Celebrating the End of the Civil War Today

Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago today, and bells will toll across the country this afternoon to commemorate the occasion.

The bells will peal at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia at 3:00 p.m. (EDT) to mark the time when Lee and Grant concluded their meeting to negotiate the terms of surrender. The National Park Service has invited other organizations to toll their bells at 3:15 for four minutes (for the four years of the war).

I imagine my friends back in the D.C. metro area will hear bells this afternoon, but now that I’m in New England (where the Revolutionary War holds sway over the Civil War and where church bells are not as densely situated), I don’t expect to hear anything. But whatever I’m doing, I’ll pause to consider that historical moment.

Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the site of Lee’s meeting with Grant to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender to the Union Army. The great Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan took this photo in April 1865; it’s now in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division.
Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the site of Lee’s meeting with Grant to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender to the Union Army. The great Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan took this photo in April 1865; it’s now in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division.

Incidentally, the generals met on Palm Sunday in the home of Wilmer McLean, who “famously said that the Civil War began in his backyard and ended in his parlor,” as noted in the Spring 2015 issue of the Civil War Trust’s magazine. McLean’s house was damaged in the first battle at Manassas in 1861 so he retreated farther south, only to have the Union Army choose his home for Grant’s meeting with Lee.

Afterward, the McLeans (ardent Confederates) reluctantly sold “a tremendous number of the home’s furnishings” to Union officers as souvenirs. The house was dismantled in 1893 for display at the Chicago World’s Fair and later use as a Civil War museum in Washington, D.C. — neither of which happened. The house was reconstructed at its original location in 1954, as part of a collection of buildings that attempt to re-create how the village looked in 1865.

Along with the house’s original furnishings, though, the apple tree where Grant waited for Lee to arrive is long gone.

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