WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.


Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: Appomattox, Virginia

The American Guide Series by the Federal Writers’ Project have a lot to say about the Civil War, none more than Virginia where the greatest number of battles were fought from the first land battle at Bull Run in 1861, to the last at Appomattox. 

On the morning of April 9, 1865, with Lee’s army reduced to two corps and Grant’s far outnumbering and surrounding it, the two sides faced off for a last brief skirmish. And then it was all over. Lee surrendered to Grant at noon that day.  

The Virginia Guide is at once eloquent and understated in its description of this extraordinary scene. I will let it speak for itself: 

“On the evening of April 8, 1865, Lee’s weary army encamped [at Appomattox] starved and ill-equipped, flanked by four times its number…and surrounded by many times its number…depleted by desertions and convinced that further resistance was futile. […]

 At 8:30 on the morning of April 9, General Lee rode to the rear [of his army] intending to surrender. [Grant, from 15 miles away hurried] to the field.  

The Generals met in McLean’s parlor – Lee in a new uniform and dress trappings and Grant dusty, in fatigue dress, and without side arms. They had known each other in years past. Once, in Mexico years before, Lee has reprimanded Grant for his unkempt experience. Now the tension was relieved by the casual conversation of old friends…General Lee [then requested] General Grant to tell him the terms of surrender… 

Grant wrote out the terms and handed the paper to Lee. The officers and men were to be paroled… Only public property was to be surrendered and officers were to retain their side arms and horses. Lee was pleased [but explained that] the cavalry and artillery horses were owned by the rank and file in the Confederate service and would be of great help to the men when they got home. Grant then gave orders to exempt these horses when they were claimed by their riders. 

Generously, Grant ordered Sheridan to supply Lee’s [starving soldiers] with 25,000 rations. Then [he] apologized for the condition of his dress and lack of sidearms saying that he had been at some distance from his headquarters and believed that Lee would rather receive him as he was than to be detained…and the meeting ended.  

When firing of salutes and the playing of bands began in the Federal camps, Grant gave orders that all such demonstrations cease.”  (p. 397)  

WPA Guide to Virginia: The Old Dominion State, Federal Writers’ Project

Note the wonderful details that the Guide provides: Grant’s dusty clothing compared with Lee’s formal attire and careful grooming, the conversation between old friends and the humane behavior of both Lee and Grant: Lee in avoiding  the unnecessary slaughter of his remaining troops and Grant in paroling the Confederates , allowing them to keep their side arms and horse, sending food to the soldiers and quelling all celebrations of Lee’s surrender. 

With neither preachiness nor partisanship, the writer accords dignity and praise to both sides. He (or she) conveys a deep sense that this was a war between brothers, — both officers and foot soldiers, North and South. But, at the same time, he asserts the futility of choosing war as a strategy for solving the problems between North and South. Unusual for this guide and for the guides as a whole, the author permits (but limits) himself to one direct statement of opinion:

“The tragic, unnecessary war had come to an end; and another era, more tragic and equally unnecessary, was about to begin.” (p.398)  

Only six days after Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated. 

I visited Appomattox on the morning of April 9, 2019, exactly 154 years after Lee’s surrender. I arrived at 7AM, as groups of re-enactors were in their separate tent camps, drinking campfire coffee out of tin mugs preparatory to re-staging the 8:30 battle.  They were a friendly but serious bunch, dressed in authentic battle uniforms. The first person I met was I met was Theodore Chamberlain who, remarkably, is the great, great grandson of the renowned Northern general, Joshua Chamberlain of Maine. He was about to lead his troops into the battle.  He introduced me to his second in command and to his aide.  (When I emailed him some of my photographs , he signed his reply:

I am, your obed’t serv’t                                     

Joshua L. Chamberlain                                              

Major General, US Vols. 

AKA: Ted  

 At 8:00, the Confederate troops lined up to march to the field and I listened in on their captain’s encouraging speech, urging them to be brave in such dire circumstances. At 8:30, the battle commenced with cannons blazing, parties advancing and retreating, rifle firing. It was loud but not chaotic. Clouds of smoke drifted in the warm humid air. After an hour or so, all was silent again and the troops marched, or straggled back from the fields.  

At noon, I attended the surrender in the Mclean parlor, complete with the Generals’ writing desk, their pens, and their arms. 

Lastly, I visited the graves of the soldiers killed on that last day of war. All but one were Confederates, but equal honor was provided to the one Union soldier by the Ladies of the Confederacy who tend the grave site. 

The noise and smoke of the battle, then the silence as the troops retreated, and the ceremony of surrender, all set amidst the peaceful, early spring Virginia countryside was just as it must have been in 1865, even 154 years later. It reminded me that our country is still young and our sacred sites are still with us. Our history and our shrines are just as pertinent to us now. So are our problems.  

When Lincoln delivered his second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, he had the end of the Civil War definitely in mind. Speaking to all of our countrymen—northerners, southerners and freed slaves—he enjoined us to continue to fight the unjust effects of human servitude and he recommended that we do that with compassion and respect for all: 

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace.”

Recalling Lincoln’s words and visiting the scene of reconciliation at Appomattox can inspire us continue the fight. 

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.