Kids, big and small, will enjoy what’s inside this small structure. Drums, guns and soldiers’ uniforms are there to play with and try on.
Every state, North and South, is represented with the number of men who served in the military and how many died during the war.
For South Carolina, my home state, the number given is 80,462 who served and 17,682 who died. For such a small population state compared to the others, South Carolina contributed heavily proportionally in manpower- and bloodshed.
If you do go, don’t be in a hurry. There is so much to see both inside the main museum and a smaller second one.
And you’ll want to take your time to explore the plantation house and outer buildings, and to walk the trails that show and explain what happened here that was so significant in bringing the long war to a rather sudden end, after this breakthrough battle.
This article was published in its original form on Patrick Harwood’s blog.