America’s Civil War Comes Home To Roost

General Grant shakes the hand of his rival General Lee in Wilmer McLean’s home. Painting by Thomas Nast
General Grant shakes the hand of his rival General Lee in Wilmer McLean’s home. Painting by Thomas Nast

by Ray Setterfield

April 9, 1865 — When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 46-year-old farmer Wilmer McLean was too old to join the Confederate army. Mainly, he wanted peace and quiet.

But the first major battle of the war was fought on his farmland at Manassas Junction, Virginia, prompting him to move his family to safer pastures. He found a peaceful tiny hamlet called Appomattox Court House 120 miles away.

Ironically, it would be there, in McLean’s home, that the top generals from each side would meet four years later to end the conflict.

E.P. Alexander, a soldier who told of his wartime experiences in Military Memoirs Of A Confederate, noted: “McLean was the only man who ever had the first major pitched battle of a war fought in his front yard and the surrender signed four years later in his parlor.” And he wasn’t even a soldier!

Confederate troops, led by General Robert E Lee, had launched their final attack of the war on the morning of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Court House. It failed. And when Lee learnt that massed Union infantry, backed by cannon, was both in front and behind of his depleted army of 12,500 hungry and exhausted men, he knew the game was up.

“There is nothing left me to do but go and see General Grant – and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee told an aide.

Confederate Colonel Charles Marshall rode into Appomattox Court House and asked the first man he saw if he knew of a suitable venue for a meeting between the Union and Confederate commanders. The man he spoke to was none other than Wilmer McLean!

After Marshall rejected a dilapidated, unfurnished brick house shown to him, McLean reluctantly offered his own comfortable, well furnished home.

Then at 1.30pm Grant entered McLean’s parlor and went immediately to shake Lee’s hand. Grant, in his early 40s, wore a muddy and dusty uniform because his baggage had not caught up with him at the front. Lee, in his late 50s, was immaculately groomed in a dress uniform with polished brass buttons and gold-mounted sword.

And there, the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was signed. McLean’s homes had become, in effect, a pair of bookends to the great conflict.

Three days later, a formal ceremony marked the disbanding of Lee's army and the parole of his men, ending the war in Virginia. The events at Appomattox Court House triggered similar surrenders across the south, ending the Civil War.

It had cost the lives of 620,000 men – more than the combined death toll of all other American wars from the Revolution through the two World Wars to Korea, Vietnam and the two Gulf Wars.

Published: March 19, 2021

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