Published on October 12, 2017
1. Wilmer McLeanMcLean and his fate with the Civil War
2. The first major land battle of the Civil War, the First Bull Run, took place in northern Virginia on June 21, 1861. McLean owned a farm in the area, and his house served as the headquarters for Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard. Due to the location of these headquarters, the fighting of this short battle took place right in front of McLean’s house. It was so close, in fact, that a Union cannonball struck the house and landed in McLean’s kitchen. After the battle ended, McLean decided he’d had enough of the war and moved to a new location.
3. Nearly four years later, in April of 1865, the Civil War was nearing its end. At Appomattox Court House (precinct), Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant met on the battlefield one final time. Unlike at First Manassas, this was a Union victory, and Lee surrendered his army by the day’s end. Grant drew up the terms of surrender and Lee signed the document … in Wilmer McLean’s front parlor. So, as McLean supposedly said at the war’s end: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
4. As Lee departed on his horse to break the news to his troops, Union officers launched their final raid of the war by ransacking McLean’s parlor for souvenirs of the historic meeting. “Something close to pandemonium set in,” wrote Civil War historian Shelby Foote. The Union entourage walked out with the tables and chairs used by Lee and Grant, a stone inkstand, brass candlesticks and even the favorite rag doll of his 7-year-old daughter, Lula. They tore apart McLean’s cane-bottomed chairs and cut upholstery strips from his sofas as mementoes. As compensation, the soldiers shoved money into the hands of the unwilling seller and threw it onto the floor when he refused to accept it.
5. Even in peace, the Civil War had destroyed McLean’s property. “These armies tore my place on Bull Run all to pieces, and kept running over it backward and forward till no man could live there,” McLean lamented to a Confederate general he knew on the day after the surrender. “And now, just look around you! Not a fence-rail is left on the place, the last guns trampled down all my crops, and Lee surrenders to Grant in my house.” Following the Civil War, McLean was financially ruined—the main customers for his smuggled sugar was the Confederate army, which now no longer existed; and the Confederate currency he had been paid for that product was now worthless. The house, which became known as “the Surrender House,” eventually fell into the hands of speculators who wanted to find a way to profit from the building’s notoriety. The building had been disassembled and packaged, ready for transport, but it was never actually moved. Legal and financial problems on the part of the investors kept the building’s bricks and woods stuck in a big pile in Appomattox. There it remained for 50 years, victim to theft, vandalism, and the elements. It wasn’t until 1949 that the park service was able to rebuild the home, brick by brick, using as much of the original material as possible (mostly bricks, as whatever wood still remained had mostly rotted and was unusable) to restore the house to its original appearance.
6. So, as McLean supposedly said at the war’s end: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.” McLean’s bitterness toward the Civil War must have melted in the ensuing years as the newspaper also mentioned that in the 1872 presidential election he had voted for a man who once sat in his front parlor—Grant.