This humble piece of cloth does not betray much historical importance. If you came across it sitting folded on a table — or even looked at it behind the glass of a display case — you might not look twice at it. You might think it was just a domestic item, something like a towel that a person might have used to wipe their hands on or dry off dishes.
That’s exactly what it is: a towel. It probably was never intended by its makers to be anything else. However, this particular towel took on a second life as a flag of truce during the Civil War in 1865 — as a prelude to a very important surrender.
Confederate soldiers at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, used this towel as a “white flag” to signal Gen. Robert E. Lee’s desire to surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Seeing the proud Southerners sheepishly waving this meager towel around was probably a sight to remember. Evidently it made an impression on a dashing young cavalryman present to witness the historic moment.
Gen. George Custer, later to achieve his own notoriety at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, witnessed the final “washing up” of Lee’s army at the courthouse and took it upon himself to snatch the towel for posterity. The towel was later bequeathed to the Smithsonian according to the wishes of Custer’s devoted widow, Elizabeth B. Custer.
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