Poor Wilmer McLean could not escape the Civil War. The conflict’s first major battle damaged one of his homes, and in an incredible historical coincidence, the house to which he had moved his family for safety was ransacked after hosting Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. McLean proved to be the alpha and omega of the Civil War, and as Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary noted, he could rightfully claim, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
Forty-six-year-old Wilmer McLean was too old to serve the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out in 1861, but in short order, the conflict arrived at his doorstep. After marrying wealthy widow Virginia Mason eight years earlier, the former operator of the Kerr & McLean wholesale and retail grocery moved into his wife’s small plantation near Manassas Junction, Virginia. Fourteen slaves tended the fields of Yorkshire, named for the home county of English native Richard Blackburn who had established the plantation in the early 1700s.
Through McLean’s farm meandered a small stream called Bull Run that would witness the first major engagement between Union and Confederate forces in July 1861. As Union forces approached on a 30-mile march west from Washington, D.C., Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard took over McLean’s Manassas farmhouse as his headquarters.
A day after McLean fled with his family, the Civil War hit home—literally. On July 18, 1861, during the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, a Union shell tore into the fireplace of McLean’s detached kitchen and ruined the dinner being prepared for Beauregard and his staff. Three days later came the Civil War’s first major encounter, the First Battle of Bull Run. Wounded Confederate soldiers and captured Union fighters both shared the floor of McLean’s barn, which had been converted to a makeshift military hospital and jail.
The battle and Confederate occupation ravaged Yorkshire. McLean returned alone to his damaged plantation and worked as an unpaid Confederate quartermaster through February 1862 before reuniting with his wife and five children in the spring. When the Union and Confederacy clashed once again in Manassas at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, McLean sought quieter—and less belligerent—pastures.
In the fall of 1863 McLean moved his family 120 miles southwest to the quiet hamlet of Appomattox Court House on the other side of Virginia. He purchased a substantial house, originally built as a tavern in 1848, along the Lynchburg-Richmond State Road and regularly traveled on the nearby Southside Railroad to tend to his business supplying sugar to the Confederate army.
In spite of his hopes for solitude, the Civil War incredibly arrived at his front door again on April 9, 1865, when Confederate Colonel Charles Marshall rode into Appomattox Court House and asked the first man he spotted—McLean—to assist him in finding a suitable home that could host a meeting between the Union and Confederate commanders. After Marshall rejected the dilapidated, unfurnished brick house initially shown to him, McLean reluctantly offered up his own comfortable, well furnished home.
That afternoon, history was made in McLean’s front parlor as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War. McLean’s homes had become a pair of bookends to the four-year war.
As Lee departed on his horse Traveler to break the news to his troops, Union officers launched their final raid of the war by ransacking McLean’s parlor for souvenirs of the historic meeting. “Something close to pandemonium set in,” wrote Civil War historian Shelby Foote. As McLean protested, the Union entourage walked out with the tables and chairs used by Lee and Grant, a stone inkstand, brass candlesticks and even the favorite rag doll of his 7-year-old daughter, Lula. They tore apart McLean’s cane-bottomed chairs and cut upholstery strips from his sofas as mementoes. As compensation, the soldiers shoved money into the hands of the unwilling seller and threw it onto the floor when he refused to accept it.
Even in peace, the Civil War had destroyed McLean’s property. “These armies tore my place on Bull Run all to pieces, and kept running over it backward and forward till no man could live there,” McLean lamented to a Confederate general he knew on the day after the surrender. “And now, just look around you! Not a fence-rail is left on the place, the last guns trampled down all my crops, and Lee surrenders to Grant in my house.”
Little more than a year after his Appomattox home made front-page news, McLean took out an advertisement buried in the classified section of the July 1, 1866, edition of the New York Herald announcing that he was placing the “Surrender House” up for sale since he desired “to return to his former residence on the battle fields of Manassas.” He reported that the 5-acre property included a “very comfortable double brick dwelling” with “six spacious rooms,” two frame buildings, stables, gardens and “a well of icy cold water.” McLean hoped the historic property might catch the eye of a hotelier. “The great flow of visitors to this spot—now historic—renders this a most desirable location for a hotel,” he wrote.
McLean, however, found no takers. He returned to Yorkshire in 1867 and eventually defaulted on the Appomattox house, which resulted in it being sold at public auction in 1869. Four years later, the Alexandria Gazette reported that McLean had taken a job with the Internal Revenue Service, making him “one of the few Virginians who has been given a position under the Administration.” McLean’s bitterness toward the Civil War must have melted in the ensuing years as the newspaper also mentioned that in the 1872 presidential election he had voted for a man who once sat in his front parlor—Grant.