the improbable wilmer mclean

You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.

In 1861 our boy Wilmer was a successful merchant and farm owner. He was happily married to the former Virginia Mason (a wealthy widow). They had a young child and lived in a nice house on a good piece of farmland near Manassas, Virginia. Life was good. At least it should have been. It would have been, except for the brewing civil war.

In April of that year, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard had been appointed a general in the newly formed Confederate Army and assigned to defend the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Beauregard’s artillery assault on the Union Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor were the first shots fired in the American Civil War. By July, Beauregard was placed in command of Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and he needed a place to establish his headquarters.

So one fine summer day, there was a knock on Wilmer’s door. An aide to Gen. Beauregard politely let him know his farm–his home and his barn–were being commandeered. Wilmer wasn’t happy about it, but as a young man he’d served in the Virginia Militia; he understood that sacrifices had to be made. So he and his family abandoned their farm while the first major land battle of the Civil War–the Battle of Bull Run–was fought on his farm.

Not surprisingly, the McLean home and barn were both damaged during the battle. Beauregard liked to tell the story of how his dinner in the house was interrupted by a Union cannonball coming through McLean’s fireplace. Still, Wilmer and his family returned to the farm after the battle and remained on the farm for another year–until the Second Battle of Bull Run. At that point, Wilmer said, “Fuck this.” He packed up his family (his poor wife was pregnant again) and they moved a hundred miles south to a small quiet town in Southern Virginia, where the war wouldn’t interfere too much with his life.

And hey, it worked. Mostly. By 1865, our boy Wilmer had been living as quiet a life as one possibly could in a nation torn apart by a long, brutal civil war. He was 51 years old; he and his family had a nice house and he was making a fairly decent living as a merchant and a sugar broker for the Confederate Army.

But then, on this very day, April 9th, there was another knock on Wilmer’s door. Charles Marshall was an aide to another Confederate general–Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Marshall wanted our boy Wilmer to show him a house suitable for a meeting between Lee and another general. Given his previous unfortunate experience with Confederate generals, Wilmer showed Marshall a couple of ramshackle houses. Marshall rejected them. After a bit of pressure, Wilmer reluctantly agreed to let Gen. Lee use his own house for the meeting.

The McLean residence in Appomattox Court House

The meeting, of course, turned out to be between Lee and Gen. Ulysses Grant, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. During that meeting, held in Wilmer’s parlor, Lee agreed to surrender his army, essentially ending all major combat operations in the Civil War. It was all very quiet, very formal, very somber.

But once the surrender was signed and Lee had ridden away, the Union officers wanted souvenirs of the historic event. They began helping themselves to various household items–tables, chairs, lamps, whatever was at hand. It wasn’t exactly looting; many of them actually paid Wilmer for the items they took. But as before, Wilmer had no choice in the matter. In 1861, the Union Army damaged his property with artillery; in 1865, they did it by hand. War doesn’t spare civilians.

The end of the war also brought the end of Wilmer’s career as a merchant and sugar broker. He was eventually forced to sell his house and move his family back to his boyhood home of Alexandria, where he found a job with the Internal Revenue Service.

Wilmer McLean liked to say the Civil War began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. It’s a good line. That good line was the only good thing our boy Wilmer got from the war.

You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.

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