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.
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!
- View more images related to the McLean house near Appomattox Court House, Va., including more from the day of the surrender.
- Explore the sights of the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Explore the entire U.S. Civil War through the Library of Congress online exhibition: The Civil War in America.