Appomattox Court House was originally known as Clover Hill, a small settlement of just a few houses around the tavern, which was a stopping-off point on the main
Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. When Appomattox County was formed in 1845, Clover Hill was chosen as the county seat and the town was renamed. After the county courthouse was built in 1846 the settlement grew into a village of homes, stores, and lawyers' offices. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park represents the appearance of the village on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.
Lee instructed Marshall to locate a house suitable for the meeting. A short search led to the home of Wilmer McLean, who, in one of history's small ironies, had owned a farm near the battlefields of First and Second Manassas before moving to Appomattox. McLean's house was a substantial brick structure, three stories high with a columned porch across the front, that stood a short distance west of the courthouse on the south side of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Lee and Babcock soon made their way through the village to the house, and Lee climbed the front steps, entered the hall, and turned left into a parlor with furnishings that included several chairs, at least two tables, a sofa, and a large secretary. Lee seated himself, and, along with Babcock and Marshall, waited for Grant.
The house's owner, Wilmer McLean (left), was a short, stout man of 50, who had been born and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia (then part of the District of Columbia). As a young man, he worked in a wholesale grocery firm, gaining valuable knowledge of the business world and making important contacts among importers, merchants, and bankers. In 1853 he married Virginia Mason, a wealthy widow with three daughters and extensive real estate holdings that included "Yorkshire," an estate in Prince William County where the McLeans decided to live.
After the Civil War began McLean rented "Yorkshire" to the Confederate army and moved his family to a place of safety. In July 1861 the estate became part of the First Manassas battlefield. By the time a second battle was fought in the same area a year later, McLean had become a merchant-trader who speculated in sugar, a scarce and expensive commodity from which he hoped to reap a handsome profit.
In 1863, fearing for the safety of his family (which by then included a son and two
daughters of his own; a fourth daughter would be born in 1865), McLean moved to Appomattox Court House, where he would have ready access to both rail and communication lines to conduct his business and where he believed, wrongly it turned out,
that no army was ever likely to appear. In the fall of 1865 Timothy O'Sullivan photographed Wilmer, his wife, her two older daughters, young Lula McLean, and Lula's sister Nannie on the front porch and steps of their home.
Lee was dressed in a new uniform and wore a handsome sword," he began. "His tall, commanding form thus set off contrasted strongly with the short figure of General Grant, clothed as he was in a soiled suit, without sword or other insignia of his position except a pair of dingy shoulder-straps." Lee's countenance betrayed no emotion. "As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face" wrote Grant, "it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it." After a few minutes of small talk, Lee reminded Grant why they were meeting and asked him to "commit to writing the terms you have proposed, so that they may be formally acted upon."
Grant asked an aide for writing materials and rapidly put terms to paper that reflected Lincoln's thinking about extending mercy to a beaten foe. The key provisions, as slightly amended at Lee's suggestion, stipulated that officers would "give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged and
each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The Arms, Artillery and public property to be parked and stacked and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side Arms of the officers nor their private horses or baggage. This done each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes not to be disturbed by United States Authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside." Lee appreciated Grant's generosity about officers' arms and animals but pointed out that many Confederate cavalrymen and artillerists also owned their horses and would need them for the spring planting. Grant promised a separate order "to let every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule take the animal to his home."
Lee departed the McLean house as unceremoniously as he had come. After mounting Traveller and giving Grant and his officers a parting salute, the Confederate commander rode slowly from the McLean yard accompanied by his military secretary Charles Marshall and Marshall's courier, Pvt. Joshua O. Jones of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, Lee's headquarters guard. As Lee returned to the Confederate camp, "whole lines of men
rushed down to the roadside and crowded around him to shake his hand. All tried to
show the veneration and esteem in which they held him."
Confederate reactions fell across a broad spectrum. When Lee returned to his lines many soldiers crowded around Traveller, voicing continued devotion to their general and to the Confederacy. Others shouted their anger, including the man famously quoted by Maj. Gen. Bryan Grimes of Gordon's corps: "Blow, Gabriel, blow! My God, let him blow, I am ready to die!" The most common response among Lee's benumbed troops probably was relief that a hellish week of flight and privation had ended.
Across the Appomattox River, Lee's veterans bestirred themselves, shuffling into their regimental formations for one last time. Eyewitnesses disagreed about the precise order of the Confederate march, but John Gordon's Second Corps certainly took the lead, filing onto the stage road and marching down the northern bank of the Appomattox River. The
men splashed across the modest stream and ascended toward the village. Chamberlain and his staff, posted near the right flank of the 32nd Massachusetts, watched the progress of Gordon's column. In a letter written the next day, the former college professor, whose 20th Maine Infantry had earned renown on the slopes of Little Round Top, described the
solemn scene. His soldiers offered "the honors due to troops," their weapons "at the shoulder and in silence." The Confederates "came to a shoulder on passing my flag and preserved perfect order." A member of the 32nd Massachusetts recorded a drill that
would be repeated by each southern unit that made the dolorous trek: "The gallant but defeated foe advanced in front the length of our line, then faced us, stacked arms, laid colors and equipments on stack, then marched away to make room for another line...." A soldier in the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, posted west of the courthouse, estimated that about six hours passed before the last Confederates had laid down their weapons. "Not an unkind word was spoken to them," he said, "some of their color bearers shed tears when they delivered up their colors."
What happened at Appomattox between soldiers is a historical moment of authentic tragedy and grandeur. Its drama is irresistible. Indeed, swords were turned into saws and pen knives, so to speak, as soldiers and civilians carved away and uprooted the apple tree under which Grant and Lee had allegedly conducted their first meeting. When Grant
himself came to write of the surrender in his famous Memoirs (1885), he, too, chose to remember the event in a reconciliationist tone. After his historic meeting with Lee at the McLean House, Grant ordered a cessation of any celebrations in his own army. He insisted on no "unnecessary humiliation" of the defeated Confederates. They "were now our
prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall." After 20 years, Grant could hardly contain his admiration for Lee, who seemed "too manly" to show his "feelings." But Grant remembered his own feelings in terms that may have reinforced both Lost Cause advocates and Yankee reconciliationists.
Appomattox Court House, National Park Service