APPOMATTOX, Virginia – A cannonball that ripped through the cabin of Hannah Reynolds' master made her a footnote of misfortune, the lone civilian death at the pivotal battle of the U.S. Civil War. She died a slave at 60, hours before the war to end slavery unofficially came to a close.
A century and a half later, Reynolds' story is being rewritten: Newly discovered records show that she lingered for several days — long enough to have died a free woman.
The Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia would be the final battle before the rebel Confederate army of Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the war that threatened to break up the United States of America.
This new historical narrative has made Reynolds one of the central figures in commemorative activities marking the surrender.
Friday night, a eulogy in period language will be delivered over a plain wooden coffin representing Reynolds' remains, a 100-member gospel choir will sing spirituals and 4,600 candles will be lit to represent the slaves in Appomattox County who were emancipated by Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses Grant, the head of the loyalist Union army.
The Reynolds story has also inspired some soul searching in this rural county in Virginia's tobacco belt where black and white students were taught in separate schools more than a century after Lee's farmhouse surrender and where discussions of race are approached delicately, if not at all.
"It's hard to bring up. It's even harder to get an honest and open discussion of it," said Joseph Servis, a U.S. history teacher at Appomattox High School. His students wrote essays drawing on their own experiences, black and white, with race.
For some students, their experiences were all too familiar.
Melody Burke, 16, wrote of how another teacher questioned whether she was up to the class work. She was the only black student in the class and the only one who was questioned, she said.
It only strengthened her resolve, she said, to "prove to her you really don't know me and you can't judge a book by its cover."
Students also visited the school-turned-museum where black students were educated, attended a panel discussion featuring students who attended classes there to learn of their experiences, and discussed the era of segregation with their elders.
Pastor Alfred L. Jones III remembers student unease about race issues when he taught history at Appomattox High. Now retired, he's a genealogist who brought the Reynolds story to life and has worked with others in this county of 15,000 to make the legacy of the Civil War relevant through the 1960s Civil Rights movement and beyond.
The Reynolds story, he says, was "hidden in plain sight."
Reynolds was left by her masters, Dr. Samuel Coleman and his wife, Amanda Abbitt Coleman, in their home as Union and Confederate armies headed to the fateful Battle of Appomattox Court House.
During the fighting, a Union cannonball blasted through the Coleman house, striking Reynolds and leaving a horrific wound. Two white men, a Union doctor and chaplain, looked over her in her final hours.
"Her arm was very large and fleshy and a concave wound was made corresponding to the size and shape of the ball," wrote J.E.M. Wright, the chaplain.
Jones worked for months seeking out the thin paper trail left by Reynolds. The breakthrough was finding Reynolds listed on a death registry in a public library with a genealogical center.
"That was just like I struck gold," he said of the document that listed the date of her death as April 12, 1865 — not three days earlier, as was long believed.
In a rare gesture by a slaveholder, Reynolds' death was reported by Dr. Coleman, who listed himself as "former owner."
"I think he realized the historical significance of that," Jones said. "Obviously it meant something to him."
Jones would like to believe Reynolds regained consciousness over those final days to realize she would die a free person.
"I just imagine, in my mind, somebody whispering, 'You're free, you're free, you're free.'"
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Appomattox Court House: http://www.nps.gov/apco/index.htm