Many rural counties in the Southern States had county seats whose names were formed by adding court house to the name of the county. The court house town contains the courthouse building as well as a number of other buildings. In this case, one of those other buildings is the McLean house, a former tavern.
Even before the Civil War, the railroad bypassed Appomattox Court House (the South Side Railroad, today a part of the Norfolk Southern, was built to the south of town in 1850), and commercial life tended to congregate at the nearby Appomattox station. As a result, the population of Appomattox Court House never grew much over 150, while Appomattox town grew to the thousands. When the courthouse burned in 1892, it was not rebuilt and a new courthouse was built in Appomattox, sealing the fate of Appomattox Court House as a town. The county seat was formally moved in 1894.
Because the first Battle of Bull Run, fought on July 21, 1861, took place on the McLean farm farther north in Virginia, it can be said that the Civil War started in McLean's backyard in 1861 and ended in his parlor in 1865 (neither event, however, marked the true beginning or ending of hostilities).
McLean was a retired major in the Virginia militia. He was too old to enlist at the outbreak of the Civil War and decided to move to Appomattox Court House in order to get away from the Civil War (after the war, he liked to portray himself as having moved because he was a peace-loving man, but the reality is that during the war, he made a small fortune running sugar through the Union blockade; he simply wanted to carry on this lucrative business without the interference that nearby hostilities would cause). Nonetheless, on April 9, 1865, the war came back to McLean when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at his house. His house was also used on April 10 for the Surrender Commissioners' meeting, and over the next few days as the headquarters of Major General John Gibbon of the U.S. Army.
The terms of surrender were: "The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands," ... neither "side arms of the officers nor their private horses or baggage" to be surrendered; and, as many privates in the Confederate Army owned horses and mules, all horses and mules claimed by men in the Confederate Army to be left in their possession. The table and chairs used by Lee and Grant when negotiating the surrender are now part of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
Although he had made a considerable fortune smuggling sugar, McLean's money was in Confederate currency, which became worthless with the collapse of the Confederacy and he was nearly ruined by the end of the war. The McLeans left Appomattox Court House and returned to Mrs. McLean's Prince William County, Virginia estate in the fall of 1867. When Wilmer McLean defaulted on repayment of loans, the banking house of "Harrison, Goddin, and Apperson" of Richmond, Virginia brought a judgment against him, and the "Surrender House" was sold at public auction on November 29, 1869. The house was purchased by John L. Pascoe and apparently rented to the Ragland family formerly of Richmond. In 1872 Nathaniel H. Ragland purchased the property for $1250.00.
On January 1, 1891, the property was sold by the Widow Ragland for the sum of $10,000 to Captain Myron Dunlap of Niagara Falls, New York. Myron Dunlap and fellow speculators went through two or three plans intending to capitalize on the notoriety of the property, one idea was to dismantle the home and move it to Chicago, Illinois as an exhibit at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Measured drawings including elevations and materials specifications lists were produced, the house was dismantled and packed for shipping, but the Panic of 1893 occurred; cash flow and legal problems caused the plan to halt. The home sat dismantled in piles, prey to vandals, collectors, and the environment for fifty years.
On April 10, 1940, Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument was created by the U.S. Congress to include approximately 970 acres (3.9 km²). In February 1941, archeological work was begun at the site, then overgrown with brush and honeysuckle. Historical data was collected, and architectural working plans were drawn up to begin the meticulous reconstruction process. The whole project was brought to a swift stop on December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, causing the United States' entry into World War II.
After the war, the project soon became a high priority again. On November 25, 1947, bids for the reconstruction of the McLean House were opened. The reconstruction proceeded, using the 5,500 remaining original bricks, which were scattered through the walls of the new house, and on April 9, 1949, 84 years after the historic meeting reuniting the country, the McLean House was opened by the National Park Service for the first time to the public. Robert E. Lee IV and Major General U.S. Grant III cut the ribbon at the dedication ceremony on April 16, 1950, after a speech by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Douglas Southall Freeman in front of a crowd of approximately 20,000.