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The Strange Case of Wilmer McLean

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Originally aired on April 11, 1997 - In part 137 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson profiles Wilmer Mclean, who once remarked that “the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

#137 – Coincidence and Wilmer McLean

Coincidence can be as much a part of history as facts. Take Wilmer McLean, for example.

The eleventh of fourteen children, McLean was born in 1814 near Alexandria, Virginia. Both parents died before Wilmer reached the age of seven. Influential townspeople raised the orphaned children. The boy followed his father’s footsteps and entered the mercantile business. Service in a local militia unit during the Mexican War brought McLean the rank of major. That became the title by which he was addressed for the remainder of his life.

In 1850 McLean married Virginia Mason, the widow of a prominent physician. Mrs. McLean brought to the marriage three children and over 2,000 acres of land in Prince William and Fauquier counties. The main holding was “Yorkshire”, a 1,200-acre estate near Bull Run.

There Wilmer McLean settled into the life of a gentleman farmer. His sentiments in the secession crisis were so decidedly pro-Confederate that with the coming of war, he volunteered a sizable part of the Yorkshire plantation for use as a military hospital. In mid-July, a large Union force advanced into northern Virginia. The McLeans sought safety a few miles to the south. It is well they did, for Yorkshire was heavily damaged by shell fire during the opening battle of the Civil War at Manassas.

For several months, McLean helped to supply Southern forces with food by working as an unpaid volunteer in the Confederate Quartermaster Department. That lasted until February, 1862, when a merchant’s quest for profit overcame repeated frustrations as a solicitor of supplies. Meanwhile, administrators had allowed the Yorkshire plantation to fall into such a state of disrepair that McLean expressed the hope never to see a soldier again. He then turned his attention in Rhett Butler-like fashion to speculation.

During the next year he travelled through the South as an independent broker for foodstuffs in general and sugar in particular. Finally, in the autumn of 1863, the portly and bearded McLean found a satisfactory place to live. It was a two-story brick home in the isolated village of Appomattox Courthouse. Three McLean continued his mercantile affairs by letter, telegraph, and personal trips.

What the McLeans most liked about the place was its distance from the war. Now they could dwell in peace.

Not so. In April, 1865, the two major opposing hosts suddenly appeared on the horizon. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, falling back from the Richmond-Petersburg front, was seeking a place to make a new defensive stand. The Union Army of the Potomac, under U. S. Grant, was pursuing hard in hopes of bringing Lee to bay. On Saturday, April 8, Federals encircled the Confederate flanks at Appomattox. Lee had little choice but to ask for terms of surrender.

The meeting between Lee and Grant took place on Palm Sunday afternoon. The two generals held their conference in the sitting room of Wilmer McLean’s home. There the Civil War ended.

Following the surrender, the now-impoverished McLean family packed its belongings, left Appomattox, and returned to northern Virginia. McLean gave away a few pieces of the Appomattox furniture; Union soldiers stole other items. The enterprising McLean then offered pieces for sale to those who wanted mementoes of the surrender scene. Local legend has it that over the ensuing years, the former merchant sold enough tables, chairs, lanterns and knick-knacks – all supposedly from that one room – to furnish completely a large apartment complex.

In any event, at his death in 1882, Wilmer McLean held a truly singular distinction. He could rightfully say that the Civil War began in his back yard and ended in his front parlor.