Wilmer McLean, Man of Fate

Wilmer McLean was born on May 3, 1814 in Manassas, Virginia. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Virginia Militia and retired in 1854 after obtaining the rank of Major. He purchased a plantation at Manassas Junction along Bull Run and began to make many needed repairs and enhancements to the property where he lived with his wife and children. He became a part-time farmer and full-time merchant, mostly buying and selling sugar. He worked hard and became successful in his business. With his income from farming, selling sugar, and a modest retirement from the Virginia Militia, a nice and loving family and a comfortable place to live, life was good. He probably would have lived out his life in relative obscurity, but history came knocking on his front door in 1861 and his name was destined to be recorded as the only man on whose front porch a war started and in whose parlor a war ended.

The bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter near Charleston, Virginia on April 12 – 13, 1861 is known as the start of the American Civil War, but that’s not exactly true. Following declarations of secession by seven Southern states, South Carolina demanded the U.S. Army abandon its facilities in Charleston Harbor. On December 26, 1860, under cover of darkness, U.S. Major Robert Anderson moved his small command from the indefensible Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter, a substantial fortress controlling the entrance of Charleston Harbor. An attempt by U.S. President James Buchanan to reinforce and resupply Anderson, using the unarmed merchant ship Star of the West, failed when it was fired on by shore batteries on January 9, 1861. These were the actual first shots of the war. South Carolina authorities then seized all Federal property in the Charleston area, except for Fort Sumter which was placed under siege.

The road into Appomattox Court House
The first crisis for the newly elected president, Abe Lincoln, was Fort Sumter. He notified the governor of South Carolina that he was sending re-supply ships to the fort. In response, South Carolina demanded the evacuation of what it considered to be state’s property. Their demand was refused. Delegations from the south were then sent to Washington, D.C. and offered to pay for the Federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. President Lincoln however, rejected any negotiations with the Confederate agents because he did not consider the Confederacy a legitimate nation and making any treaty with it would be seen as recognition of it as a sovereign government. After several additional negotiations failed, at 3:20am on April 12, a southern delegation rowed a small boat over to the fort and a handwritten note was given to Major Anderson. It stated, “Sir: by authority of Brigadier General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.” Anderson escorted the officers back to their boat, shook hands with each one, and said “If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.”

At 4:30am, bombardment of the fort from shore batteries began. The fort returned fire, but after 34 hours, even though there had been no loss of life on either side, Major Anderson raised a white flag of surrender and agreed to evacuate. Ironically, during the surrender ceremonies, the Union gunners fired off a cannon salute to the U.S. flag and one of the cannons exploded and killed 2 men. Private Daniel Hough was killed instantly, becoming the first casualty of the Civil War and Private Edward Gallway was mortally wounded, dying a few days later. Following the battle, Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion resulted in four more states also declaring their secession and joining the Confederacy.

The first large-scale battle of the war occurred beginning on July 18, 1861; the First Battle of Bull Run. Confederate troops were stationed along Bull Run to guard against a Union incursion from Washington, D.C. Many regiments were camped on the McLean plantation along the rail line and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was using McLean’s house as his headquarters. Union troops arrived in the area and attacked the Confederates just before noon. Mrs. McLean was preparing lunch for the general when the battle began. When the firing started, General Beauregard rushed out of the house, mounted his horse and raced to the front lines. Right after he left, the Federals began shelling the McLean house. One of the first shots sent a cannonball falling directly down the chimney and straight into the large pot of stew cooking on the fire. The ball exploded in the pot, resulting in no casualties, but the stew was splattered all over the room and the McLean family.

Appomattox Court House was locked 
on the day of surrender.
As the battle progressed, wounded were brought to the large barn Wilmer had built beside the McLean home. Soon though, the Union gunners began shelling the barn and the wounded had to be quickly evacuated. After the battle, Beauregard commented bitterly on the enemy treatment of the McLean barn, saying that it was “surmounted by the usual yellow hospital flag. I hope, for the sake of past associations, that it was ignorantly mistaken for a Confederate flag.”

