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
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.