Eyewitness to Appomattox: The Commissioner's Table Cover

Heavy woven canvas, 46 x 28 in., hung between a scroll-cut maple hanger with a large central perforation for hanging, and plain maple bar at bottom, the canvas inscribed in black painted block letters: Property of A.O. Benjamin/Orderly to Maj. Gen. Gibbon/at 24th Army Corps. This is the cover of the table upon/ which was signed the final agreement for/the surrender of Lee’s Army in McLain’s/house Appomattox Courthouse Va/ 8:30 A.M./April 8th 1865 by Generals Gibbon, Griffin, and Merritt U.S.A./ and Gordon, Bennett, Pendleton, C.S.A.

This painted canvas was collected by Private Amos Oscar Benjamin of the 81st New York. Benjamin was assigned as an orderly to General John Gibbon on April 10 during the so-called “commissioner’s” meeting at the McLean house at Appomattox Courthouse. It is believed that Benjamin painted the information on the cover sometime in the late 19th or 20th centuries and mounted it to hang in the Stevens Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Seattle, Washington.

The Surrender April 9-10, 1865

Hemmed in and ground down, the Army of Northern Virginia of the Confederate States of America was officially surrendered to the United States on the afternoon of April 9, 1865.The end came in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house near Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Ironically, McLean had moved there from Manassas where his house was involved in the first battle of the Civil War. Now it played an integral role in ending it.

The surrender documents were signed by Major General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States, and Major General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia. Recognizing the historical import of what had occurred, Lee kept the chair he had sat in until it was acquired by the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; the table upon which he signed the surrender documents passed through a circuitous route, and is curated by the Chicago Historical Society. Grant’s table was “souvenired” by General Philip Sheridan who later presented it to Libby, the wife of George Armstrong Custer. Grant’s chair was acquired by General Henry Capeheart. Like Lee’s chair, both Grant pieces are part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

The next day, McLean’s parlor hosted another gathering. The so-called “commissioner’s meeting” was attended by Confederate Generals James Longstreet (First and Third Corps), John Gordon (Second Corps) and William Pendleton (Chief of Artillery), and their Union counterparts Generals John Gibbon (Twenty Fourth Corps), Wesley Merritt (Cavalry Corps) and Charles Griffin (Fifth Corps). Their purpose was to detail the implementation of the surrender, and to determine exactly what would happen when the official ceremony took place.

McLean’s house had not been their first choice. They had initially gathered at the nearby Clover Hill Tavern, but according to Gibbon found “the room a bare and cheerless place” and reconvened the meeting to the same parlor where their superiors had met the day before.

Stripped of tables and chairs that had been kept as souvenirs, Gibbon ordered his personal folding camp table be brought in and the room arranged for the meeting. This task was apparently left to Gibbons’ orderly, Private Amos O. Benjamin of the 81st New York.

Afterwards, Gibbon retained his table, and the next day commemorated the meeting by having its top painted with information about the event. Today, the Gibbon’s table is on exhibit at Appomattox Courthouse National Park. Private Benjamin retained the table cover. Years later it was recalled later that he “prepared the room in which the articles of surrender were drawn up. He arranged the table and brought the pen and ink with which the terms of agreement were written and signed and he now has in his possession the table spread which was then used.” (King Publishing, 1903:336-339)

In the years after the war, Benjamin moved West, and by 1878 had settled in Seattle, Washington. He rose to prominence as a salvor, and ship owner. He was an active member of the Stephens Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Seattle, and his participation in that organization is thought to be directly related to the artifact presented here.

GAR posts were often decorated with souvenirs and war trophies, and Benjamin’s table cover, may have been displayed at the Stevens Post. This would explain the wooden hangers, and also perhaps the faulty information recorded on the canvas (the date of the meeting was April 10, and Benjamin failed to include Longstreet, substituting instead “Bennett”). The information may be the product of an aged vet, who in the fulsomeness of time simply didn’t have his facts straight. A significant relic of the  two days at Appomattox.

References Cited:

Lewis King Publishing Company

1903 A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of the City of Seattle and Count of King, Washington, pp. 336-339.

Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000
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