Wilmer McLean – An Uncanny Coincidence

In the year 1861, a man named Wilmer McLean owned a farm in the beautiful countryside of Virginia. It was a charming home that he shared with his family, and the grounds were situated along a bubbling creek called Bull Run. All was well… until the bloodiest war in American history opened right in his front yard. As the first shots opened at Manassas, the armies poured in and McLean’s tranquil home fast descended into chaos. It was taken over as Confederate Headquarters by General P.G.T. Beauregard. Masses of uniformed men hurried about, barked orders, and trampled his parlor apart. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was also in close range of the Union guns. A shell crashed through one of his windows and thudded into the dining room. Luckily, no one was hurt. Still, the whole experience left McLean shaken to the core. Terrified for his family’s safety, he vacated the Bull Run farm. He would take his loved ones into the country– “where the sound of battle would never reach them.” He found what he wanted in the sleepy town of Appomattox. It was two miles from the nearest railroad, had no supplies or armaments factories, and had nothing else to give it any military value. Surely, on the tranquil hillsides there, he had found the perfect safe haven. He moved his family into a lovely manor in the middle of town and started a life free from the guns of war.

Then came April of 1865. Four bloody years of war had ravaged the state of Virginia. General Robert E. Lee had just retreated his armies from Grant’s nine-month siege in Petersburg. The withdrawal went off without a hitch, but there was a long road ahead. Months of living in trenches had left the army destitute. They needed fed and refitted before they could hope to accomplish anything else. Lee dispatched orders for supply wagons to meet his army in the village of Amelia Courthouse. Once resupplied there, he planned to link up with Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army via the railroads. So, the army hastened pace to Amelia Courthouse. When they got there, they found wagons full of ammunition instead of food and supplies. It couldn’t feed them, and they didn’t have the means to take it with them, so it was worse than useless.

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Here come the Yanks! (Appomattox Reenactment 2016) 

The mix-up of orders left Lee in a desperate fix. He needed every second to keep Grant’s army from closing in on him. Yet, he had to waste an entire day allowing his troops to forage the countryside for food. By the time they were back on the march, Grant had caught wise to his act. Sheridan’s cavalry troops were sent to seal off the railways around Amelia Court House. Following behind them was the Union Infantry in mass, waiting to close in for the kill. For just under a week, Grant chased Lee across Virginia, keeping parallel to his lines in order to spoil any attempt at rendezvous with other Confederate forces. Invigorated Union scouts frequently clashed with tired Rebel picket lines. One of these skirmishes erupted into a full-scale battle at Saylor’s Creek, where a quarter of Lee’s dwindling army was cut off and 6,000 rebels were captured. As for the rest, marching in the constant rain and mud, on starvation rations, with Grant’s forces riding hard on their heels left them with little fighting spirit. Some deserted and returned home. Some snuck over to the Union lines. Some collapsed on the roadside and were picked up as prisoners. Some kept going, and the roadways became loitered with the cast-off articles of a retreating army in shambles.

Lee’s luck finally ran out in a tiny little village on a hillside in Virginia… Appomattox. After one last ditch effort to escape the Union armies and make for the railroads at Lynchburg, it was all over. The soldiers in gray were surrounded by a thriving ring of blue. In a hurried council of war with his generals, Lee accepted that “there is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

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Surrender (Appomattox Reenactment 2016)

One of Lee’s aides entered Appomattox in search of a place for the historic meeting. He knocked on the door of a lovey manor– owned by none other than Wilmer McLean. The war that had opened in his front yard near Bull Run would now close in his parlor at Appomattox. He wouldn’t have much choice in the matter either. So, while he stood by in a fit of anxiety, General Lee showed up in all the fanfare of a Southern Aristocrat. Looking every bit his opposite was Grant, who arrived a half-hour later in mud-splattered battle clothes. The two legendary generals exchanged cordialities, and then Grant accepted the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. For soldiers in the eastern theater of the Civil War, the fighting was over.

