|Early 20th-century postcards of the ruins of Wilmer McLean's house, where Lee surrendered to Grant|
on April 9, 1865. (National Park Service) | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.
|(National Park Service)|
|Headlines in the Washington Times|
on Sept. 26, 1915.
Unable to keep up with mortgage payments, McLean defaulted on a bank loan after the war, and the house was sold at public auction in 1869. After a succession of owners, it was purchased in 1891 for $10,000 by former Union officer Myron Dunlap, who originally planned to hold Grand Army of the Republic gatherings at the site. Later, Dunlap and other investors aimed to dismantle the structure and display it at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. That was followed by another scheme to haul most of it off to Washington, re-build it as a Civil War museum, and charge visitors admission. The "Surrender House" was dismantled in 1893 for a move, but both plans were scotched for lack of money and legal issues.
And so the remains of the historic house just sat there.
In the years afterward, the mishmash of bricks and rotting wood was victimized by nature and targeted by thieves and souvenir hunters. "The McLean house site," the Times wrote, "is a foreboding looking, dank dark spot in the woods, overgrown with tall, foul-smelling weeds, saplings and underbrush."
To get there, the Times reporter maneuvered through a cornfield that once was McLean's spacious front yard. The only mention of the site's historical importance was an iron tablet near the ruins that noted: "Gen. Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., met and agreed upon terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the afternoon of April 9, 1865." Near the plaque, the reporter discovered a ramshackle ice house and a small weaving house; in a thicket lay three large piles -- all that was left of the historic home.
|An image of the iron historical tablet|
at the McLean House site appeared
in the Washington Times
on Sept. 26, 1915.
The unofficial tour guide and watchman of the rubble was R.H. Browning, who lived across the road. He complained to the Times reporter about thieves swiping McLean house woodwork to use as firewood. Browning, who claimed to have witnessed Lee's surrender as a boy, used "shotgun methods" to chase off those miscreants. It apparently was a losing battle.
|April 1865 photo of McLean house by Timothy O'Sullivan. (Library of Congress)|
|Schoolchildren examine bricks at the McLean house ruins. (National Park Service)|
|An early 20th-century postcard of visitors at the ruins of the McLean ice house. (National Park Service)|
Several historic buildings in the rural village suffered from neglect, the Times reported.. The old Raine tavern was in "dilapidated and tumbled-down condition." The charred ruins of the war-time courthouse, which burned in 1892, were hidden in weeds and underbrush. The city jail nearby was an eyesore, with a "badly dilapidated" roof and "decomposing and disintegrating" bricks. A hotel, used as a headquarters by both armies, was in a "sad state of disrepair."
"The raging winds and waters have done their worst," the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorialized about Appomattox Courthouse in the summer of 1915, "and what they have left is crumbling from human neglect."
Added the newspaper: "Why isn't Appomattox to-day a literal shrine, as well as a historical shrine?"
Plans to restore the McLean house stalled early in the 20th century. As late as the 1920s, Civil War veterans occasionally stopped at the site with their families. Tourists often sought souvenirs, so enterprising local boys sold them bricks for candy money. After roads were improved to remote Appomattox Courthouse, even more souvenir-seekers arrived. "The old house," the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in 1936, "is scattered from Maine to California."
|A front-page photo in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 17, 1950, |
of the huge crowd at the official dedication ceremony for the
reconstructed Wilmer McLean "Surrender House."
The next April, a crowd estimated at 10,000 attended the official dedication ceremony. Direct descendants of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant were honored guests. Bands played Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman spoke for 45 minutes -- he said he planned to will his tattered, bullet-riddled 61st Virginia flag to the McLean house. Photographers swarmed around U.S. Grant III and Robert E. Lee IV as they stood on the porch for the official ribbon cutting. And a national magazine writer was spotted asking other reporters, "Have you seen any nice old ladies crying?"
1915 was a distant, ugly memory.
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-- National Park Service, Appomattox Court House site, accessed April 4, 2020.
-- Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug. 29, 1915, March 24, 1936, April 17, 1950.
-- The Washington Times, Sept. 26, 1915.