Wilmer McLean wanted to escape war, but war kept finding him.
Born in 1814, Wilmer had experienced enough war for a lifetime. He fought in the Mexican War, rising to the rank of major. When the battles were over, he looked forward to living out the rest of his days without armed conflict. He might have gotten a hint that this was not to be by the fact that everyone seemed to insist upon referring to him as “Major,” even though he had resigned his commission and returned to civilian life.
He got married in 1850. Three years later, the McLean family moved to a large plantation named “Yorkshire,” and planned on living out their days in relative peace and tranquility.
Unfortunately, the rest of the country was headed in the exact opposite of peacefulness. Within eight years of moving to Yorkshire, the nation was on the brink of civil war. There was no way McLean could pretend the conflict did not exist. His home, situated near the Potomac River, was close enough to Washington, D.C. that news couldn’t help but spill over into McLean’s home.
Much more than news found its way to Yorkshire. When southern states announced secession from the Union, troops of the newly-formed Confederate States of America gathered near Manassas to defend their claims. The commander of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, General P.G.T. Beauregard, scouted the area and selected McLean’s home as his headquarters.
On July 18, 1861, the peacefulness of Yorkshire was shattered as the First Battle of Bull Run broke out. The Civil War had officially begun. This did not just hit close to home for McLean; the battle literally began on his property in the land he could see from his back windows.
Yorkshire was quickly transformed into an epicenter of military activity. The barn was converted into a military hospital and a prison for captured Union soldiers. It would also receive unwelcome attention from Union forces. A shell pierced the walls of the house and landed in the kitchen where Confederate officers were eating.
McLean was eager to spare his family the obvious danger of remaining at Yorkshire. He hurried them away to a place far enough removed from the fighting that they would not have to witness any further unpleasantness. After a few false starts, in 1863 he settled on a nice, safe place in south-central Virginia and moved his family into a comfortable 2-story home near the community of Appomattox Court House.
McLean tried to have his family escape the war, but the war wouldn’t leave his family alone. Two years after setting into their home, the McLean house was again the center of conflict.
General Ulysses S. Grant had pursued and attacked the dwindling Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the point where the remaining Southern soldiers were approaching starvation and exhaustion. It was at Appomattox Court House where General Robert E. Lee finally bowed to the inevitable. He agreed to meet with Grant to discuss the terms of surrender.
Wilmer McLean would again be a witness to history. By some strange balancing of the scales, history had chosen his homes to be bookends for the Civil War. He stood on the front porch of his home on April 9, 1865. In the early afternoon, General Lee, accompanied by Colonel Charles Marshall, arrived on horseback. McLean welcomed the men to his home and invited them into his parlor. Shortly thereafter, General Grant and his officers arrived and joined Lee in the home. By the time the two generals emerged from their conference, the fighting was over. The Civil War, which had begun in McLean’s backyard, had come to an end in his parlor.