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John Robinson: The Overlooked Legacy of Appomattox Court House
How an unexpected detour at the iconic Civil War site reminded me of what the Confederate surrender enabled.
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Lynchburg, Virginia is a convenient holiday meeting point for my wife’s family, who are spread between Atlanta and Buffalo. We’ve visited ten or so times over the last decade. Each time, I’ve kicked myself for not driving thirty minutes over to Appomattox Court House, the site where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, symbolically ending the Civil War.
On the day before Thanksgiving this year, that finally changed. My 10-year-old son, Hudson, brother-in-law, Micheal, and I pulled away from family and a less interesting slate of World Cup games to visit.
The parlor of Wilmer McLean’s reconstructed two-story brick house is the focal point of Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. As it should be. Even though fighting continued for several months after Lee’s April 1865 surrender, the loss of his Army of Northern Virginia undercut Confederate hope of victory. Vastly outnumbered, exhausting supplies, on the run, and trapped against the Appomattox River, General Lee realized that another battle to escape Grant’s forces would devastate his remaining army. Surrendering would save lives and provide him an opportunity to negotiate more favorable terms.
Paintings of Lee and Grant’s respectful, hats-off handshake or Lee signing the surrender terms in front of a slew of onlooking navy-clad Union officers in the McLean’s parlor are etched in history textbooks and American imaginations.
I imagine most folks are like we were, making the pilgrimage to Appomattox with only the McLean House in mind. But doing so misses another house in the park that demonstrates the surrender’s significance for our country’s next chapter—that of local shoemaker John Robinson. We almost did.
The Appomattox Court House National Historic Park sits on nearly 1,800 acres of rolling farmland and woods—much more than just one house. Surrounding the McLean House, two dozen original or reconstructed buildings recreate what the village of Appomattox Court House looked like during that era: the courthouse (which serves as park headquarters), a general store, a print shop, the county jail, taverns, law offices, and private residences. The remaining land encompasses the battlefield and headquarters for each army.
As we walked up to the McLean House, the park ranger stood at the top of the porch steps describing the scene to a half dozen other visitors. General Grant and his men walked up the stairs in mud-stained boots, while General Lee greeted them in his pristine Confederate gray uniform. Just looking at their dress, an onlooker with no context might have confused which one was surrendering that day.
Inside the parlor, replica furniture recreates the scene—Union officers took much of the original furniture as souvenirs. We snapped pictures, paused to reflect, and then walked to the park headquarters in the old courthouse next door. We watched the park service’s 17-minute video and breezed through the exhibits describing the events leading up to the surrender.
At that point, we had finished our planned agenda. But, it was a beautiful, warmer-than-expected fall day, so we decided to walk down the gravel road behind the courthouse to check out the county jail and a few houses at the end of the path before leaving.
The three-story brick county jail and a one-room wooden house stood on the right side of the path. Our attention focused on a two-story, light gray house on a small rise at the end of the path. Long-time town clerk, George Peers, had owned that home. We learned that Lee’s army fired its final artillery shot from his front yard on the morning of the surrender and that this road—the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road—was where 28,000 Confederate troops laid down their arms three days later.
As we walked back toward the courthouse, two small signs on our left—attached to the slat fence surrounding the nondescript, wooden house we had already passed—grabbed our attention.
Built in 1855, this one-room, weather-worn house sits about a football field’s distance east of the McLean House. A stone chimney climbs its right side, and it is topped with a steep, wood-shingled roof that matches the color of its siding. Over the years, historians have debated whether local carpenter Lorenzo Kelley or a nearby plantation owner and lawyer, Crawford Jones, first built the house. Park signage calls it the “Kelley House”, while our park map referred to it as the “Jones Law Office.”
The storyteller in me wishes Jones had built it. As the county’s member of Virginia’s House of Delegates from 1855-1861, Crawford Jones was a lead advocate for secession from the Union and prior to the war proposed a bill to form local militias to defend against feared Northern aggression. While Jones had a law office nearby, the consensus now is that Kelley built it.1 Still, Kelley had a hand in the conflict. All five of his sons fought for the Confederacy—two died and at least one was in Lee’s army during the surrender in their hometown.
What is not debated is who moved into the house two years after Lee’s surrender—local shoemaker John Robinson and his family. What makes Robinson’s move notable was that he was one of 4,500 black Appomattox County residents who gained their freedom after Lee’s surrender—more than half of the county’s residents. Robinson was in his late 20s when the war began. He had learned how to make and repair shoes while enslaved, which translated well into a business after he gained freedom.
Over the next decade, Robinson made payments on the house until he owned it and the surrounding three-and-one-half acre lot by 1877. The home also served as his place of business—Robinson made and repaired shoes in the cellar, while raising his family in the one-room main level.
