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What is the Historical Importance of Appomattox?

By James Doehring
Updated May 17, 2024
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Appomattox, Virginia is the site where Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War, officially surrendered to Union forces. The surrender took place in the Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865. Sporadic fighting occurred for additional months, but the loss of General Lee and his army set in motion the final conclusion of the Civil War. Southern states were subsequently occupied by United States troops, and the Era of Reconstruction began.

The American Civil War was a conflict that had been brewing for many years before open hostilities broke out. The United States was rapidly expanding westward, and the issue of whether slavery should be legal in the new territories caused significant tensions between northern and southern states. The North was generally more industrial and urban, and was growing much faster than southern states. This gave rise to fears that Southern influence in national politics was waning.

The newly-seceded Confederate States of America (CSA) fired the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in 1861. In the beginning of the war, the CSA had many tactical victories. But the Union brought nearly twice as many soldiers to the battlefield as the Confederacy and dominated the naval theater. Most historians cite the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, where the Confederates lost more than 23,000 soldiers, as the turning point in the war.

The Confederate economy collapsed, and the Union began winning tactical victories leading up to the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Robert E. Lee, who is widely regarded as an expert military strategist, was forced to abandon the capital of Richmond. He moved west, where he was soon defeated at Appomattox.

Having weak central leadership, the CSA did not have a unified response to the Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Many armies, including those in Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, did not surrender until weeks later. The last shots of the war were fired by the Confederate warship Shenandoah in the June of 1865. U.S. President Andrew Johnson did not formally declare the war’s end until 20 August 1866.

Though organized warfare came to an end in 1865, resistance to Union laws did not. Slavery was technically abolished after the Civil War, but the Era of Reconstruction is generally viewed by historians as a failure. Violence towards blacks continued and was tolerated in many areas of the South. Significant legislation to give blacks full rights did not come until the civil rights movement about 100 years later.

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Discussion Comments
By JimmyT — On Oct 26, 2011

@Emilski - I have been to many different Civil War stopping grounds in the past and I can say that Appomattox is no different than any other place I have been to. This being said I have to say this does not at all take away from the historical significance of the area and that it should not be ignored simply because it is a small town that had one event happen there.

Despite there town only being known for one event, it was incredibly important during the war and showed how much the Civil War impacted all of America. To have something so major occur in a small town like Appomattox just goes to show how the Civil War could reach any town and that the entire country was involved in the matter, not just bigger areas.

By Emilski — On Oct 26, 2011

I think that although Appomattox is a very small area and did have an historical event happen there it is no different than many other small towns during the Civil War.

The Civil War encapsulated a lot of the United States during its time, especially in the state of Virginia. It is not unusual for a small town in Virginia or the south along the coast to have some Civil War stories, whether it be some type of battle or historical stopping point during the duration of the war.

I guess Appomattox is the place where the war officially came to an end and that is why it is so important, but it just does not seem any special than other stopping grounds in the Civil War to me.

By titans62 — On Oct 26, 2011

@Izzy78 - I have heard this story and can attest to the smallness of the area. Appomattox is a very small area, maybe only a couple thousand and for something so important to be settled in such a small area is incredible.

I will say though I do not think that the citizens of the area thought much of this at the time. Considering that there was a battle going on in the area and there were thousands of troops fighting each other, I would think that the citizens were seeking cover or fleeing the area to get away from the fighting going on. I bet they did not find out this historical occurrence until later on when they heard about the surrender of the Confederacy.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 25, 2011

I have always wondered exactly what people at Appomattox thought when such an important and large war in our nations history was decided right on their doorsteps.

I have never been to Appomattox, but I have heard that it is a very small area and is just a small town courthouse that they met in out of convenience to simply come to an agreement on ending the war.

Just a thought, but I have always found it interesting that two big giants in warfare like Grant and Lee met in such a small place to decide something so important.

By ladyjane — On Oct 24, 2011

It's amazing to me that it took a series of seven letters over a period of three days from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning just before noon to schedule their meeting that Sunday afternoon.

The only reason I can remember that is because we had to do a reenactment in history class of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. All the way from General Grants initiation letter to the signing and shaking hands over the agreement.

By truman12 — On Oct 24, 2011

The Civil War was such a fascinating time. I have been obsessed with it since the time I was a little kid and I feel like I could spend the rest of my life learning about it and still not know all there is to know.

What has interested me particularly lately is how much debate there is between scholars who are sympathetic to either the north or the south. Of course there are many agreed upon facts and no one fully supports the goals of the confederacy. But there is definitely a current in the literature that leans more toward the south. You begin to realize how much of the narrative depends on interpretation.

By Ivan83 — On Oct 24, 2011

My dad had a painting of the Appomattox court house that hung in his den for years. He was a big civil war buff and that particular site and picture had some kind of special significance for him.

He told me once that the place where a war ends is the most important place in that war. And I guess that's why he thought so much about that court house. He never did get to see it in person but we still have the painting around.

By backdraft — On Oct 23, 2011

I have made many trips to Virginia and have visited the Appomattox site several times. These days it looks mostly like a field. There is a plaque of course and some other civil war memorabilia but it is mostly just a rolling field.

Still, I have always been moved when I have visited. Honestly, I am not an overly emotional person but there is something about being in that spot and knowing all that history that really kind of chokes you up. Its hard to describe for people that haven't been there but I know that people have had this same reaction when visiting other battlefields, even if they had no real connection to the war.

I think that something lives on in places like that. I hope that we will continue to preserve and honor that sport long into our nation's future.

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