Growth and Decline of Appomattox Court House
Appomattox County was created in 1845 from parts of Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, and Prince Edward counties. Citizens who lived in the area that became Appomattox found it difficult to travel the distance to the seats of the large counties. Of course, distance hampered their ability to conduct business, and vote, and thus after numerous petitions, the state authorized the formation of Appomattox County. The fledgling jurisdiction would take its name from the stream whose headwaters emanated therein—the Appomattox River. The river itself was named after a tribe of Chief Powhatan's Confederacy, known in the 1600s as the Appomatuck and inhabited the land at the mouth of the river.
The small community of Clover Hill, with a population fewer than one hundred, was named as the county seat for Appomattox. Since most county seats in Virginia by then were called 'Court Houses', the name of the town was changed to Appomattox Court House. Previously, it had been a mere stage stop along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Most of the activity in Clover Hill centered around the tavern (1819), which provided lodging to travelers and fresh horses for the stage line. Much of the Clover Hill area had been owned by Hugh Raine, until he sold the property to Colonel Samuel D. McDearmon. Upon acquiring the land, he had 30 acres surveyed for the town with two acres to be used by the county to build a courthouse and other official buildings. The courthouse was to be built across the stage road from the Clover Hill Tavern with the jail nearby. McDearmon divided the remaining land surrounding the courthouse into acre lots, feeling that with Clover Hill’s new status as a county seat he would find lawyers and tradesmen anxious to trade cash for deeds.
Into the 1850s, the growth of the town seemed imminent. The growing village boasted two stores, numerous law offices, a saddler, wheelwright, three blacksmiths, and other miscellaneous businesses. Another tavern had been built by John Raine in 1848. This would later become the home of the Wilmer McLean family and would be used for the surrender meeting between Generals Lee and Grant on April 9, 1865.
The growth of the town was ultimately hampered by the very thing that gave most towns life - the railroad. In 1854, a section of the railroad from Petersburg was extended from Farmville to Appomattox Depot, three miles west of the county seat. Eventually, the line extended to Lynchburg. The railroad was too far from the town, so many businesses moved to the depot area where commerce was more lucrative. About this time stages stopped running, and following the Civil War the Clover Hill area continued in decline.
In 1892, the courthouse burned down in what is believed to have been a chimney fire and thus destroyed the county records. Influential citizens of the county decided to transfer the county government to the depot, where many businesses had already relocated. By 1894, the depot village had become the county seat and the name was changed to Appomattox.
Commerce and Society
Wages changed with the constant economic flux. In 1850, the daily wage for a laborer (with bed and board) was 25 cents. By 1860, the average worker's salary had doubled to 50 cents a day. A skilled laborer—such as a carpenter—had a wage increase from 62 cents a day to one dollar (without board).
By 1870, the economic boom of the late antebellum era had reached an abrupt halt. Tobacco output dropped to 656, 944 pounds. The labor intensive leaf crop that had spurred the boom was also greatly responsible for the development of the slave labor system in Virginia and was notorious for robbing the soil of nutrients. Local farmers were forced to increase production of corn, oats, and wheat (which had previously been grown on a much smaller scale than tobacco.)
Industry however, was growing dramatically during these years. In 1850 there were only ten industries operating in the county. By 1870, the number had grown to fifty-three, employing 167 people. The annual industrial production value reached $158, 530—a pittance compared to the money the tobacco trade had once brought in, but a start at diversification none the less.
The centers of social activity in the county, as in much of the South, were the churches. In the mid-1800s, the county had 24 churches, mostly Baptist. The large Scotch-Irish population of the area founded a number of Presbyterian churches. Ministers were quite often the school teachers too, so there was a close tie between churches and education.
With the formation of the county, "Court Day" was established as the first Thursday after the first Monday of each month and was quite a social event. Civil and criminal cases provided entertainment for spectators. Auctions of cattle and slaves were held next to the courthouse, and farmers set up stands where produce such as corn, apples, peaches, and figs could be purchased. Sometimes, political speeches would be given. On occasion, the men of the local militia could display their soldierly bearing while marching around the town.
Over the years Senators, Congressmen, judges, attorneys, and musicians have all called Appomattox County their home, but the county has produced only a handful of people who would rise to national prominence. Prior to the war Thomas Bocock was a U. S. Congressman, and would become the only Speaker of the Confederate Congress. Joel and Sam Sweeney were noted musicians. Joel reportedly performed for Queen Victoria and popularized the banjo adding a 5th string and playing in the United States and Europe. Sam was a violin and banjo player during the Civil War and was on the staff of cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart. Joel died in 1860 and Sam in 1864.
African Americans in Appomattox County
Prior to the Civil War, the major fear for Virginia slaves was to be sold and sent further south to "cotton country." During times of good crops, few slaves were sold, but if times were bad, there was an increase in slave sales. Most African Americans stayed in the county after the war—evidenced in the 1870 census—which shows the black population at 4,536. Many freedmen worked as servants. Others were farmers owning land, or tradesmen with their own businesses (such as blacksmiths, shoemakers, wheelwrights, and coopers).
Though educating blacks before the Civil War was illegal, by October 1866 several African American schools had opened in the county. Near the Court House was Plymouth Rock School House. By 1870, William V. James, an African American, was certified to teach. In 1871, records indicate 352 black students attending six schools. After World War I, Mrs. Mozella Jordan Price became supervisor of black schools and is credited with making many improvements. Under her administration, buildings and teachers were added, and salaries increased for educators. The first permanent black church building was Galilee, built around 1913, with several more quickly following: Mt. Airy, Jordan, Mt. Obed, Promised Land, and others.
Appomattox County Today
The population of the county has remained largely stagnant since the 1860s, increasing less than 34% in 140 years. The silver lining is that the slow growth has done much to preserve the setting for the reunification of a war torn country. The 2000 census shows a population of about 13,705—with an 11.4% increase since 1990. Schools are now integrated; churches flourish; small businesses abound. Due to the establishment of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park on the site of the surrender, the county sees a large influx of tourists, especially during the summer months.
Did You Know?
Private William Pilcher of the Otey Battery (pictured in an early war artillery uniform)was issued this type III Richmond Depot Shell jacket less than 2 months prior to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Donated by the Pilcher family, the original is exhibited at Appomattox Court House NHP.