From Manassas to Appomattox Court House

Appomattox, McLean House

(Photo credit: The McLean House, Appomattox Court House, courtesy Rob Schenk, Flickr Creative Commons)

I wanted to say something about Appomattox Court House, but that also brings up the strange tale of Wilmer McLean. One of the most amazing things I learned when, as a new American, I started investigating the history of the Civil War was the story of Mr. McLean. He supposedly often told people that the American Civil War started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. And in a sense, he was right.

This is one of those weird historical footnotes that makes you open your eyes wide and exclaim “What the heck!” (Only the last word won’t be “heck.”) For me, it’s right up there with learning that John Adams, the “atlas of independence,” was the same John Adams who a few years earlier defended the British soldiers in Boston accused of murdering five individuals outside the Old State House in the so-called “Boston Massacre.” It’s that weird.

McLean was a merchant who lived on a farm with his family near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia. His farm just happened to sit at the location of the Civil War’s first major clash between Union and Confederate forces: First Bull Run, aka First Manassas. During the preliminaries to the battle McLean’s house was shelled by Union artillery after being taken over by Confederate forces under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. (That structure is no longer there.) After the battle McLean, who was a Confederate sympathizer and supplier of sugar to the South, moved his family further into the heart of the state, to a small south-central Virginia town and county seat called Appomattox.

McLean may have thought he was getting away from the war’s front lines, but those front lines were to catch up with him again. In April 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces, exhausted and starving after having being chased constantly by the Union since the fall of Richmond, ground to a halt nearby. After one more battle Lee finally concluded he had no choice left but to surrender his army. Appomattox was chosen as the location to conclude surrender negotiations, and McLean’s home was chosen as a suitable spot for the signing of the surrender documents between Lee and Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. That didn’t quite bring the Civil War to an end, but once Lee’s force had capitulated it was clear to all that the conflict was all but over. So yes, you could say that the Civil War really did start in McLean’s front yard and end in his front parlor.

When we visited the site there were rangers on duty at one or two field locations, but there were no formal ranger-led tours scheduled for that day. However, we had a stroke of luck. An organized group of English tourists, who were spending two weeks in the US on a Civil War tour, just happened to be in town. Naturally enough, Appomattox was near the end of their tour schedule. The tour leader, a very tall, military-looking chap, invited us to tag along as the group was led around by a ranger who seemed to have been brought in on his day off to cover this tour, which lasted most of the morning.

Next year, 2014, will be Appomattox Court House’s 60th birthday as a National Historical Park (NHP). The site has long been in the charge of the National Park Service. It was transferred from the War Department to the park service as Appomattox Battlefield Site on Aug 10, 1933. It soon became a National Monument, until being redesignated as a NHP on April 15, 1954.

The first thing they tell you at Appomattox Court House NHP is that the surrender did not take place at the actual courthouse (that’s when they’ll point you in the direction of the McLean House). In fact, there is more to the town that just a courthouse. The current park has about a dozen major buildings, some of which are restored originals while others are reconstructed. Weirdly enough, the McLean House is a bit of both. It has an interesting post Civil War story, and it’s a tale that underscores just how crazy the process of commemoration of national icons could be in the 19th century.

Following the Civil War, McLean was financially ruined—after all, 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. McLean and his family moved to Prince William County and the house was put up for public auction. 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. They settled on the idea of dismantling the building and reconstructing it as a fee-paying museum in a large, prominent city. One early scheme was to take it to Chicago and put it on exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Then the investors hit on the idea of moving it to Washington, DC. Neither idea panned out. The building had been disassembled and packaged, ready for transport, but it was never actually moved. Legal problems combined with financial limitations 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, prey 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.

The Court House and other historic buildings are today open to the public, courtesy of the National Park Service. The court house itself is the park’s headquarters. It includes a museum upstairs.


Appomattox Court House. National Park Service. Available at


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