- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

APPOMATTOX, Va. (AP) - The surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago Thursday effectively ended the Civil War. This is a rolling account of commemorative events that include a re-enactment of Lee’s last clash with Grant’s troops, and of the Confederate surrender in a Virginia farmhouse on April 9, 1865. Interspersed are historical accounts from 150 years ago:

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2015

With the ringing of bells from Appomattox to Boston, the 150th anniversary of the end of the bloodiest war fought on American soil was marked in the rolling hills of Virginia where Lee surrendered to Grant.

Civil War re-enactors retraced the steps of the two men and their aides entering the McLean House at Appomattox Court House and their exit 90 minutes later with terms of surrender for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

A bell sounded for four minutes outside the McLean House, a minute for each year of a war that left more that left an estimated 620,000 dead. The ringing was replicated at Boston’s Old North Church, by the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, among hundreds of other locations, the National Park Service said.

Descendants of Grant and Lee attended the signature event at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

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When Lee surrendered to Grant, William Downs MacGregor of The Associated Press was waiting outside with other war correspondents.

“It was Palm Sunday,” he reported. “At four o’clock they shook hands.”

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Typically the national park at Appomattox is a bucolic setting of rolling fields and tidy brick and timber buildings framed by seemingly miles of fences.

For the 150th, the park is part state fair, part high-powered history lesson, with long lines at concession stands offering North Carolina BBQ and at an exhibit where a new Appomattox stamp was dedicated.

Smaller lines were found at a tent displaying an intimidating collection of saws and other bladed tools - a sampling of Civil War-era medicine.

With temperatures in the low 50s and a fine mist in the air, many footpaths had turned to a soup of mud and clay.

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A contemporary AP account described Lee’s officers as “surly” about giving up the fight. But “the rank and file of Lee’s army are said to be well satisfied to give up the struggle, believing that they have no hope of success, but say that if Gen. Lee had refused to surrender, they would have stuck to him to the last.”

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Amid booming, smoke-belching cannons and the crack of muzzle fire, Confederate and Union troops gathered on a vast green field to re-enact the decisive Battle of Appomattox Court House. It was a highly choreographed, mostly non-contact Civil War re-enactment, yet still difficult to follow for folks who aren’t students of military science.

Greg Morgan, fresh from battle, posed atop his 11-year-old Tennessee Walker, Gabriel, with fellow members of the Virginia 14th Cavalry, Company H, as visitors took cellphone pictures of the men atop their wet horses.

“This was a little bit more rehearsed,” Morgan, a southwest Virginia resident, said of the battle-re-enactment.

Morgan pulled his sabre from its scabbard and showed the deep notches in its blade from previous Civil War re-enactments.

“That’s when we’re allowed to engage,” he said. “We really go after each other. It’s all pushing and shoving. We’re not allowed to do that here.”

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The National Park Service has 145 staff members helping with the commemoration, even a black powder specialist who watches after gun safety for the fighting re-enactments.

“He checks weapons to ensure they’re safe and well-maintained, and also that there is no ammunition,” explained Katie Lawhon, who came down from Gettysburg National Military Park to serve as a public information officer for Appomattox.

Appomattox is considered a plum assignment, she said. The 145 comprise what the Park Service calls an incident management team. Besides big events, they also respond to disasters, such as an oil spill on a National Parks beach or a natural disaster.

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AP’s reporting described the waning hours for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia: “After crossing the Appomattox the bridges were burned, and before our troops could get over the enemy had taken a position a mile from the river, where they erected works and made a stand in order to allow their wagon train to get out of the way … The (Union’s) 2d division, under General Crook, attacked them vigorously, driving them back some distance. But they had a force dismounted, lying in ambush, which poured a severe fire into our men as they advanced to the second attack, and they were compelled to fall back on their supports. The rebels soon after departed from this place, not being disposed to await another charge … “

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Many artifacts once used by Lee’s fighting forces are preserved and many went on display at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and a nearby museum. Those included Lee’s copy of Grant’s terms of surrender. There’s also an inkwell from the farmhouse parlor of businessman and slave owner Wilmer McLean, the reluctant host of the surrender. The inkwell was taken as a memento from the McLean house by the brother of Union Maj. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan. A trove of battle flags and Lee memorabilia are also displayed - even a gleaming sword Lee carried to the surrender.

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In a place where historically accurate fashions abound, the Rufeners of Ohio stood out.

Cousins by marriage, Kim and Mary Rufener carefully stepped through soaked turf and muddy roads at Appomattox to keep their hoop skirts mud-free. The two also wore bonnets as they watched Union and Confederate re-enactors clash.

Amid the hundreds if not thousands lined along a fence watching a battle re-enactment, the two women drew attention as they posed for photographs. Period clothing “just enhances the experience for us,” Kim Rufener said above the noise of the clash. “It makes it more alive. It’s an important part of history that we need to remember.”

The Rufeners have been to other Civil War commemorative events, but Appomattox was the first in period costumes. “This is a big deal,” Mary Rufener said, adding “We won’t be around for the 200th.”

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Lee’s forces were in increasing disarray in the hours before Lee formally called it quits in April 1865. So The Associated Press reported 150 years ago this week. AP reported that ragged Southern soldiers, many straggling while running from federal forces, began giving up alone and in small bunches even before the official surrender.

Lee’s forces, seeking an escape route, had crossed the Appomattox River while burning bridges, AP reported then. Union forces “attacked them vigorously” in the hours before the formal surrender, convincing Lee the fight was over. AP reporting from accounts as saying “the road for miles was strewn with broken down wagons, caissons, and baggage of all kinds, presenting a scene seldom witnessed on the part of Lee’s army.”

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The smell of wood smoke greeted the first of thousands of visitors thronging the park the next several days of commemorative events. The outline of Union troops in formation could be seen in fields as visitors approached.

The Confederate re-enactors were a ragtag, mismatched group of heavy wool coats, ill-fitting trousers and more types of hats than a haberdashery. Dozens stood along a rough wooden fence, their muskets at the ready.

The Union and Southern re-enactors spent the night encamped in tents at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

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