The tiny village of Appomattox Courthouse, where Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to federal general Ulysses S. Grant, has been restored to its 1865 appearance. Thirteen of the original buildings remain and have been restored by the National Park Service, while nine other structures have been rebuilt on their original sites. The latter include the McLean House, site of the surrender, which effectively ended the Civil War.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
P.O. Box 218
Appomattox, VA 24522
ph.: (804) 352-8987
Web site: www.nps.gov/apco/
The Civil War between the industrial North and the mainly agricultural South was fought over the issues of slavery and states’ rights. During early 1861 the Southern states seceded from the Union, and on April 12, 1861, the war began when Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. For three years the war dragged on indecisively, characterized by large, bloody battles such as Gettysburg, First and Second Manassas (Bull Run), and Antietam.
Dissatisfied with Northern military leadership, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant general in chief of the Northern army in March, 1864. Grant decided that the Army of the Potomac, which had been defending Washington, D.C., should cross the Rapidan River in Virginia and attack the Confederate forces under the great Southern general, Robert E. Lee. Led personally by Grant, the campaign began in May with the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, followed in June by a bloody clash at Cold Harbor.
After Cold Harbor, Grant led his forces past Richmond to assault the industrial and transportation center of Petersburg, about twenty-five miles to the south. Success would have cut off Lee’s sources of supply and led to the fall of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Uncharacteristic hesitation on the North’s part forced the two sides to settle into siege warfare, which dragged on for ten disastrous months beginning in June, 1864. The siege finally ended on April 1, 1865, when the Confederate right flank fell and Lee withdrew his starving and disease-ridden troops to the west.
On April 2 Union forces broke through the Confederate lines near Fort Fisher, southwest of Petersburg. That night Lee abandoned the last southern defenses of Petersburg while his army trudged to Amelia Court House about thirty miles to the west. He hoped to reorganize and find supplies urgently needed by his starving troops. Grant sent General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry and a strong corps under General George Meade on a forced march parallel to Lee’s army. On April 3 news came that Richmond had fallen. Lee found no food rations at Amelia Court House, so he continued to move west, the only direction open to his army.
The Northern army caught up with the Confederates at Sayler’s Creek and inflicted a stinging defeat. The Union troops captured nearly eight thousand southern soldiers and eight Confederate generals. The remnants of two Confederate corps were sent fleeing across the fields. Lee’s weary army crossed the Appomattox River and continued marching in the direction of Appomattox Station (later the town of Appomattox). Sheridan’s cavalry leapfrogged ahead to block the way while Union infantry closed a ring around the Confederate army. By April 8 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was at the end of its tether, its morale extinguished and its organization shattered.
The negotiations for surrender that now developed between the two generals were remarkably polite. Many Northern politicians had called for a severe and punitive peace to be imposed on the south, although Lincoln was in favor of a peace leading to reconciliation as well as reunion. General Grant was a harsh and, when necessary, ruthless war leader whose objective had been to fight and destroy the Confederate army. During the negotiations with Lee, however, he showed an unexpected and statesmanlike awareness of the need for an amicable peace.
During the night of April 8, Lee sent a letter through the lines to Grant offering to meet him to discuss the restoration of peace. Grant replied that he was authorized only to set the terms for military surrender. On the morning of April 9, Lee, who realized surrender was inevitable, wrote to Grant again requesting a meeting to discuss surrender terms. Grant’s emissary found Lee sitting under an apple tree by the side of the road just northeast of the village of Appomattox Courthouse. Lee then sent his aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, into Appomattox Courthouse to find a suitable location for the meeting. The first person Marshall encountered there was a businessman, Wilmer McLean. It was a Sunday, and the courthouse was closed and locked. McLean showed Marshall a somewhat run-down house, which Marshall considered unsuitable. McLean then offered his own house. By early afternoon of April 9 both Lee and Grant were at the McLean House. Their historic meeting took place in the front parlor on the left of the central hall.
Accompanied by members of their staffs, Lee and Grant conversed cordially about their service in the Mexican War and mutual friends (both were West Point graduates). Finally, Lee asked Grant to put the surrender terms in writing. The document required the Army of Northern Virginia to surrender unconditionally; the officers and men to swear not to take up arms against the U.S. government; arms and artillery to be turned over to Union officers, except for officers’ side arms, private horses, and personal baggage; and officers and men to be allowed to return home without interference by U.S. authorities. Grant also allowed the private Confederate soldiers to retain their horses to help work their farms, and he ordered rations to be provided for the near-starving Southern army. Lee praised Grant’s generosity, saying it would do much toward conciliating the southern people.
The formal surrender ceremony was set for April 12, four years to the day after the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, which began the war. The generals then left the McLean House but later had one more meeting on horseback between the lines, described as a pleasant conversation of more than half an hour. Grant then broke up his field headquarters just west of Appomattox Courthouse and left for Washington, D.C.; General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain accepted the surrender. Lee avoided the surrender ceremony but waited for it to be over before leaving for Richmond; General John Gordon led Confederate forces at the ceremony at which Chamberlain ordered his men to salute the Confederates. In this dramatic and historic fashion, the Civil War effectively concluded in such a manner that a federal regimental historian at the scene wrote that this most stupendous of struggles was brought to an end in the most compassionate manner.