A few days later, when the battle was over, Wilmer McLean, in an effort to protect his family from a recurrence of their near miss with death, packed up and moved 120 miles south to a small farm he purchased in isolated Virginia in the village of Appomattox Court House. Leaving was a smart thing to do as at least 2 more battles were fought on his plantation lands.

General Lee rode down this road on his 
way to McLean's house.
The McLean family lived in relative peace in their new 2-story red brick home for the next 3 years. But in early April, 1865, the war found them again. The main Confederate force, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee was in retreat from Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The Rebels were short on ammunition, weak from lack of food, few had proper clothing for the cold weather, there were almost no tents for shelter and many were barefoot and sick. In full retreat down a road near the McLean house, they ran into a small Yankee cavalry force guarding their one path of escape. When the Southern forces quickly swept aside this small force, it seemed they were on the way to escaping the clutches of the enemy. The men rejoiced and quickly started down the road, but suddenly, just a few hundred yards ahead, the main Yankee force crested a hill, blocking their path. General Lee called a meeting of his officers. Most wanted to continue the fight with either a charge straight into the teeth of the Union army or to break up into small groups who would try to make their way through the Union lines and continue to fight later in guerilla actions. But Lee knew this would only delay the inevitable and lead to more bloodshed and suffering for his men. With his officers and men around him, most of them in tears, he sent an emissary to General Grant offering to surrender his army.

General Grant and party rode down this 
road on their way to McLean's house.
General Lee also sent Colonel Charles Marshall over the hill to the settlement of Appomattox Court House to secure a proper place for the generals to meet. With the cessation of that morning’s battle, Wilmer McLean came out and was walking down a street of the community trying to figure out if the fighting would engulf his farm. Young officer Marshall in a tattered gray uniform hailed him, asking for a place where General Lee might meet with General Grant. The courthouse was an obvious choice, but it was locked and the person with the keys could not be found. McLean then showed the officer an unoccupied, unfurnished, unheated brick building in the center of the village and left him there. As he was walking up to the front porch of his home, Colonel Marshall ran up to him and asked, “Isn’t there some other place?” “Well,” McLean answered, “I supposed you could use my parlor.”

A short time later, Wilmer McLean stood on the front porch of his two-story brick house awaiting the arrival of General Lee. Shortly after noon, General Lee, accompanied by Colonel Marshall, arrived on horseback. Wilmer extended his greetings to the two Confederate officers and invited them into his parlor. And there, on April 9, 1865, they awaited the arrival of the other guests.
At about 1:30pm, a group of Union officers arrived on horseback. Among those were Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General P. H. Sheridan, Major General E. O. C. Ord, Major General Wesley Merritt, Major General George Armstrong Custer, and Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln.

The McLean house where the surrender and 
end of the Civil War took place.
General Grant and several of the Union officers entered the parlor where General Lee was waiting. For the next 90 minutes, the generals discussed and came to agreement on the terms of surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. For all practical purposes, the long, bloody war ended right there in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.

Once the ceremony was over, members of the Army of the Potomac began taking the tables, chairs, and other furnishings in the house – anything that was not tied down – as souvenirs. Some handed the protesting McLean family money as they made off with their property. Major Ord gave Wilmer $40 for the table Lee had used to sign the surrender document. Major General Sheridan got the table on which Grant had drafted the document for a $20 gold piece. Sheridan then asked George Armstrong Custer to carry it away on his horse. Few of their possessions were left by the time the soldiers were gone.

The McLean parlor - Lee sat at the table with 
the white top; Grant at the table on the right.
Five days later, on April 14, 1865, exactly 4 years to the day after he lowered it, Major General Robert Anderson, having survived the war, returned to Fort Sumter and raised the flag he had surrendered.
Wilmer and his family sold their Appomattox house in 1867 and returned to their Manassas plantation. They later moved to Alexandria, Virginia where he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Wilmer McLean, who has gone down in history through a quirk of fate, died in Alexandria on June 5, 1882. His grave continues to be visited by the curious.