ECW welcomes back guest author Richard Heisler
The day after General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; a second meeting was held to finalize the details of the surrender. Known as the Commissioner’s meeting, it consisted of a group that included three generals from each army. Union leadership was represented by Union generals John Gibbon, Charles Griffin and Wesley Merritt. Three Confederate generals, James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and William Pendleton completed the group. Also present were numerous aides, clerks and orderlies of the various generals. The lengthy meeting convened in the same McLean house parlor as the previous day’s affair.
Twenty years later, two former members of the Union army who had been in the McLean parlor during the Commissioners’ meeting met in Seattle, Washington Territory. Both had retained possession of remarkable souvenirs of that salient event in American history.
One of the men was John Gibbon, who was then in command of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia. The department consisted of Oregon, the Washington and Idaho Territories and a western portion of Montana Territory. It was headquartered at Vancouver Barracks, in Washington Territory, approximately 160 miles south of Seattle. In November 1885, Gibbon accompanied troops of the 14th United States Infantry sent by the War Department to Seattle to control the simmering threat of anti-Chinese unrest and violence in the city. While there, he stayed at the well-known Occidental Hotel.
On the afternoon of November 11th, Gibbon was visited at the Occidental by another man who had been in the McLean parlor on April 10th, 1865. The visitor was Amos Oscar Benjamin, a Seattle resident since 1878 and was a veteran of the Army of the Potomac. Benjamin had served as a private in the 81st New York infantry. At the time of Lee’s surrender, he was detailed as an orderly at Gibbon’s headquarters. His duties that day at Appomattox included arranging the table and its covering for the Commissioners and providing the pen and ink used to write and sign the documents.
The McLean house had already been stripped of its furnishings for souvenirs in the wake of Lee and Grant’s meeting a day earlier. Gibbon directed that a table be brought in from his headquarters equipage. Benjamin personally witnessed the signing of the final agreement that evening. Many of those present at the Commissioners’ meeting were aware of the historic significance of the event and were keen to obtain souvenirs. Once the signing was completed a clerk removed the covering and Benjamin took possession of it and stowed it inside his knapsack. The following day, Gibbon requested that this inscription be placed on the table:
On this table was signed the final agreement for the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox C.H., VA., at 8:30 p.m., April 10th 1865 by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Maj. Gen. J.G. Gordon, and Brig. Gen. Wm. Pendleton C.S.A., and Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, Bvt. Maj. Genl. Charles Griffin and Bvt. Genl. W. Merritt.”
During his meeting with General Gibbon at the Occidental, Benjamin produced the table covering to show to his old commander. Gibbon recognized the table cover and confirmed that it was the very one from Appomattox. He then went on to explain to Benjamin how he had kept possession of the table. It was a prized possession that he’d taken with him from post to post since the conclusion of the war. He had it at his post at the Vancouver Barracks. The inscription remained plainly legible. Gibbon and Benjamin then spent time in conversation, reviewing the scenes and incidents of that period at the close of the war. After leaving the Occidental, Benjamin told a Seattle P.I. journalist that he felt ten years younger after the very pleasant interview with his old commander.
136 years have passed since Gibbon and Benjamin met at the Occidental and both the Commissioner’s Meeting table and table covering still survive. The table is now in the collection of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park visitor center. The inscription remains clearly visible to this day. Amos Benjamin’s table covering is in a private collection, to the best of the author’s knowledge. It appeared at auction in 2018 and clearly shows the inscriptions documenting it as belonging to “A.O. Benjamin” with a description of its historic significance. There is an error in the inscription of names of the Confederate generals present at the meeting and the date. The error is probably an incident of an aging veteran trying to recall from memory the details of an event many years prior. Also of note are the wooden brackets attached to the table cloth for its hanging display. It has been suggested that from its presentation it may have hung on display at one of the locations of the Stevens Grand Army of the Republic Post in Seattle during the time in which he was a member. That may be possible at some point, but not until well after the meeting at the Occidental, as the meeting place of the Stevens Post, along with the items and records contained there, was destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
Richard Heisler is a 30 year resident of Seattle with a lifelong passionate interest in Civil War history. An early life steeped in history and art on the battlefields and in the museums of the Mid-Atlantic led to an education and career in art with history always being an underlying theme. Visits to the Gettysburg Cyclorama as a child were formative and helped set a life’s course with the paintbrush and the history book.
Richard is the founder of Seattle’s Civil War Legacy, a public history project aimed at bringing the rich and complex history of Seattle’s Civil War veterans to a broader, more diverse audience than would typically be exposed to this subject. Upwards of 3000 former Civil War soldiers and their families made their homes in Seattle and surrounding towns in the decades after the conflict. The legacy of these men during the Civil War and their subsequent roles in Seattle’s development are an underappreciated aspect of a shared national heritage. Seattle’s Civil War Legacy uses Social Media platforms, video, writing and tours all as part of the mission to bring Seattle’s Civil War connections to the public.