As Lee’s aides were looking around for a place for the Grant/Lee meeting they happened upon a resident of the town: Wilmer McLean who was working in his yard. They asked Mr. McLean if he knew of a good place for an important meeting and he led them to a small, uninhabited, unfurnished structure. When they told Mr. McLean the structure wouldn’t work – he said they could use the parlor of his home. When seeing that the home was well-furnished and comfortable, they agreed and went to find Lee to tell him a place had been found.
But let’s backtrack here. There is an interesting twist to the story.
Back in July of 1861, about 120 miles south of Appomattox, the McLean family owned a plantation in the town of Manassas, Virginia. The conflict between the states was escalating and Mr. McLean, offered his home to General P. G. T. Beauregard as headquarters. A cannonball was fired at the house. The ball went down the fireplace and as Beauregard himself wrote, “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fireplace of my HQ at the McLean House.” This was the First Battle of Bull Run (one of the first Civil War battles) and it took place on McLean’s farm – yes, the very same man. Mr. McLean, a grocer by trade, decided to protect his family and moved them north to Appomattox County.
And now the final agreement would be signed in his house.
Giving Mr.McLean the distinction of having the Civil War start in his front yard and end in his parlor.
General Lee showed up about 1:00 and waited in McLean’s home. Thirty minutes later Grant arrived. For 25 minutes they chatted (yes, chatted) with neither of them talking about the reason why they were there. They discussed a former time they had met during the Mexican War and the conversation was polite and friendly. Finally, Lee got to the point. Grant said he would hold to the terms he had set in an earlier letter. (Grant later said he was embarrassed to bring up the subject of Lee’s defeat.)
The war had been ugly. The war divided a nation, friends and family. The war was unthinkable.
Yet, here at the end, both men acted with grace and simplicity. According to the Appomattox website – Grant showed “compassion and generosity.” Lee understood “that the best course was for his men to return home and resume their lives as American citizens.”
Lee did not offer his sword (as was customary) and Grant did not ask for it.
Again from the site’s web account: “The character of both Lee and Grant was of such a high order that the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia has been called “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.”
I stand on the steps of the McLean House and ponder the events that happened within the walls.
Although some of the buildings in the historic site are original – McLean’s house is not. It was taken down to move it somewhere else and then reconstructed.
The road in front of the house. Can’t you imagine Grant riding out of the woods?
The table where in the agreement was signed – actually a replica of the table where the agreement was signed. Lee sat here.
Grant sat here.