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The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War began. At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended (111-B-4756, and 111-B-6333)

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War 'began.' At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended. (111-B-4756 and 111-B-6333)

Today Part Two of “Discovering the Civil War” opens at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exhibit is divided into a few sections, the last of which is entitled “Endings and Beginnings,” a reference to the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. As to the beginning and the end of the Civil War itself, there is only one man who book-ended it so literally. His name was Wilmer McLean.

On July 18, 1861, Confederate General Beauregard had sat down for supper in the home of a Manassas local when a cannonball pierced through the house and landed in the kitchen fireplace. It was something of a surprise, but not so overwhelming as to ruin Beauregard’s sense of humor “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House,” he wrote in his diary. Perhaps the shell would have been more of a shock had it not been just one of many volleys in the first major campaign of the Civil War: the Battle of Bull Run.

The house belonged to a man named Wilmer McLean, who had purchased the property in 1854. Beauregard had commandeered the property—and McLean’s well-situated house and barn—as his headquarters and, later, as a hospital for Confederate troops. McLean was happy to oblige the general as he himself was a retired officer in the Virginia militia and had profited nicely off of renting the property and speculating on commodities like sugar. But by the time the Second Battle of Bull Run had occurred on his doorstep and a pregnant wife, McLean had had enough.  The profits no longer outweighed the dangers, and he decided to move south.

In 1863, Wilmer McLean settled on the property surrounding the Two Rein Tavern at a small and quiet crossroads over 100 miles south of the chaos of Civil War battlefields. For two years, his family lived in the relative quietude of southern Virginia until, on April 9, 1865, Charles Marshall—Gen. Robert E. Lee’s aide—approached him. Marshall asked McLean to show him a place that was suitable for Lee and another general to meet. McLean first showed him a dilapidated home, but when Marshall rejected it, McLean reluctantly offered up his own residence for the meeting. Marshall accepted.

Lee arrived at McLean’s Appomattox Court House property at about one o’clock in the afternoon in a crisp uniform. Shortly after, wearing his muddied field uniform, the other general arrived. It was Ulysses S. Grant. For about 25 minutes the two spoke in McLean’s parlor, until eventually Lee brought up the purpose of their meeting, the surrender of the Confederate Army. Minutes later, the Civil War ended.

Such it is that the Civil War started in Wilmer McLean’s kitchen and ended in his parlor.

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Comments

Comment from Angela Trbovich
Time July 5, 2011 at 5:29 am

While the McLean story is fascinating and true, the photo to the left is mislabeled. We in Manassas know that this is actually the Liberia House (still standing) owned by the Weir family at that time. This became Beauregard’s headquarters after he moved out of the Mclean home known as Yorkshire. Sadly, no known photograph exists of Yorkshire. Perhaps someday in an attic somewhere there will appear an photograph or painting of the Yorkshire house. One can only hope.

Comment from David Purschwitz
Time January 31, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I just happened upon the above Post and I heartily agree with Angela. I spent 17 years with the Manassas Museum System and the left photo is definitely Liberia House. Liberia is under the protective care of the Manassas Museum System and the City of Manassas.