Wilmer McLean: A Plague on Both His Houses

Wilmer McLean is one of those oddities of the Civil War, where truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

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Wilmer McLean, an unlikely Virginia grocer whose houses bookended the Civil War.

Wilmer McLean was a Virginia wholesale grocer, who at age 39 married a well-to-do widow with two children and a moderate plantation some twenty miles from Washington. The property was close to the Washington and Richmond rail lines and there was a nice creek to provide water. The town was called Manassas, and the creek was called Bull Run.

Ft. Sumter surrendered in April, 1861 and the Civil War began in semi-earnest. McLean was 47, and his family had increased. He had been a Major in the Virginia militia, but now was too old for active duty.

First Bull Run (N), First Manassas (S)

For three months, armies of both the Union and the Confederacy had been amassing and training. Both sides were prodded by the newspapers and politicians to fight. Both sides believed a single skirmish with a handful of casualties would suffice; cooler heads would prevail and appropriate steps taken to resolve the unresolveable issues.

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The McLean house in Manassas, where a Union shell exploded in the kitchen and landed in General Beauregard’s dinner.

All signs pointed to the area around Manassas as the battlefield. General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the acknowledged victor of Ft. Sumter, was head honcho for the Confederacy. He commandeered the McLean property as his HQ, made arrangements to compensate the grocer (in Confederate scrip) and moved in. The McLeans moved out.

As the General and his staff were enjoying dinner in the detached front-yard kitchen,  a freak Union shell came through the chimney, landing on Beauregard’s plate. The Civil War now began in real-earnest.

It was not a skirmish. It was a horror story of casualties that portended even greater horror stories.

After the battle, the McLean house became a hospital. McLean returned alone some weeks later, having become a sugar purveyor (or privateer) for the Confederate Army. It was six months before his family could return to their barely habitable home.

Second Bull Run (N), Second Manassas (S)

One year later, in exactly the same location another mega-battle was fought. The North called it Bull Run, after the creek; the South called it Manassas after the town. Once again, McLean’s property was in the middle of a battlefield.

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The McLean house in Appomattox Court House, where General Lee formally surrendered to General Grant.

McLean called it quits and decided to move as far from danger as he could. He put the property up for sale (which was a long time coming), and found a nice house-with-land more than a hundred miles to the southwest, in a town called Appomattox Court House. In the middle of nowhere. Out of harm’s way.

McLean continued to maintain his sugar purveying, since he was near the rail lines. He was happy to mind his own business, take care of his property and his family – out of harm’s way.

Harm’s Way Follows McLean

Some people are born with a magnet that draws ill fortune, and so it was with Wilmer McLean. He was content in his new surroundings, making pleasant acquaintances among his neighbors, and bothering no one.

But the fortunes of the Civil War had been exhausted by April, 1865. Petersburg, a city of railroad crossings only twenty miles from Richmond, had been besieged for months. The Confederate army was dwindling from casualties, desertion and starvation.  In a last ditch effort, General Robert E. Lee slipped out of the Union stranglehold, and marched to the southwest to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

The Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, outnumbering its foes about four-to-one, was right on it tail.

They finally met not far from the McLean property, at a small clearing called Sailor’s Creek. Valiant to the end, the Rebels were surrounded by overwhelming forces. General Lee had little choice.  He swallowed the bitter pill, sent word to General Grant and sent his aide, Col. Charles Marshall, to find a suitable place to conduct the momentous business.

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An artist’s rendering of the surrender formalities that took place in McLean’s front parlor.

Appomattox Court House was the closest village in the area. The story goes that Col. Marshall stopped Wilmer McLean, the first person he met, and asked about a suitable location for the meeting of the Great Generals. He reluctantly offered the front parlor in his own comfortably furnished house. The offer was accepted.

McLean’s House Ransacked

The meeting between General Grant and General Lee was historic and for the ages, and has been commemorated many times in many ways. But poor Wilmer McLean’s moment in the sun – the unlikely coincidence of his houses involved in both the opening and the closing of the Civil War, was once again covered in gloom clouds.

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Soldiers lined the road for miles, stacking their weapons. Then they were formally paroled, and were free to return to their homes.

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The table where the surrender document was signed.

Realizing the importance of the occasion, Union officers (some of very high rank) ransacked the McLean house. According to historian Shelby Foote, “something like pandemonium set in.” Everything that could be taken as souvenirs was taken – but not without “paying for it.” Union soldiers were not looting or stealing per se. They thrust US money, and even gold coins into McLean’s hands, even though he did not want the money. He wanted his furniture and his household goods. Nevertheless, money was thrown on the floor, and Union soldiers walked off with tables and chairs and ink stands, and even his little daughter’s rag doll.

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Wilmer McLean as an elderly man.

They cut the cushions from his chairs, and tore strips of upholstery from his sofas. Fence rails were cut down as souvenirs.

The armies had trampled his house and land at Bull Run, and now they had done the same in Appomattox Court House. Once again, the McLean house was unfit for living.

A year later, Wilmer McLean put the “surrender house” up for sale, but there were no takers. Having lost everything, including his source of income, he defaulted on his taxes, moved away and the place was sold at public auction in 1869. Records show that in 1872 he voted for Ulysses S. Grant, and had taken a position in Washington as an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.

Sources:

Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001

http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/appomattox-courthouse/appomattox-court-house-history/surrender.htm

Meet Wilmer McLean – One of the Civil War’s First and Last Victims

 

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to Wilmer McLean: A Plague on Both His Houses

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting that McLean was caught at both ends of the war, yet seemed to prosper in the midst of it all. Have you read Jack Bray’s book, The Ballad of Johnny Madigan? I recently reread it and found it as gripping as the first time, even though I knew how it ended. The big battle in this book is the Fredericksburg fiasco. sd

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