The Crazy Coincidences of Wilmer McLean

The Crazy Coincidences of Wilmer McLean


    The McLean house at Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered to Grant

    Wilmer McLean was the center of one of the strangest coincidences of the Civil War. In July 1861, the 47-year-old merchant and farmer lent out his house in Manassas, Virginia, to be the headquarters of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard. Unfortunately, this brought the First Battle of Bull Run (the first major battle of the war) right to McLean’s doorstep, and a Federal cannonball even crashed through the McLeans’ fireplace and into their kitchen. Fortunately, no one was harmed.

    After the battle, the Confederates stayed on the McLean property, using their barn as a hospital. Then, a year later, in August 1862, the Second Battle of Bull Run occurred, again right by the McLeans’ house. That was the final straw for Wilmer, and in spring 1863, he moved his family 120 miles south, to southern Virginia, hoping to avoid any more battles. This was also a good business move on his part, as he made most of his money during the war years by running sugar through the Union blockade. Unluckily for the McLeans, the town Wilmer decided to move to was called Clover Hill—soon renamed Appomattox Court House.

    Wilmer McLean, ca. 1860

    The McLean’s lived at Appomattox Court House for two years, thinking they had escaped the immediate effects of the war. Then in April 1865, one last battle occurred near the McLeans: the Battle of Appomattox Court House. After the Confederate loss there, General Lee sent a messenger to find an appropriate place for Lee to surrender to Grant. The messenger asked . . . you guessed it, Wilmer McLean for the use of his house, and Wilmer agreed. So on 9 April, generals Grant and Lee met in the parlor of the McLeans’ house. Wilmer is said to have later observed, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

    After the surrender, soldiers began taking furniture and knick-knacks from the house as souvenirs—some paid for, some not. Following the war, Wilmer went broke, as all his money had been in Confederate currency. Not being able to afford the house, the McLeans moved back to Manassas and then eventually to Alexandria, Virginia.

    Read more about Wilmer McLean and how he bookended the Civil War here or here. You can find other Civil War stories in Fold3’s Civil War collection.