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A Tale of Two Houses and the U.S. Civil War

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McLean's House, Appomattox, Va., scene of General Lee's surrender. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, April 1865. (Printed between 1880 and 1889.)
McLean’s House, Appomattox, Va., scene of General Lee’s surrender. Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan, April 1865. (Printed between 1880 and 1889.)

In these photographs, we see two houses, both set in rural Virginia, in the mid-nineteenth century. These were the homes, a few years apart, of a retired officer of the Virginia militia named Wilmer McLean and his family. At first glance, the houses and these facts are unremarkable. But the history these walls witnessed, and the presence of McLean in both, offers up one of the more interesting coincidences of the U.S. Civil War.

General Beauregard's headquarters at first battle of Bull Run. Photo by Andrew J. Russell, 1861.
General Beauregard’s headquarters at first battle of Bull Run. Photo by Andrew J. Russell, 1861.

Today is April 9, exactly one hundred and fifty years after arguably the most significant event of the U.S. Civil War: the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Lee’s surrender put into motion the end of the war which had divided the United States for four years.

This momentous occasion took place in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home outside Appomattox Court House, Virginia. (Photo, top right.) A messenger sent by Gen. Lee to find a suitable place for the meeting of the two generals came to McLean’s door, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what about this other home? Turns out, it was the same McLean family’s residence just four years earlier. (Photo, bottom right.) Rewind to July 1861, and the beginning of the war. During the first major land battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas), the McLean family home served as the headquarters for Confederate Gen. Beauregard and was damaged by Union shelling. The later move of his family over 100 miles south was intended to remove them from the dangers of war and allow McLean to continue his business as a wholesale grocer – and during the war, a sugar broker supplying the Confederate forces.

While it cannot be confirmed, McLean is often credited with some variation of this statement: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.” Even if he never said those exact words, the story behind the statement is essentially quite true!

The room in the McLean House, at Appomattox C.H., in which Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant. Print by Major & Knapp.
The room in the McLean House, at Appomattox C.H., in which Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant. Print by Major & Knapp.

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Comments (3)

  1. It’s amazing to realize how different the United States is in comparison
    to Pre Civil War America..

  2. I confess that I have not tried digging into other sources, but the differences in appearance of the house in the two photographs are puzzling. Both seem to depict a front facade: we are looking at the eaves of the roof, with two end chimneys visible. The construction seems to be masonry in both cases (zoom all the way in on the Bull Run image). But the house in one photo has three “bays” (marked by three windows in upper story and two flanking the central front door on the lower). The other has five, again marked by the visible fenestration. The house in one photo has small porch at the front door, the other a veranda as wide as the house. The porch might have been rebuilt (although the veranda does not look new), but a major effort would have been required to reconfigure the window openings. And the lintels above the windows are quite different, as are other trim elements. Have you run into an explanation of these differences? It is hard to believe that these two photos depict the same building.

  3. Hello Carl,
    Thanks for your comment and sorry for any confusion.These are actually two different houses – one the McLean family’s home in Bull Run, Va. and the other a home they lived in near Appomattox Court House, Va. The connection is that they were both owned by the same McLean family, not that they are the same house.

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