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Reenactments Mark 150th Anniversary of US Civil War

  • Deborah Block

In historic Appomattox, Virginia, reenactments marked a surrender that many historians believe effectively ended the U.S. Civil War 150 years ago. After Confederate troops were cornered by Union forces at Appomattox, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, surrendered to the Union general, Ulysses Grant on April 9, 1865.

From 1861 to 1865, the Northern states — the Union — fought the South - the Confederacy, which had seceded from the Union over several issues, including slavery.

The emotional end to the war, which took the lives of more than 700,000 Americans, occurred at a home in the tiny town of Appomattox, today a historical park.

Waite Rawls, head of the Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy, said Confederate troops continued to surrender for about two more months.

“Other armies were still in the field,” he clarified, “So it took the surrender of other armies in North Carolina, in Texas to either disband or surrender.”

Solemn observance

In a colorful reenactment of the April 12 surrender of Confederate arms at Appomattox, Union troops marched in first, followed by weary and beaten down Confederates. In a formal ceremony, the two sides faced each other as the Confederates stacked their arms and left in silence.

For Bruce Blackmon of North Carolina, who played a Confederate colonel, and had an ancestor in the war, the reenactment had a special meaning.

“It’s a very emotional thing for those of us who maybe had ancestors at that surrender or ancestors in the Civil War,” he explained. “It evokes a lot of feeling when you think about the number of lives lost on both sides of the conflict and the tragedy that it really was.”

At this makeshift Union camp in the park, reenactor Henry Schmied considers how difficult the war must have been for both sides.

“As far as the Union, they must have felt like a large weight was lifted off their chest,” he said. “And on the Confederate side, the great sadness because they fought so hard for their cause, even though it was the wrong cause.”

In Appomattox there were black soldiers, some of the thousands of so-called “colored” troops who fought for the north. Seventy-one-year-old Union reenactor Leo Vaughan, who is African-American, said he has ancestors who fought in the Civil War, but on the Confederate side.

“And they were white because my great, great grandfather was the plantation owner,” he said.

Lingering resentments

At the Confederate camp in the park where some soldiers were cooking food on a campfire, a 26-year-old-said he believes the Union had no business attacking the Confederate states. “If I was put back in 1860 to 1865, I would have definitely picked up a musket and fought for my homeland, he said defiantly.

After the surrender at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln advised General Grant not to be harsh on the Confederates. So Grant allowed many of them to keep their sidearms and horses if they abided by federal law.

Blackmon said the soldiers were given paper passes so they could safely return home.

“So if they were accosted or stopped by federal troops along the way home, they could show the pass, so they would not be arrested as prisoners of war," he said.

To this day, the Civil War remains a sore point for some people in the southern states, where it is known as the "War of Northern Aggression." Kevin Reynolds, a Confederate reenactor from South Carolina, said despite the bloodshed, it was important the country came together again.

“There’s still some resentment, on one level or another,” he admitted. “But after everything that we’ve done, the greatest thing is that we were reunited as Americans.”