Discovery of Appomattox Station battlefield provides historical missing link
Civil War Preservation Trust photo
An 1865 photo of Appomattox Station, where Gen. George Custer captured three Confederate supply trains.
The battle of Appomattox Station began about 4 p.m. on April 8, 1865.
Union cavalry, led by Gen. George Custer, arrived at the Appomattox train station ahead of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army traveling from Farmville. Lee and his men were desperate for the supplies that had been sent from Lynchburg and awaited them at the station.
Custer and his men captured three Confederate supply trains at the station and proceeded southwest about a mile toward Gen. Lindsey Walker’s camp, where the Confederate’s reserve artillery was situated. When Walker received word of the approaching cavalry, he and his artillerymen assembled their cannon in a hollow circle along a slight ridge and began to fire.
After a nearly four-hour battle and numerous attacks by Union cavalry, Custer captured between 24 to 30 cannons and about 1,000 Confederate prisoners. Total Union casualties from the battle were 5 killed, 40 wounded and 3 missing. Confederate casualties remain unknown.
A post-war account of the battle noted, “…for fierceness, and a reckless display of courage, perhaps there cannot be found among the annals of the entire war a parallel.”
By Duffie Taylor Published: January 31, 2010
Longtime Civil War historian Chris Calkins began looking for the lost battlefield of Appomattox Station in the early 1970s. Back then, he and many other Civil War buffs feared the site of the April 8, 1865, battle was buried somewhere under asphalt in the Town of Appomattox.
“We have always assumed the battle was up near the Triangle Shopping Center (in Appomattox) and they had already bulldozed that area so we couldn’t test it,” Calkins said.
Still, he continued his search — first, through a store of written archives and then, on the grounds of Appomattox, with a copy of a Union soldier’s sketched map and a metal detector.
Calkins’ work paid off when he located the battlefield years later on a 47-acre tract owned by Jamerson Trucking Company.
Luckily, Calkins said, the site was largely undeveloped and he was able to verify his discovery through the artillery remnants that he unearthed on the property.
This month, Calkins’ quest came full circle when the 47-acre tract was purchased by The Civil War Preservation Trust, a national organization devoted to preserving old battlefields.
The trust’s spokeswoman, Mary Koik, said that the battlefield’s preservation would not have been possible without Calkins.
“I give Chris Calkins credit for combing through that tremendous amount of information and finding the battlefield,” she said. “Popular wisdom was that it had been lost.” A Detroit native, Calkins said his fascination with the Civil War began early. At 20, he took a seasonal job in the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where he played a Union soldier in the park’s living history program. The summer job turned into a lifelong stay when he was introduced to his future wife at the town’s Dairy Queen. “They say you’re either a Virginian by birth, marriage or choice,” Calkins said. “Well, I’m a Virginian by the latter two.”
Calkins has since devoted his life to the study of the Civil War, with a particular focus on the war’s last two battles in Appomattox. Now the park manager of Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park, Calkins has written several books on how the two battles shaped the war’s end.
He said that discovering the battlefield of Appomattox Station provided the missing link in the events leading up to General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.
The battle between the Union Cavalry, led by General George Custer, and Confederate Artillery, headed by General Lindsey Walker, “was another nail in the coffin” for the Confederates and, ultimately, paved the way to the battle of Appomattox Court House and Lee’s surrender the following day, he said. Before the discovery, the story of the Civil War’s end was incomplete, said Appomattox County Tourism Director Anne Dixon.
“Your visitors were missing the middle piece,” she said. “This piece of the story completes it.”
Calkins said that Custer’s destruction of three Confederate supply trains and the battle that ensued from it were directly accountable for Lee’s surrender. “That was Lee’s last chance to get out of it,” he said. Koik said that the trust eventually plans to turn over the battlefield to a steward that will maintain its preservation and spur visitors’ interest in the site.
The National Park Service is a likely candidate, she said.
Securing the historical site in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is an important achievement for the area, said the town’s tourism director, Will Simmons.
“(It) provides a tremendous impetus for people to preserve this land while they still can,” Simmons said. “Soon, the opportunity will be gone.”
Chris Calkins inadvertently stumbled upon the lost battlefield of Appomattox Station while searching for what he believed was a Union army campsite. He was led there by a sentence in the Official Report of Brig. Gen. Alfred Gibbs: “The brigade camped for a night (April 9) at a wood near Martin’s house, one mile in the rear of Appomattox Court House.” Calkins then referred to a 1867 topographical map of the “Appomattox Court House and Vicinity” and identified two houses next to each other, each named Martin.
Armed with this information, Calkins looked at a present-day map of the area and, surprisingly, found that the two houses were still there, tucked away behind a school and trucking company in the town of Appomattox. Calkins then went to scout out the property with a metal detector and, to his surprise, began turning up iron canister rounds and other artillery remnants. It turned out that the camp Calkins had originally sought was in another area entirely and misidentified by Gibbs as “Martin’s” when, in fact, the house was named “Morton’s.” The mishap, however, led Calkins to the lost battlefield of Appomattox Station, which he later confirmed with the aid of a diary sketch by Union cavalryman Roger Hannaford.
— Chris Calkins, who wrote of his discovery in The Civil War Preservation Trust’s ‘Hallowed Ground’ magazine, in an article titled ‘In Search of the Battle of Appomattox Station.’