Sunday, April 05, 2020

'Utter desolation': A visit to Lee-Grant 'Surrender House' in 1915

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)
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Fifty years after the Civil War, the once-impressive, two-story brick house in Appomattox Court House Va., where Lee surrendered to Grant lay in ruins. "No one familiar with Civil War history," the Washington Times wrote in 1915 about the site of Wilmer McLean's home, "can view this scene of abject and utter desolation ... without an involuntary sigh."

Headlines in the Washington Times
on Sept. 26, 1915.
In its glory days, the "Surrender House" featured seven wide steps leading to a spacious porch supported by five white pillars. McLean's property included a large, well-kept front lawn, a flower garden, ice houses, a weaving house and quarters for slaves. The commodious residence, where Wilmer lived with his wife Virginia, was described as one of the finest in the state at the time -- a "typical country residence of a Virginia gentleman of wealth and culture."

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 wood is water-logged, moss-covered, and so soft and decomposed that a finger will make an impression in it," the Times reported. "The steps are intact and lie upon one of the piles. The lumber from which the porch was constructed lies rotting on another pile, with weeds, vines and underbrush almost obscuring it from view." Piles of crumbling brick were coated with a "greenish accumulation" left by nature. To keep intruders from the ruins, a makeshift, wire gate stood near the original entrance to the house.

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."
In 1940, after Appomattox Courthouse became a national historical monument, momentum finally built to reconstruct the McLean house. Archaeological studies were begun and data collected by the U.S. government, but the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, stopped the effort. Finally, in 1949, a reconstructed McLean house -- using many of the old bricks -- was opened the public.

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.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- 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.


  1. I have visited the McClean house at Appomattox Court House twice. Once as a teen back in 1966-67 and again in 2001. I had heard the tale that the house was dismantled in an attempt to have it reconstructed at Chicago's World fair some years later. I never gave much thought about what had happened once it was dismantled but this is a great story of the history of this historic home. Thanks for this story.

  2. Have been there some years ago. never knew this , Thanks John.

  3. Ozzie ,Have been there twice and one of the times heard story from a Ranger.Last time I was there about 8 yrs ago drove from Confederate White House all along roads of Lee’s retreat to Appomattox.What a great trip.I love walking all around this historic site.That new Confederate museum up the road is excellent too.

  4. Bravo John. Great story!

  5. Back when I visited in 2016 the Park Ranger relayed essentially the same story. He also added the town was virtually untouched/abandoned after the Court house fire as ACH relocated near the rail road that bypassed the original town.

  6. Those pictures make my stomach upset.