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Appomattox Town & Park Eye Forgotten Battle Land
By Deborah Fitts
Feb./March 2004 APPOMATTOX, Va.

A long-forgotten battlefield from the war's end could be preserved under a cooperative plan involving the town of Appomattox, the Civil War Preservation Trust and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

An undisturbed 47-acre portion of the battlefield of Appomattox Station is for sale, and officials in the little town of Appomattox are eyeing the land as a key element in a new initiative to boost heritage tourism.

Neither the town nor the adjoining park has the money to make the purchase, but Trust spokesman Jim Campi said his organization may step in.

"It's in the very early stages," he said, "but we're looking forward to working with the National Park Service and local officials to save this site and make it into a tourist attraction."

The piece of ground north of town saw a bloody clash late on the afternoon of April 8, 1865, when the hard-pressed Confederate army under Robert E. Lee was brought to ground by pursuing Federals.

Five thousand Union cavalry under Gen. George A. Custer first captured a supply train at the depot, where the town is located now. Moving north, they surprised a column of Confederate artillery, numbering 100 guns, under Gen. Reuben Lindsay Walker, which had gone into bivouac on a rise of ground.

The location of the battle was long forgotten, and students of the war assumed that the growing town had swallowed the site. But in the 1980s National Park Service historian Chris Calkins found the journal of a member of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry who had a habit of drawing annotated maps of the actions he was in.

Calkins superimposed the trooper's sketch of the battlefield onto period and modern maps, and located the artillery on a low knoll fronted by swampland. Walker's command had gone in the advance of Lee's army and halted east of Appomattox Court House in order not to hamper the infantry, who were expected to continue moving the

Calkins got the property owner's permission to investigate the knoll, and "lo and behold," he found friction primers, and, in the low ground in front of the ridge, "hundreds of canister balls."

Although Calkins published his finding, little notice was taken locally till recently, when the park began holding meetings to draft a new General Management Plan. Calkins is on the planning team, and raised the issue of the neglected battlefield. That caught the attention of local officials.

"It's like all of a sudden there's this newly discovered battlefield," Calkins said with a chuckle. Former chief of interpretation at Appomattox, he is now a historian at Petersburg National Battlefield and is the architect of "Lee's Retreat," the first of the popular Civil War driving tours that have spread through Virginia.

Appomattox Town Manager David Garrett indicated that officials were quick to see that the battlefield could be the key element in a fledgling effort to attract tourism.

"We don't want the land to slip out of our fingers," said Garrett. Possible plans include a display about the battle on Main Street, a walking trail to the battlefield, "and then we'll send them to the National Park Service," farther to the north. An old school adjoining the battlefield could house a museum and visitor center, Garrett said.

"We're trying to promote tourism," Garrett explained. "Instead of visitors going to the park and staying two or three hours, we want to try to get them to stay a couple of days." Although Garrett acknowledged that Appomattox, population 1760, has few amenities at present, he suggested that an influx of tourists may change that.

Park Superintendent Reed Johnson expressed hope that the Trust will see its way to acquiring the property, which lies several hundred yards outside the park boundary.

"You've got an extremely significant site in private hands, and we can't do anything about it," Johnson said. "Even if the new General Management Plan says that we should acquire it, we're two to three years away" from making a purchase.

According to park historian Patrick Schroeder, Custer's men made four charges against the guns, finally breaking through with the last charge. A member of the 2nd New York Cavalry later wrote that his unit "made a charge down a narrow lane, which led to an open field where the rebel artillery was posted. As the charging column debouched from the woods, six bright lights suddenly flashed before
us. A tornado of canister-shot swept over our heads, and the next
instant we were in the battery."

Schroeder said that after the battle, surgeons reported "horrific
injuries" that resulted from Federal cavalry attacking into the face
of artillery.

"It's pretty unique - cavalry assaulting batteries with no infantry support," he said. "It's a neat story that most people don't know much about." He added that the battlefield, which is undeveloped, "bears a fair resemblance to the land as it was in 1865."

Custer's men tallied 100 Confederates killed or wounded and captured 25 to 30 of the guns, 100 wagons, Brig. Gen. Young Moody and 500 other Confederates.

Most importantly, Schroeder said, Custer secured the Stage Road and now held the high ground west of Appomattox Court House, blocking Lee's escape. That meant that Lee's only option the following day "was to attack or surrender." Lee attacked, but the effort fell short.

"It was the action on April 8, the battle of Appomattox Station, that determined that the surrender would take place on April 9 at Appomattox Court House," Schroeder said. "This is the one site that brings the strongest army in the South to its end. Somebody's got to step in and preserve it."

Schroeder said the April 8 battlefield was not recognized when the park was founded because "They were just interested in protecting where the surrender took place. The actual laying down of arms was all they were interested in."

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