Drexel's Tobie Hoffman, center, with re-enactors playing the Union's George Meade, left, and the Confederacy's Robert E. Lee, right.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat at desks across from each other in the small Virginia hamlet called Appomattox Court House.
In a house owned by Wilmer McLean, Lee wore a spotless Confederate dress uniform. Grant, who’d been on the road to meet with one of his generals, had a coat spattered with mud.
It was there that Lee signed the papers that finalized his surrender to Grant. And it’s there, a century and a half later, that Tobie Hoffman, associate director of university programs in Drexel’s English Language Center, will complete her journey retracing the paths of the two armies at the close of the Civil War.
“For me, I actually have to experience something,” said Hoffman, associate director of university programs in the Drexel English Language Center. “Really experiencing it makes it all mean more to me.”
Over the past five years, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s biggest battles have taken place, launching names like Fort Sumter, Bull Run and Gettysburg back into the national consciousness.
It was in December 2013 — five months after the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg — that Hoffman’s fascination began.
“I realized we were in the middle of this 150th commemoration and I really always had in my mind this idea of going to the re-enactment at Appomattox,”she said. “I went, ‘Oh, this is the time to prepare for it,’ and I realized I actually didn’t know anything. I knew Grant was the North and Lee was the South.”
Hoffman has experience in launching herself into such experiences. She wanted to go to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2012, but she didn’t want to go in unprepared.
“I went, ‘Oh, I’m going to a curling event? What the heck is curling?’ So I actually took a curling lesson, and then I had a friend take me to a hockey game because I didn’t know anything about that,” she said.
The key to getting the most out of something is taking it in with others who really enjoy it, Hoffman believes.
“Being with people who love something, even if I don’t know anything, is really the lesson,” according to Hoffman. “Try it out and if somebody really loves it, you’ll learn a lot.”
That’s why, after attending re-enactments, reading books, attending symposiums, taking classes and even sitting in on a Drexel professor’s class on Abraham Lincoln, Hoffman made the trip to Richmond Sunday.
She’ll follow the path of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from nearby Petersburg, where it was sieged in for the latter half of 1864 until the early spring of 1865, to the various places where the army battled its way west.
“He was trying to go south and Grant’s army kept preventing that,” Hoffman said. “That was very interesting to me, to look at the map and say, ‘Oh, I see what he was trying to do.’ He just couldn’t get there.”
Along the way, she’ll be attending re-enactments. The thing she enjoys most there is talking to those who do the re-enacting while they’re in their simulated encampments.
“Sort of seeing into another community of people is really a gift to me,” Hoffman said.
She hopes to blog throughout her trip, adding to posts she started making last summer and has continued regularly. On top of that, she hopes to add to the catalog of songs she’s written while studying the Civil War. The track count currently stands at four.
“That’s how I translate my learning,” she said with a smile.
Between April 8–12, Hoffman will be at Appomattox for the re-enactments of the surrender and the Confederate “stacking of arms,” in which the soldiers relinquished their weapons to the Union, which the public will take part in.
Taking so much time to learn about events long past has provided a new perspective to Hoffman and allowed her interact with communities she hadn’t in the past.
She attended her first Drexel Veteran’s Day event and said she wants to try to better understand those who have fought in the armed forces, even if she may not agree with the reasons that wars that have been fought.
“I think I’ve learned about listening to war and what it means to go to war,” Hoffman said.