Civil War History Wilmer McLean at the Beginning and End of the War Part 1

About Wilmer McLean an odd figure in American Civil War history who can claim to have hosted both the beginning and end of the War.




Maj. Wilmer McLean might well have said, as tradition has it, "The [civil] War began in my front yard and ended in my parlor."

McLean, a well-to-do wholesale grocer from Alexandria, had retired in 1854 to a pleasant estate along Bull Run, near Manassas Junction, in Prince William County, Va. He had made many improvements on the plantation, including a massive stone barn.

The place was known as Yorkshire, for the home county of a previous owner, Col. Richard Blackburn, a migrant Englishman.

Roads in the neighborhood led to the nearby rail line and important villages, and several crossed Bull Run not far from the farmhouse. One of these crossings was McLean's Ford.

In May, 1861, the line of Bull Run was occupied by Confederate troops to guard against an expected Federal thrust from Washington. Many regiments camped on or near Yorkshire, and Camp Wigfall was established on its southernmost acres.

Just behind McLean's Ford, and on either side, Gen. J. R. Jones had his brigade raise earthworks which remain today--though much reduced by bulldozers--amid a housing development known as Yorkshire Village.

On July 18, when Federals approached the site, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander, left his headquarters at a nearby farmhouse and went to Yorkshire. The general was riding the front lines at noon of that day when a Union shell dropped into a chimney of the McLean house, fell into the kitchen fireplace, and immediately exploded in a kettle of stew.

The stew was splattered over the room and the luncheon menu for the general, his staff, and the McLean household was revised.

The action in which this shot was fired threw Gen. Daniel Tyler's Federal division against Gen. James Longstreet's Confederates--a skirmish known to Confederates as the Battle of Bull Run, as opposed to the larger engagement of July 21 (which they called the Battle of Manassas, but which the Federals called Bull Run).

Casualties from this fight were placed in Major McLean's big barn, but officers were forced to move them when Union gunners shelled the place. Beauregard commented bitterly on 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."

Beauregard stayed at Yorkshire for three days while troops maneuvered over the farm.

McLean had had enough of war, and when the armies had gone, he bought a farm in isolated southern Virginia, its red brick house fronting a street in the village of Appomattox Court House. The McLean family seems to have lived peacefully for three years in their new home. Back at Yorkshire, the armies crossed Bull Run and the familiar fields in the Second Manassas campaign. And, in October of 1863, Jeb Stuart's artillery fought a day's engagement on the farm as part of Lee's withdrawal after Gettysburg.

The war caught up with Wilmer McLean about noon of Sunday, Apr. 9, 1865. The major was walking in the village street, probably alarmed at the number of Confederate troops lying near his home, now that the early-morning fire had ceased.

A young officer in a worn gray uniform hailed him, asking for a place where General Lee might meet with General Grant.

McLean showed the officer--Col. Charles Marshall--an unoccupied brick building in the center of the village. Lee's aide looked into its unfurnished interior and declined it: "Isn't there some other place?"

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