The McLean Family had seen war before. Back in the summer of 1861, they lived in a house near a small winding creak called Bull Run outside the northern Virginia railroad town of Manassas when the first major land battle of the Civil War commenced. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard took over their home as his headquarters. They fled the day before the Battle of Blackburn Farm (a precursor to the First Battle of Bull Run), during which a Union artillery shell crashed through the kitchen wall and into a lunch being prepared for General Beauregard.
When another battle erupted the next summer near the old battle ground on Bull Run Creek, Wilmer McLean decided he had had enough of war. The family found a home in a small Southside Virginia town of Appomattox Court House and he moved his wife, three daughters and a son there in the fall of 1863. The area had been untouched by war, and the family settled into a quiet and peaceful life as Wilmer took up sugar speculation, supplying sugar to the Confederate Army.
In April 1865, as General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fled the confines of its trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and tried to make it to Danville to meet up with General Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, the Union’s Army of the Potomac was in hot pursuit. After a week of hard marching and nearly constant contact between the two opposing armies, they arrived at the little hamlet the McLean family called home: Appomattox Court House.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Union infantry had the Confederate army boxed in. The only way out for the Confederates was to push through the Union cavalry on the western end of town. But the cavalry posed stiff resistance, and when it seemed like the Confederates were successfully pushing them back, an entire corps of Union infantry--made up in part of Freedmen and former slaves of the United States Colored Troops--rose up to block the Confederates’ path. Lee knew it was over when General John B. Gordon sent him a message that proclaimed Gordon’s troops had been “fought to a frazzle” and needed reinforcements.
Under a white flag, Lee’s message went out to Grant, and Lee’s trusted aid, Charles Marshall, set out to look for a suitable place for the two generals to meet.
The McLean family had waited out the battle in their kitchen on the ground floor of their home as men and horses were shot down around them. Now in this lull, Wilmer McLean went out to investigate. It was then that he was spotted by Marshall.
Wilmer McLean’s three story brick home was one of the most prominent structures in the small town, and Marshall approached McLean with a request: Did he know of anywhere the Generals could meet? After an empty barn was rejected as unsuitable, McLean reluctantly offered the use of his parlor, and soon after, Marshall and Lee returned to sit in the small room overlooking the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Lee wore his best uniform and a sword at his side. He and Marshall waited for half an hour before Grant showed up, dressed in his dusty uniform and muddy boots.
After small talk, the two got down to business. Grant offered terms of surrender that Lee found acceptable: officers could keep their personal baggage, sidearms and horses, and the men would be allowed to return home without fear of prosecution by the federal government if they only obeyed the rules of their parole and the laws that governed where they lived. Lee pointed out that cavalry and artillery soldiers owned their own horses and requested that they be allowed to take those horses home. Grant, knowing the importance of horses in farming, agreed. The two departed.
The scene was witnessed by only one member of the McLean family--a small rag doll belonging to seven year old Lula McLean. Lula apparently left the doll in the parlor as she was ushered out of the room in preparation for the meeting. The doll was found after the generals left and Union officers rushed in to collect souvenirs of the meeting. Several of the younger officers tossed the doll between them before Captain Thomas W.C. Moore of General Sheridan’s staff, took it with him.
The doll was made of unbleached cotton, and stuffed. She wore a bodice, skirt and leggings of printed cotton. Someone had used ink to draw two eyes, but her face bore no other features. She made an odd war trophy for the Moore family--a Silent Witness to history.
Lula’s doll was just one of many souvenirs taken by Union soldiers. They carried out the tables, inkstands, and candles. They cut strips from the sofas and from the cane bottom chairs. Some of the officers paid, some of them didn’t. Even in peace, McLean’s home was destroyed.
Captain Moore’s family passed the Silent Witness down from generation to generation for 127 years until the family donated the small doll to the National Park Service. The Silent Witness can now be seen in the Appomattox Court House Visitor’s Center museum located in the old village courthouse.
References and Further Reading
How the Civil War Stalked Wilmer McLean
Silent Witness to the Surrender
On April 9, 1865, two military giants, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, met in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in the small Southside Virginia town of Appomattox Court House. Grant, under orders from President Lincoln, offered generous terms to the surrendering Confederates. The officers could keep their personal sidearms, and baggage, and any soldier who brought a horse was allowed to take it home. Most importantly, the surrender terms allowed each man to return home and remain undisturbed by the Federal government as long as they observed “the terms of their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” Lee, by turning down a subordinate’s suggestion of guerrilla warfare, accepted reunification and Federal authority. After nearly four years of bitter military struggle and political posturing, the effective end of the Civil War was enacted by two military men coming to an apolitical accord that would allow the country to move past the difficulties of the past and into a peaceful future. Except….
Elizabeth R. Varon tells us that this apolitical view of a new era of peace and reconciliation is simply a myth. In Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, Varon examines how the participants and the population at large both interpreted and used the language of the surrender terms to reinforce their own ideas of what the end of the war actually meant. The result is an echo of the partisan and regional tensions that continue 150 years after the surrender at Appomattox.
Varon looks at how Grant, Southern Loyalists, Radical Republicans and some moderate Democrats saw the surrender terms as magnanimity to a defeated foe. In victory, the Federal government could afford to be kind to the Confederacy, and in doing so, lay the foundation for a chastened and repentant people to come back under Federal authority. By foregoing retribution, Lincoln--who dictated the general tone of the surrender terms-- and Grant, believed they were easing their wayward brethren back into the fold. Lee, his fellow Confederates and northern Copperheads, believed that the terms were a contract with the Federal government, guaranteeing the former Confederates of every rank and position freedom from prosecution and freedom to live “undisturbed”--the definition of which was broad, vague and varying. The Freedmen of both the North and South saw the leniency granted by the Federal government as a betrayal of the promise of freedom Appomattox had originally portended, as southern state governments were again filled with Confederate leaders passing Black Codes to limit Freedmen’s freedom.
This book is an instructive look at just how much work was still left to do at the end of the war and the advent of Reconstruction. Much of what we identify today as a “Confederate” or “Union” bias even in today’s academia and popular history can be traced back to the varying interpretations that Varon highlights. The image of honorable Confederates who fought for the right to be paroled, and who never really lost but were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers is a primary tenant of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. The image of a magnanimous Union that could claim moral superiority for forgoing retribution and instead being generous to a fault, glosses over the reestablishment of de facto slavery throughout the Confederates states when the Federal government allowed Confederate leaders back into governance.
What strikes me most about this work is that, in the study of history and throughout life, there is fact and there is truth and those two are not necessarily the same thing. It is a fact that the terms of surrender offered by Grant and accepted by Lee read, “ General; In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to 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 to 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 officers 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 his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside.”
It is truth that those words were interpreted by individuals based on their own personal biases, backgrounds and objectives. Those who would agree to yielding but not submission saw one truth---that they had earned the right to continue on without being disturbed by forced changes to the social relationships between the races and other changes to their way of life. Those who marched victoriously down the streets of Washington, D.C. in the Grand Review saw another truth--that those words would encourage the Confederates into accepting that the Union was right all along and the Confederacy was fatally flawed. And those men and women of color, who had been born free, or recently freed from the bondage of slavery, saw an entirely different truth--after a war that became about their freedom, those words were poor protection against the status quo.
Varon’s research and writing are top notch. Her challenge to the historical myth of Appomattox not only sheds light on one of the least understood periods of American history--Reconstruction--but on current interpretations of the Civil War which have their basis in the dueling interpretations of the truth that came out of the surrender terms. If you are looking for book about the military history of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a insightful challenge to what you think you already know about the surrender and its aftermath, you can’t do better than this.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.