We may be witnesses to history, watching TV as Neil Armstrong put humanity’s first step on the moon. History may simply happen to us, as on 9/11 all Americans felt touched by terrorism. As an eyewitness to history, however, Wilmer McLean may be unique. As he said himself, “The Civil War began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
McLean had been a grocer before he married Virginia Mason in 1853 and moved to Yorkshire, a small Virginia sugar plantation with 14 slaves. The property lay near the crossroads town of Manassas, and it was crossed by a small stream called Bull Run. McLean was too old to serve in the early Confederate army when the South declared war in April of 1861, but it didn’t matter much. The war came to him.
Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard took over McLean’s house that first summer as the Southern army placed itself along the little meandering creek. On July 18 a Union artillery shell burst in on a log kitchen near the house. Three days later Union Gen. Irvin McDowell sent his troops across Bull Run at Sudley Ford in the first battle of the war. McLean’s barn became both a hospital for the wounded and a temporary prison for Union captives. On nearby Henry Hill, Thomas Jackson earned his sobriquet “Stonewall” by holding up the Union attack.
Caught up in the conflict, McLean served as a quartermaster for the Confederate army through the following February before he and his family returned to Yorkshire in the spring of 1862. The McLeans may have thought the worst was over. It wasn’t. In August a much larger Second Battle of Manassas, featuring Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. John Pope, was fought over the same ground.
McLean finally moved 120 miles to the southwest in autumn of 1863. There McLean was closer to the army that he supplied with sugar, but he also hoped to be well out of harm’s way. He established his home in a former tavern along the road between Lynchburg and Richmond in the sleepy little hamlet of Appomattox Courthouse. Through 1864 and the first months of 1865, war raged throughout the Virginia Wilderness, whittling Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to a shadow as Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac turned in a great wheel toward Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.
One day in April rebel Col. Charles Marshall rode into McLean’s farm and asked for a suitable place where the two commanders might meet to discuss surrender terms. McLean reluctantly agreed to let them meet in his home. As Lee left after meeting with Grant, Union officers ransacked the house for souvenirs of the historic event, seizing furniture, inkwell and even McLean’s daughter’s favorite rag doll.
“These armies tore my place on Bull Run all to pieces, and kept running over it backward and forward till no man could live there,” McLean bewailed his situation. “And now, just look around you. Not a fence-rail is left on the place, the last guns trampled down all my crops, and Lee surrenders to Grant in my house.”
The planter returned to Yorkshire. He tried unsuccessfully to sell his Appomattox home in 1866 and eventually defaulted on payments for it. The house was sold at auction in 1869 and again privately, in 1872. In 1891 another man paid $10,000 for it before taking it apart, planning to erect it again as an exhibit at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The money to do so did not materialize, and the house was not restored until 1950 by the United States Park Service.
McLean himself died in 1882, the alpha and omega of the bloodiest conflict ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.
Klein, Christopher. “How the Civil War Stalked Wilmer McLean.” The History Vault. April 9, 2015.
http://www.history.com/news/how-the-civil-war-stalked-wilmer-mclean Accessed Oct. 9, 2016
“Meet Wilmer McLean – One of the Civil War’s First and Last Victims.” MilitaryHistoryNow.com. Jan. 29,
2014. http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/01/29/meet-wilmer-mclean-one-of-the-civil-wars-first-and-last-victims/ Accessed Oct. 11, 2016.