Wilmer McLean Just Couldn’t Outrun The Civil War

“The war began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.” —Wilmer McLean

In A Nutshell

Wilmer McLean was an unwilling eyewitness to what his fellow Southerners called the War for State’s Rights. He was a retired grocer who just wanted to live quietly at Yorkshire, his Manassas Junction estate. But one of the first shots in what would become the first major battle of the war was fired at Yorkshire. Casualties were tended in his barn. McLean had had enough of the war and when the Confederates finally left his property, he moved 300 kilometers (200 mi) south to a little village known as Appomattox Court House (pictured above). Two years later, McLean’s home was again in the center of a Confederate army, this one helmed by Robert E. Lee. And in April 1865, history—though thankfully not a cannonball—landed in McLean’s parlor as Lee surrendered his legendary Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, essentially ending the war.

The Whole Bushel

Wilmer McLean was born in 1814 in Alexandria County, which, at the time, was in the District of Columbia instead of Virginia. McLean was a successful wholesale grocer in Alexandria until he married the wealthy widow Virginia Hooe Mason in 1853. The new Mrs. McLean had three daughters and owned the Yorkshire plantation near Manassas Junction, Virginia. The five of them moved to Yorkshire, and Wilmer retired his grocery to become a country squire and supervise the estate and its 14 slaves. The McLeans had two more children by 1857, the same year that Wilmer’s youngest stepdaughter, Sarah died.

The Yorkshire estate was 1,200 acres in size and several roads ran through or near the property. Some of them crossed Bull Run Creek, and one was named McLean Ford after the owners. Others led to the railroad junction for which the nearby town was named. One of the additions Wilmer made to his property was a massive stone barn.

When war consumed the nation, Wilmer was 46, too old to join the Confederate Army. So the Confederate Army came to Wilmer. In May 1861, General P.G.T. Beauregard formed his army along Bull Run to check any Yankee advance on Richmond. Several regiments camped on or near Yorkshire and Camp Wigfall was built on the southern portion of the property. General J.R. Jones constructed earthworks to protect McLean Ford east of Yorkshire’s main house. General James Longstreet protected Blackburn’s Ford due north of the house.

The Yankees marched straight at Beauregard’s army and when they arrived at Bull Run on July 18, 1861, they probed the Confederate defenses at Blackburn’s Ford. Beauregard commandeered McLean’s house as his headquarters, and the Yankees could see him riding around Yorkshire. They decided to lob a cannonball at the HQ. The ball struck McLean’s chimney and fell down it into the kitchen fireplace. The McLean’s were preparing lunch for General Beauregard when the cannonball landed in a kettle of stew, splattering it everywhere. “The comical effect of this artillery fight,” Beauregard wrote in his diary, “was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff.”

Casualties from the Blackburn’s Ford skirmish were treated in McLean’s barn and Beauregard draped a yellow hospital flag on the side of the barn to deter further cannonballs from flying their way. Whether they didn’t see the flag or mistook it for a Confederate flag, the Blue Bellies shelled the barn and the wounded had to be moved.

Three days later, the entire Union army came across Bull Run Creek striking Beauregard’s left flank. With the help of reinforcements who arrived in the nick of time, Beauregard beat and humiliated the Yankees in the first large-scale battle of the war: the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas.

After the battle, the Confederates remained on the property and used the barn as a hospital and the house and outbuildings used as quarters for the surgeons and staff. Mrs. McLean and the kids left to live elsewhere, but Wilmer stayed behind, working as a civilian for the Confederate Quartermaster. Using his contacts and experience as a grocer, he expedited foodstuffs to the troops at Manassas.

By early 1862, however, Wilmer was disillusioned with the Confederates. The soldiers were constantly damaging his property. When the army finally moved out in March, Wilmer rejoined his family. He had had enough of the war. And, when the two sides again fought over turf near Yorkshire in the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas in August 1862, it was clear that if they stayed near Manassas Junction, the war would keep coming to their doorstep. So they decided to move 300 kilometers (200 mi) south to a property at a quiet crossroad village named Appomattox Court House in 1863.

For two years, the McLeans didn’t hear the thump of cannon or smell the stench of wounded men. Then on April 9, 1865, Wilmer again found himself among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, now commanded by General Robert E. Lee. For seven days, Lee and his great army had been running west, chased by Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had finally surrounded Lee at Appomattox Court House.

That morning, one of Lee’s aides approached Wilmer and asked him if he knew of a building with a large meeting room. Wilmer showed him a vacated home, but the aide rejected it because it did not have furniture. Wilmer then, reluctantly, offered his own parlor.

Lee arrived at the McLean house at 1:00 PM in a crisp, clean uniform. Grant arrived a short time later, still in his muddy, wrinkled blues. The two generals talked for 25 minutes in McLean’s parlor before they discussed the terms of Lee’s surrender. A few minutes later, the terms were signed and the war was all but over.

As soon as the generals rode away, the McLeans were offered money for the desks and chairs used in the historical moment. When he refused, the furniture was taken anyway. Even a rag doll owned by one of the McLean daughters was whisked away as a souvenir. Upholstery was shredded and sold.

Wilmer supposedly told reporters that “the war started in my front yard and ended in my parlor.”

Show Me The Proof

National Park Service: The Saga of Wilmer McLean
Hidden History of Northern Virginia, by Charles A. Mills
Genealogy: Wilmer McLean Again
National Archives: The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean