A 21st century traveler gazing eastward from atop a high point in what was Appomattox Court House can easily imagine our rural county as it was in the early 1800s. Automobiles have replaced horse-drawn carriages and blacktop covers what was formerly a narrow, often muddy and uneven road. The very important Richmond – Lynchburg Stage Road is still a major east to west thoroughfare and ribbons over the scenic rolling land of Appomattox County.
Formerly named Clover Hill and preserved by the National Park Service, the tiny village has changed little since the mid-nineteenth century. Undergoing many political and economic changes, the population of the county has not risen appreciably, and the area is still mostly rural as old tin roofed barns and farmhouses hide among the growth of forest in the peaceful landscape.
Still called the “Surrender Grounds,” by many locals, the restored village is where General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army to General Ulysses S. Grant in what was the “beginning of the end” of the Civil War. Families whose ancestors were here before the Civil War live here still, owning businesses or farms. Appomattox folks can still relate family histories three or more generations back of their relatives who may have volunteered for one of the several companies formed in the county, including the Appomattox Invincibles which became Company A of the 44th Regiment of the Virginia Infantry.
Prior to 1845, Clover Hill consisted of a tavern built in 1819 with a separate kitchen building, guest quarters, a smokehouse and barns near the headwaters of the Appomattox River. The brick used to make the buildings has withstood the test of time having been formed and molded out of the heavy red clay soil behind the former kitchen. By 1819, stagecoaches with mail and other goods ran six days a week. Travel by horse-drawn transportation to Prince Edward County for court days and business grew time-consuming for the growing population, and the tavern’s important role as a respite for weary drivers, horses and their customers helped to establish the need to petition the Virginia legislature to create a new county with its own courthouse.
Created with acreage from its four surrounding counties — Buckingham, Campbell, Prince Edward and Charlotte, Clover Hill was renamed Appomattox Court House in 1845, using the name of the river or perhaps a form of the name of the local Indian tribe called Appamattuck.
As plans were being made to construct a jail and two other log houses in what was to become the new county seat, Clover Hill property owner Hugh Raine saw an opportunity in the growing town. In May 1845, he sold the property, now divided into 40 one-half to four acre lots, to Samuel McDearmon. McDearmon advertised it as “one of the handsomest locations in Virginia, in the midst of a fine and healthy country, noted for its intelligence and moral standing, on the great thoroughfare between Lynchburg and Richmond and Farmville, and within a few miles of the James River Canal, for a long series of years free from the visitation of fevers and other malignant diseases, which have ravaged other sections of the country.”
Unfortunately, Raine, McDearmon and other citizens had trouble selling their land. Thousands of Virginians in the mid-1840s were moving west to Missouri and Texas. The country was on the verge of industrialization, and corn, wheat and tobacco were more inexpensively grown and transported from further south. A long known way of life was slowly changing.
In 1860 just prior to the Civil War, the county was populated by 4,118 whites and 4,700 blacks, of which 171 were freed, working as tradesmen such as blacksmiths, coopers, wheel rights, farmers or laborers. Most of the local black population was born into slavery, their status changing only by the outcome of the War. They were considered as personal property of their owners, their value taxed as part of the “personal estate.”
According to accounts of Appomattox slaves, their biggest fear was to be sold to plantation owners in the deep South to pick cotton as times became tough for their Virginia owners. This business decision broke up families with young children.
Paid white laborers in the county in 1860 earned, with board, $10/month, their daily wage 50 cents. The census that year showed only one convicted criminal in the county, up from zero the previous year! Agriculture continued to dominate the economy although industrial outlets like grain and lumber mills and a few machine shops for farm implements were necessary, began rising in number from 17 in 1860 to 53 in 1870.
One of the most influential changes to our country’s history and Appomattox was the building of the railroads. Crisscrossing in every direction and powered by coal and steam the railroad made travel and shipping of commercial goods much more efficient and reliable.
By 1854, the South Side Railroad, which began at City Point on the James River, extended west for 132 miles through Petersburg through Appomattox Depot, three miles west of the county seat, and on to Lynchburg. The ease and reliability of the railroad soon replaced the stagecoach as the main method of travel as the population began shifting west from the village.
The railroad also played an important role in the outcome of the Civil War, transporting both Union and Confederate troops, and supplying both armies with food, supplies and forage for their mules and horses. For General Robert E. Lee, his dependence on the railroad to deliver much needed supplies for his hungry Army of Northern Virginia forced him to move west, rather than south as he was blocked by the Union Army at every turn. His final failed attempt to reach Appomattox Station (present day Appomattox), was thwarted when General George Custer captured much needed supplies following the Battles of Appomattox Station and Appomattox Court House. Lee felt surrender was his only option and met with General Grant on April 9 in the private home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House.” n By Barbara Luna