The Civil War Followed Him From Beginning to End

The reconstructed McLean house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. (Photo by Rolfmueller. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

“The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor,” said Wilmer McLean. And he was right.

The First Battle of Bull Run on July 18, 1861, technically was not the first battle of the Civil War, but it is considered to be the first major land battle, and it was fought on McLean’s farm in Manassas, Virginia. The Civil War ended almost four years later with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. And what was the location for the surrender? It just happened to take place in the parlor of the same Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox Court House during the course of the conflict.

I recently began research on a future novel that takes place during the Civil War, so I revisited Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary on the war. And that’s how I was reminded of McLean’s remarkable story.

In Manassas at the start of the war, McLean’s farm was being used as a headquarters for Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard when a cannonball fired by federal soldiers landed in the fireplace, interrupting their dinner. In the ensuing battle, the Union army suffered 460 deaths, while the Confederates lost 387.

After the First Battle of Bull Run, McLean moved, partly for business reasons, and some say partly because he didn’t want to put his family in the thick of another battle. So he wound up in a small community known as Appomattox Court House. Then along came April 8, 1865, when a messenger knocked on his door and asked if they could use his home for General Lee’s surrender.

After the war, McLean couldn’t pay his mortgage and had to sell the house. He moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he wound up working for the Internal Revenue Service. Which only goes to show…He had a knack for finding trouble wherever he went.

By Doug Peterson

History by the Slice