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July 2024
4min read

The fabric of history is often woven of surprising threads: the chance meeting, the extravagant whimsey of fate. No better illustration of this can be found than the string of events surrounding the table in Wilmer McLean’s parlor upon which Ulysses S. Grant drew up the terms that brought the Civil War to a close.

When the war began, McLean was a pacifist with Southern sympathies who owned a 1,400-acre plantation near Manassas Junction, Virginia. His land was cut by a creek, then unknown, now famous—Bull Run. It was here, on Sunday, July 21, 1861, that the first important battle of the Civil War was fought, making of the McLean house a hospital for the dying and a morgue for the dead. When his plantation was overrun again a year later in the Second Battle of Bull Run, McLean decided that he had had enough and prepared to move his family to a place “where the sound of battle would never reach them.” He chose a tiny village in the hills of south-central Virginia. The village was Appomattox Court House. There he bought a large red-brick house with a white wooden porch across the front, the best house in the immediate vicinity.

It was here, in April of 1865, that the McLeans again found themselves surrounded by the clash of arms as Grant’s Army of the Potomac dealt the deathblow to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

When on Sunday, April 9, General Lee ordered his military secretary, Colonel Charles Marshall, to go into Appomattox Court House and find a building suitable for his meeting with Grant, McLean was the first white civilian Marshall met. At first McLean recommended a house other than his own, but Marshall decided that only McLean’s was a setting worthy of the historic conference. Thus the man who had seen from his own windows the first massive bloodletting of the war was to have the war end in his own parlor.

But the whim of fate did not end there. Among those present when the surrender was signed was General E. O. C. Ord, a distinguished Union veteran who longed for peace so that he could return to his wife Molly and his young children. Just how strange Ord’s presence in McLean’s parlor was is revealed in a recently discovered biographical sketch of the General written by his granddaughter, Mrs. Lucy Ord Dunlop, who based it on anecdotes related by Ord to his family. The first half of the story probably took place early in 1865. Mrs. Dunlop writes:

” . . . For a time and until the spring should really come, the armies of both sides at Petersburg and Richmond were generally inactive, held so by the fearfully muddy and impassable roads. It was cold and mean, food was short everywhere. One rainy, windy night a young Confederate soldier, grown desperate from privation and homesickness, decided to drop out of the damned army and go home. The fact that he had to wallow on foot around a whole hostile army corps did not submerge his intention. He ploughed on through the impenetrable blackness until he was exhausted, when, lured by a flickering light in a shack, he slipped in to warm himself by the fire. Startled by a ‘Halt, who goes there?’ he started to run for it but was grabbed by a sentinel and taken for questioning to the General. Shivering in rags, hungry and shaking from fatigue and terror, the boy told the General . . . that he did not know anything and did not want to find out anything. He lived a little way to the south in Virginia and, as he was sick and felt there was no longer any good in his staying away, he just wanted to get home.

“The fierce looking General wanted so badly to get home! They were talking the same language. ‘Get him a blanket, there!’ he roared. ‘Give him some food. See him through our lines and put him on his road home. God! what a war to ruin boys like this! Good night, son, and don’t come back.’ And the General, with the cold rain falling incessantly on his tent, sat back and mused over Molly and the comforts of his own home and forgot the tired lad …”

The narrative goes on to tell of General Ord’s part in the closing days of the war and then moves to that memorable Palm Sunday in the McLean parlor:

”. . . Great men generally act with simplicity. At the most prominent residence of the village of Appomattox Court House, Grant met Lee. . . . General Grant, disheveled and dirty, seated himself at a parlor table and in the presence of several Union officers, amongst whom were Ord, General Lee, and one Confederate officer, he scrawled on a yellow piece of paper the short but generous terms. Ord, consistent to the end, had suggested that the Southern officers be allowed to retain their side arms and private mounts. Then the Hero of the South, perfectly groomed as always, accepted the terms of the surrender. Lee then, with great dignity and sorrow, withdrew. Grant followed Lee outside and silently raised his hat as Lee departed.

“The importance of the occasion suddenly burst upon the minds of the tired officers. They all wished to have some memento of the event and began offering Mr. McLean money for his few furnishings. Of course the table upon which Grant drew up the terms of the surrender was most desired. Handsome offers were made for it. Ord thought of his large family back home and of his small [army] pay and knew that he could not hope to bid [on] so valuable an object. But much to his amazement and the chagrin of the other officers, McLean said that he desired to make a gift of the table to General Ord. Why Ord? All wanted to know. Why, especially, Ord? Because, the owner of the coveted table explained, the starving lad that General Ord, a few months before in a moment of homesickness, had seen safely through his lines, was the son of Mr. McLean, who thanked God that the opportunity had been given him to express his gratitude and make some return for his great obligation. Ord replied that he was a poor man but that he realized that McLean was probably worse off than he, so he insisted on paying him all that he had in his wallet, forty dollars. The table, a marble topped, Victorian piece, stood always from that time on in General Ord’s parlor. . . .”

After General Ord’s death, the table eventually came into the possession of the Chicago Historical Society, where it remains to the present day.

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