The Civil War Connections Blog

Front Row Seats to the Eastern Theater

Some of my favorite stories of the Civil War are the ones about events of pure coincidence. One of these stories is the tale of Wilmer McLean, and his poor choice of housing for himself and his family. In 1853, McLean and his wife Virginia Beverly Hooe Mason moved into a rural area west of Washington D.C., known as Prince William County. In 1861, the McLean’s plantation and house was utilized by the Confederate troops as headquarters for General P.G.T. Beauregard during the First Battle of Bull Run. The barn was also used as a hospital and prison, and with the start of the battle in July of 1862, the Civil War began in McLean’s front yard. In order to protect his family, McLean sent them away from their plantation home. He remained in Manassas to work for the Confederacy until early 1862, when the Confederate Army pulled left the area. At this point, McLean relocated his family further south in an attempt to avoid the war, choosing the quiet neighborhood surrounding Appomattox Court House. However, the war would follow the McLean family once again.

 

Appomattox Court House, Va. McLean house. Taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Appomattox Court House, Va. McLean house. Taken by Timothy O’Sullivan, Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 

The Battle of Appomattox took place on April 9th, outside of the town of Appomattox. General Ulysses S. Grant had initially sent word to General Robert E. Lee asking him to surrender, but Lee refused. When it became clear that the Confederate troops stood little chance of winning, Lee changed his mind, and sent a message to Grant stating that he was prepared to discuss terms of surrender. Grant agreed and asked Lee to find a place for them to meet, and Lee’s men obliged. When perusing the town for an appropriate spot, they encountered Wilmer McLean, and asked for his assistance. McLean initially took them to an unfurnished warehouse, and when that was ruled out, he offered his own front parlor. The Confederates accepted his offer, and word was sent to General Grant. Grant and Lee met in the McLean partner, and over the next few days worked out the terms for surrender. The official ceremony for the Confederate surrender took place on April 12th, and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia turned its weapons over to the Union Army.

 

Surrender of Genl. Lee, at Appomattox C.H. Va. April 9th. 1865, Courier and Ives lithograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Surrender of Genl. Lee, at Appomattox C.H. Va. April 9th. 1865, Courier and Ives lithograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 

The surrender document itself stated that Confederate equipment must be turned over, barring horses or mules that soldiers could claim in order to use for the spring harvests. Soldiers themselves would be paroled and sent home, and Grant also provided rations for the hungry Confederate soldiers. Because of these generous terms, and the cordial behavior of both Grant and Lee, the surrender is often called “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Following the surrender, McLean and his family struggled economically, due to their support of the Confederacy and the Confederate currency. They remained in Appomattox until 1867, when they were forced to sell their house there, and returned to their home in Manassas. The well known terms and conditions that were worked out in McLean’s front parlor often lead people to say that the war started in his front yard, and ended in his front parlor. However, not all fighting ceased with Lee’s surrender. The surrender of other Confederate troops followed soon after, throughout the months of April and May. However, McLean and his family did have front row seats to the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.