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Road Trip Part 2: Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Appomattox Court House National Park, Virginia
A Union Civil War re-enactor explains the battles surrounding Appomattox Court House and the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant. Photo copyright Corrina Lawson

Welcome to part two of our road trip from Connecticut to Myrtle Beach where I’ll focus heavily on our visit to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park.

Part One mainly focused on our stroll through Frederick, Maryland with a short trip to the Turn the Page Bookstore in  Boonsboro, Maryland. As we left Boonsboro, we entered into unchartered territory, as I had no stops planned for the rest of the day. I decided to skip the highways for a bit on the drive to Lynchburg, Virginia where we had a reservation at the Homewood Suites for the night.

I’ll concentrate on Appomattox, our ultimate destination, but, first, the drive to Lynchburg.

Boonsboro, Maryland to Lynchburg, Virginia.

We entered West Virginia for about twenty minutes and one of the first places we passed was the turn-off for Harper’s Ferry. Had I anticipated being close to that site, I probably would have planned for a stop. Very shortly, we were back in Virginia again.

As a New Englander, it was a fascinating experience to drive through an area that I only previously knew via history books. I drove nearly all of this section because the twisty, hilly backroads reminded me strongly of where I grew up in rural Vermont.

We did stumble across one place I’d never expected: Dinosaur Land. If you’ve seen The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, you know that’s the historically inaccurate kitschy roadside stop that the Mitchells make on their road trip and the place where the machines first attack them. I’d thought it was a made-up place but, no.

Let’s say if you’ve seen the movie, they accurately recreated Dinosaur Land. It has seen better days, but if you are into that stuff, it’s worth a stop. As to what it’s doing in the middle of western Virginia, I assumed it’s a lost part of Roadside America.

After about an hour, the riders in the back were tired of the long stretches of green broken only by long stretches of woods. Knowing another unusual find was unlikely, we took a more direct route. Lynchburg, by the way, is the home of far-right Liberty University. If you were unaware of that, you are made aware of it when you drive past because there’s a massive “LIBERTY UNIVERSITY” sign on one of their main buildings, designed to be spotted easily from the major road that cuts through it.

The Homewood Suites was located on a busy stretch of road but was clean, comfortable, and exactly what we needed. They had our one-bedroom with a kitchenette ready on arrival, so we made sandwiches from our packed groceries and called it a day.

Our stay included a free hot breakfast the next morning. It was a pre-Covid-style normal buffet but outdoor tables were set up as well. This was a nice touch, allowing us to eat outside on a nice summer morning instead of having to take the food back to our rooms. (This area of Virginia had a low vaccination rate and a worrisomely high Covid rate when we were there, so it was all masks indoors for us. Few of the other guests or hotel employees wore masks.)

After breakfast, it was off to Appomattox, where Union General U.S. Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park is large and small. I’ll explain. The area of the park containing the original Court House, the McLean House, and other smaller buildings is easily walkable in about an hour. But the park itself covers far more than that, as you can take a driving tour of the area that includes battle sites and army encampments.

We focused on what most people are interested in: the surrender.

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The living room of the McLean House is where General Grant and his staff met with General Lee to work out the surrender of Lee’s Confederate army. However, while this McLean House takes up the same physical space as the original, it is a replica rebuilt on the foundations of the original. You stand in the same place in a recreated structure.

It still has a solemn aura. The room is small to modern eyes and I wondered how people could fit in such a small space on such a historic day. Grant’s staff was on one side, ceding the other side to Lee. Grant choose the more impressive marble desk for Lee, while he used a wooden table that was child-size. It’s a visual contrast, the victor standing at the relatively tiny desk while the vanquished was allowed some relative luxury. The visual says a lot about the kind of man Grant was and the kind of Union he wanted going forward.

There are several other small buildings in this main area, including a representation of the slave quarters that existed at the time of the surrender.

The tourist center where the walking tour begins is located in the Appomattox Court House, a two-story structure that features a small movie theater that presents the history of Appomattox. Since it’s a federal facility, masks were required indoors.

But the most memorable part of our visit was the re-enactor posing as a Civil War Union private. He spoke outside under the trees about his experiences in the war, including how he came to enlist, the terrifying battles that he’d fought in, and his current role in keeping the peace. After the surrender, he explained, his unit marched back to Washington, D.C., almost to immediately turn around and march back, to act as federal peacekeepers in the area. It was a half-hour talk on a hot morning but it was so well done that we hardly noticed the heat or the time passing.

Overall, it was a solemn, quiet visit, that caused reflection in all of us.

Off To The Carolinas

The last section of our visit was a push to arrive in Myrtle Beach that day. We avoided I-95 completely on this route and crossed into North Carolina from a rural area of Virginia. This was flat land, sparsely occupied, unlike the mountains in western Virginia. That disconcerted me. I’m used to rural areas having those twisty roads that I mentioned in Virginia. But despite its’ rural nature, most of the drive was spent on four-lane roads with limited access, though there was the occasional traffic light. It made for a fast, easy drive, at least, lacking any of the traffic on the more traveled corridor. The last part of our journey was spent on 501 South, the main road into Myrtle Beach. Obviously, this route has been well-traveled for a long time. There were several welcome centers promising restrooms and “discount tickets” along 9 South. Be wary of the discount tickets, as they’re only available if you sign up for a timeshare pitch.

There were numerous billboards for the Pirate experience along our route, so many that we stopped counting at 15. Finally, in the early evening, we arrived at home for the next week: Ocean Enclave by Hilton Grand Vacations.

Myrtle Beach ocean view
Myrtle Beach ocean view. photo copyright Corrina Lawson

 

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