The two-story McLean House was the finest home in the tiny village of Appomattox Courthouse. It was built, as was the courthouse itself, of brick with stone chimneys and a comfortable wooden porch extending across the front. Two smaller wooden buildings behind the main structure served as the kitchen and the slave quarters, although the latter had lost its function by the time of the surrender. The house faced the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road close to the Appomattox County Courthouse and just down and across the road from Meeks’s Store and the Clover Hill Tavern. The latter had a separate guesthouse and catered to locals as well as to stagecoach passengers interrupting their journey between Richmond and Lynchburg. A few miles south was Appomattox Station, which actually was a station on the Southside Railroad.
Wilmer McLean’s presence in Appomattox Courthouse was the ironic result of a series of events. McLean and his family were actually war refugees. McLean’s home had been in northern Virginia near Manassas, where the first major battle of the Civil War–also called the First Battle of Bull Run–was fought in July, 1861. His house was on the battlefield, and at one point a shell crashed through his window. A year later the second Battle of Bull Run was fought in the same area. McLean had had enough and decided to move to a quieter and safer location where there would be little likelihood of either army ever appearing. He ended up purchasing the Raine House, built in 1848 in Appomattox Courthouse, and in 1863 moved his family to this seemingly obscure village, which had fewer than one hundred fifty residents. The village had been given its name by the state legislature in 1845, when it was designated the county seat for the new county of Appomattox. Before that, it was an even smaller settlement called Clover Hill.
McLean had been right to hesitate to offer his house for the surrender negotiations because the aftermath was disastrous for his property. No sooner had Grant and Lee left than souvenir hunters descended on the McLean home. Union general Edward Ord bought the table on which the surrender was signed for ten dollars. General George Armstrong Custer purchased the table on which the terms were written out by Grant for twenty-five dollars. McLean tried to keep the parlor chairs which had been occupied by the two generals, but two cavalry officers seized them by force, thrust ten dollars in McLean’s hand, and rode off. Some chairs and sofas in the house were cut to pieces and parceled out to relic hunters, pictures were taken from the walls, and much that was movable was taken away with McLean receiving little or no compensation for many items. Besides losing many of his furnishings to souvenir hunters, McLean, whose business was trading in sugar, wound up in financial difficulties after the war. Attempting to earn something himself from the surrender, he borrowed heavily to finance the printing of thousands of copies of a lithograph depicting the historic scene in his parlor. There proved to be little demand for the pictures, and McLean went bankrupt.
The tiny village where McLean had intended to wait out the war now had a place in history. Situated in a shallow valley with rich slopes of cultivated land rising above it on every side, the village had only two streets and about twenty-five dwellings. Despite its small size, the village was at the time the only place in the county that could be called a town. Appomattox County was mainly rural and agricultural, and to this day it has remained a region of moderate-size farms.
After the surrender, Appomattox Courthouse was largely forgotten, and the few schemes to commemorate it failed. In 1889 some Union veterans organized the Appomattox Land Company and made plans to develop the area, but their plans came to nothing. The McLean house was bought by promoters who intended to move it to Washington as an exhibit. The historic house was torn down, but the project failed financially and the remains of the house were left in a pile to rot. In 1892 the courthouse burned to the ground and the county seat was moved to Appomattox Station, now called Appomattox, a few miles to the southwest. Thanks to its location on the railroad Appomattox enjoyed economic success while Appomattox Courthouse declined into a sorry place of abandoned and decayed buildings. This proved to be an advantage, however, when the country was ready to memorialize the place of the surrender because the original character of the site was more easily recoverable.
The restoration efforts were set in motion when Congress passed a bill on June 18, 1930, calling for the erection of a monument on the site of the old courthouse. In July, 1933, this responsibility was taken over by the National Park Service, which suggested restoring the entire village. The idea quickly won local and national support. The proposal was referred to Congress, and on August 3, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law creating the Appomattox Court House National Monument. The Resettlement Administration began acquiring land, and the park was proclaimed established on April 10, 1940. Work on the buildings was soon interrupted by the country’s entry into World War II. After the war, reconstruction and restoration resumed, and gradually the buildings were opened. The building program is now mostly completed and, aside from minor changes in restored structures, the village appears much as it did on the day when Grant and Lee met there.
On April 6, 1954, the village’s designation was changed to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. The courthouse was reconstructed in 1963-1964 and now contains the park’s visitor center as well as exhibits relating to the historic events. The Clover Hill Tavern, which dates from 1819, has been restored and contains a model of the village as it was at the time of the surrender. The tavern kitchen, the jail, and several other buildings have been restored or reconstructed, and most are open to the public. The McLean House has been reconstructed and refurnished with furniture similar to McLean’s, but the furnishings are not believed to be originals. The reconstructed house was dedicated on April 16, 1950, with descendants of Grant and Lee as guests of honor.
Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox. New York: Doubleday, 1953. The third and last volume of Catton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3. 40th anniversary ed. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1999. A much more exhaustive recounting of the closing years of the war. National Park Service. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1980. A compact, informative, and very well illustrated review of the important events relating to the historic site.