Outside of his business, Robinson also served as a founding member and treasurer of Galilee Baptist Church, which was founded by formerly enslaved men and women after the war (and still exists today). His children attended the new Freedmen’s Bureau school—named after General Ulysses S. Grant—housed at the church.
Robinson lived in this house until his death in 1933, 66 years after he first moved in. Over that time, he had two wives and raised 18 children in that home. He and several other family members are buried in the backyard.
As I looked at the home, I considered what Robinson’s life must have been like. He invested his newfound freedom in land, a family home, a business, a church, and a school—all unthinkable for the first three decades of his life. However, those milestones brought risks, especially as federal protections waned in the 1870s and white Southerners resented black landowners and businessmen.
I considered the courage it took to buy a house in such a prominent location—next to the town clerk on the main road between Richmond and Lynchburg where white travelers passed daily. The house behind his backyard was built by Thomas Bocock, the Speaker of the Confederate States House of Representatives. At the time of Lee’s surrender, county attorney Lewis Isbell lived there—Isbell had voted in favor of secession as Appomattox County’s delegate to Virginia’s secession convention.
I wondered whether the Robinson family held onto the property until it became part of the national park. In the years after the Civil War, black land ownership expanded, but white Americans used various mechanisms to undercut progress, including lynchings, eminent domain, discriminatory lending, and loopholes in complicated inheritance laws.
To determine the fate of Robinson’s land, I needed to better understand the park’s founding.
Efforts to commemorate Appomattox Court House began in the 1890s, but the burning down of the courthouse and subsequent moving of the county seat from Appomattox Court House undercut those plans. In the first few decades of the 1900s, several groups of Union veterans sought to create a monument, but skeptical locals and Southern leaders despised the idea of honoring a place of profound Southern shame. Memorializing it—perhaps. Celebrating it—no way.
Finally, in 1930 Congress passed a bill to “provide for the commemoration of the termination of the War Between the States at Appomattox Court House.”2 A five-person appointed committee solicited designs, and the winning 75-foot, dual-tower structure was said to capture “the spirit of peace and unity” that would symbolize “an undivided nation and a lasting peace.”3 Still, the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy called it “a slur to the Confederacy," arguing that any design not fully controlled by Southerners "on our soil" would be unacceptable.4 The monument never happened.
To calm objections, President Roosevelt moved this project and other similar ones from the War Department to the National Park Service in 1933, and Congress revised its plans in 1935 to create an expanded Appomattox Court House National Monument that would encompass 970 acres, focus on reconciliation, and recreate the full town. Prominent local leaders also began supporting the idea once they felt more in control of the outcome and had witnessed the tourism success of Colonial Williamsburg (similar to the Cherokee capital of New Echota that I wrote about last year).
Over the course of several years, the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration purchased the land as part of reforestation efforts and then donated it to the park. The 1940s were spent clearing the land and restoring the McLean House and other key buildings. The Civilian Conservation Corps assigned its Virginia-based Company 1351 to clear and prepare the land. The unit consisted of black World War I veterans—protests from white locals almost forced their removal. Restoration efforts paused during World War II before resuming and ultimately culminating in an April 1950 dedication of the restored McLean House at a ceremony that included Robert E. Lee IV and Ulysses S. Grant III. 20,000 people attended.
While the new monument focused on reconciliation, Southern leaders still weren’t comfortable with the site being called a "monument.” So, in 1954 they successfully lobbied Congress to change the name to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park to ensure the site wouldn’t be interpreted as a celebration of Confederate defeat.
So, where does this leave us with Robinson's house and land?
In May 1937, a letter to the project director referred to the “Robinson tract” as yet unpurchased due to its small size, but a September 1937 letter listed only two outstanding properties required to own all land, neither of which was that land.5 Thus, at some point that year, the Resettlement Administration bought the Robinson family’s land for inclusion in the park.6
While I can’t find records of the sale, the direct transfer to the federal government alongside all surrounding land makes it more likely—though not guaranteed—that the Robinsons received fair compensation for the land. And, their holding onto the house for nearly the entire period between the surrender and the park’s creation enabled its preservation as one of the few original buildings in the park today.
While the McLean House depicts the symbolic end of America’s darkest chapter, John Robinson’s house depicts the symbolic beginning of its next. Southern leaders may have prevented the creation of a monument to the Union victory at Appomattox Court House, but they overlooked a more consequential monument to what that victory enabled.
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When asked about the discrepancy, the park ranger told me that the maps would be updated once they ran out of the old version (although the website map still called it the Jones Law Office).
Howard, Josh. Thinking Beyond the “Surrender Grounds”: An Administrative History of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park from 1930 to 2015. Prepared for the National Park Service in cooperation with the Organization of American Historians. May 2022, p. 39. Accessible here.
Ibid, p. 40.
Ibid, p. 42.
Some records also refer to John Robertson or “the Robertson estate.” Historians believe these references are to John Robinson.