It had only just begun for Wilmer McLean. Lee had barely left his front porch before the Union army moved in on his property. Spearheaded by General Sheridan and his brother, high-level Union officers offered McLean money for Lee’s chair and Grant’s table. McLean threw their money on the floor and asserted that his house and possessions weren’t for sale. A bold stance against tough generals, but the items were snapped up anyway. Not just the furniture used in the surrender, but also ink stands, candlesticks, cane-bottomed chairs, and even furniture upholstery was cut up and distributed to relic-hungry officers. McLean was powerless to do anything but watch while his safe haven was torn apart from top to bottom. “I came here, two hundred miles away, hoping I should never see a soldier again,” he lamented. “Now, just look around you! Not a fence-rail is left in place, the last guns trampled down all my crops, and Lee surrenders to Grant in my house.”

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Marching through town (Appomattox Reenactment 2016)

It wouldn’t be the end of his troubles. McLean and his family left Appomattox in 1867 and defaulted on loan payments for the manor. The house was repossessed and sold at an auction in 1869. For the next several years, it passed back and forth from various private owners, all of them trying to turn a profit from McLean’s Appomattox paradise. Some even wanted to dismantle it and move it to other cities as a tourist attraction. While they all haggled on how to best exploit the house, it sat unkept in Appomattox, prey to vandals and relic hunters. It wasn’t until 1940 that the National Park Service stepped in, acquired the house and the 970 acres around it, and preserved it as a historic landmark. Restoration plans were drawn up, and architects and historians got to work. In 1949, after a brief halt during WWII, the fully restored McLean home was open to the public – eighty-four years after the historic events that had taken place within.

As for McLean, he finished his life in relative obscurity. After losing his Appomattox home, he moved his family to Alexandria, and spent a few years working for the Internal Revenue Service. He died there in 1882. And so quietly passed from this world the only man who can say that a war started and finished right in his front yard.

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SOURCES

“Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends, and Folklore” – B.A. Botkin

“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” – J.M. McPherson

“The Civil War: A Visual History” – Smithsonian

“War Between the States” – J.J. Dwyer

“Civil War: Red River to Appomattox” – S. Foote

National Park Service -Appomattox Court House

 

All photos by M.B. Henry.  For more on the Civil War, please visit my photo gallery. 

TIME FOR VACATION!  Footsteps Blog will be quiet for the next week or two, as I am headed off to Tucson for vacation.  I look forward to catching up with all of you lovely people when I return! 

58 Comments on “Wilmer McLean – An Uncanny Coincidence

  1. I enjoyed your Post here and it was well written. Since I have been and probably always will have a interest in the Civil War it’s interesting to read what others have seen. I must say it takes allot of reserch to write what you have. When the weather here gets better, I will be making some small day trips to some Civil War Battlefields that are not far from here. I’m going to just “poke” around and see what I’ve missed before.

    • Ah, research is my middle name, especially when it comes to the Civil War. Lucky you living close to the battlefields. My husband and I did a big tour in 2016 to Gettysburg and then to a lot of the Overland battlefields. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Let me know if you find anything new on those fields!

      • I just may find something new or different, but there is still one thing that I am so very courious about and that is if those battlefields and surrounding area are truly haunted like is written. I wonder!

      • You know, I will admit that I went prowling around Gettysburg at night when we were there, hoping I would have an encounter! No luck… but I can tell you there is definitely something heavy in the air. You can just feel it.

  2. What an amazing story! William McLean was not in any of the history books when I was in school. He witnessed the beginning and end to a war. Not many people can say that! Thank you for sharing this. I have learned more from your posts than I ever did in school! 😄

    • I know right?! How would you like to be him and tell that story at a party!

