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Wilmer McLean's Civil War watch The watch’s inscription says “Wilmer McLean, In grateful appreciation of hospitality rendered to General Robert E. Lee, March 3rd 1866”.
Photos courtesy Dix Noonan Webb

US Watch Which ‘Ended’ American Civil War Withdrawn From UK Auction

The pocket watch, with an inscription purportedly from General Robert E Lee to Wilmer McLean, was due to go under the hammer June 9th. The sale contiinues with other historically significant military items.

Published on May 29, 2020

A 19th century pocket watch that appeared to have historical significance from the American Civil War period was to go under the hammer in the UK, but has been withdrawn after an expert advised that its inscription was not authentic and had been added at a later date.

Wilmer McLean Wilmer McLean

The watch, manufactured by the American Watch Company, is inscribed "Wilmer McLean, In grateful appreciation of hospitality rendered to General Robert E. Lee, March 3rd 1866.", and was to be featured in an auction hosted by specialist firm Dix Noonan Webb (DNW) on June 9th. It was expected to fetch between £1000 and £2000.

McLean, a grocer from Virginia, played a significant role in the beginning and end of the Civil War. The first Battle of Bull Run, in 1861, took place at McLean's Yorkshire Plantation in Manassas, Prince William Country, Virginia. Fast forward to 1985, and it was Wilmer McLean's home in Virginia which served as the location for General Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.

Frances Noble, Head of Jewellery at DNW, explained more of McLean's life during the Civil War, and just how the surrender came to take place in his home:

"McLean's house was being used as a headquarters for Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, and a cannon ball dropped through the kitchen fireplace. McLean was a retired major in the Virginia militia but by 1861 was too old to return to active duty. In the spring of 1863, he and his family moved about 120 miles south to a dusty, crossroads community called Appomattox Court House. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee was about to surrender to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, he sent a messenger to Appomattox Court House to find a place to meet. The messenger knocked on McLean's door and requested the use of his home, to which McLean agreed. Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlour of McLean’s house, effectively ending the Civil War. Later, McLean is supposed to have said, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.” (sic). Once the ceremony was over, members of the Army of the Potomac began taking the tables, chairs and other various furnishings of the house - essentially anything that was not tied down - as souvenirs."

Wilmer McLean Wilmer McLean's home at Appomattox Court House, photographed in 1865 by Timothy O'Sullivan.

After the war, McLean was unable to keep up mortgage payments, and was forced to sell the house in 1867 and return to Manassas. McLean and his wife later moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where McLean found work with the IRS, before passing away in 1882, aged 68. A recreation of McLean's House is now part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

Unfortunately the watch could not have played any part in this excellent story. "Since Wilmer McLean died in 1882 and the Silveroid case was not manufactured until after 1886, it is not possible for him to have owned it" explained Nathan Moore, curator and researcher at PocketwatchDatabase.com, who alerted the auctioneers.

Apart from the McLean Pocket Watch, the auction has much of inerest. It includes a number of other historically significant military items, including American and British war medals, World War One Pocket Watches and other artefacts which form part of the 'Culling Collection'. Laura Smith, a Jewellery Expert at DNW, said that "The Culling Collection took half a lifetime of collecting and is impressive, both for the fine condition of the watches, most of which would have seen active service during wartime, and also for the breadth of the collection.

You can find more details, express interest, ask questions or make a bid by going to https://www.dnw.co.uk/auctions/auction.php?auction_id=542

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Wilmer McLean Watch Inscription The watch is reputed to have belonged to Wilmer McLean, who is said to have uttered the famous phrase that the Civil War “began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor”

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