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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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!