    • Thank you! It is quite a famous story to come out of that war. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    • So glad you enjoyed it! I’ve come across it in a lot of my research and decided I had to share 🙂

  3. Lovely post! Sadly, it actually was dismantled, and unfortunately a lot of the pieces were taken and/or left to rot before the Park Service acquired it and put what was left back together with replacements for what was gone. Most of the home that is in the NHP now is a replica. It is still a lovely place to visit though!

  4. What an amazing story! Perhaps it is a metaphor, try as we will, America will never escape that war. It and its legacy is an essential part of our history and nature, and it keeps rearing its head in our social fabric and politics.

    • Wow that is a great metaphor. An excellent point that you drew from this. So glad you stopped by for a read and shared your great thoughts!

      • They seem especially common in wars! So many random coincidences, some that ended up affecting battle outcomes and even the war entire.

  5. Wonderful and informative post, MB, and well-written. Especially enjoyed how you tied in Wilmer McLean’s story with the beginning and the end of the war in his yard. Hope you have a great vacation–

    • Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post. I’m sure our vacation will be fabulous! Havent been to Tucson in a good long while so really looking forward to it 🙂 stay tuned for photos!

  6. I love how you wrote this story, even though it was sad. Great pictures too! And I hope you have a great time on vacation! (Can’t wait to see your pictures from your vacation too!)

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I will definitely have lots of new pics when we get back. Have a great weekend!

  7. Ack – that poor slob. What are the chances?!

    It’s sad to read that he died in obscurity, working for the tax man (of all places), but it’s good to know writers like yourself are making his story known.

    • Hahaha I know! Just such a crazy coincidence. Glad you liked it. Cant wait to catch up on your blog when we’re back from Tucson!

  8. You brought to life a story I’ve heard so often. My great grandfather was at the surrender as a captain in the army and his home happened to be in Appomattox… a home still owned by family. I so agree with “Almost Iowa” that America will never escape that war.

    • Wow that is so neat that your family is so tied in with that! What a cool history. I’m glad the post could add to it for you. I dont think we will ever escape it either.

    • I know! The coincidences that come out of wars sometimes blow my mind.

  9. Poor Wilmer.
    i never liked history and stories about war in my youth, but i now find them fascinating.
    this one is good. I wonder if his family can still be traced to a present day.

    • That is an excellent question and one I wish I would have asked while in Appomattox. I wasn’t able to find much follow up in my research either but I bet the info is out there somewhere! Glad you liked the post and that the history bug has found you! 😉

  10. M.B., that’s a fascinating piece of history, VERY well told. I had never heard of Wilmer McLean’s bad-luck odyssey before.

    • Nice to see you back Dave! 🙂 Yes the coincidence is hard to believe isn’t it? So glad you enjoyed it and looking forward to more posts on your blog!

  11. Excellent write-up and capture of historical events. There is so much of the history that will not be contained in books. Each person from the past has a story to tell as well as each event. Thanks.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself! I just took a peek at your blog and really like it! Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read

      • Thanks so much. I have a few blogs in waiting that reflect some historical battles so hopefully I’ll get to them in the not-too-distant future. I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Why thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed it. It is one of the crazier stories I have encountered!

    • I know right? Poor Wilmer indeed! What war is your favorite to study?

      • I meant it was ‘your war’ – to my shame, I only know the bare bones of it, though enough to know that it was awful and the most costly in US history. Let’s hope it stays that way.

      • Oh I see what you meant now! Have no fear history is a vast topic and we can try but we will probably never fully understand every moving part of it! It was definitely an ugly part of US history and let us indeed hope for no repeats!

  12. I’ve heard most of that story, but not the bit after the surrender. I think I saw that table and chair at a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian quite a few years ago.

    • It was actually more difficult than I thought to find info on his life after the surrender. It’s the part of the story you just don’t hear and there is so little available about it. That’s very neat that you got to see the table and chair!

    • Honestly when I first read about it I wasn’t even sure I bought it. It was only when I verified it from several different sources and then saw it myself! Some things are truly miraculous 🙂 So glad you stopped by and enjoyed the piece.

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