The first major land battle of the United States Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. In July of 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, Union and Confederate troops met in the first of many bloody battles. Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the South’s troops in the battle, set up headquarters in the house of a wholesale grocer named Wilmer McLean. Other parts of the farm were used as a Confederate hospital while the farm itself was the staging ground for the first major battle of the Civil War. The farm turned into a firing range: legend has it that a Union artillery shell found its way into McLean’s kitchen fireplace, splashing down in a pot of stew meant for Beauregard.
While loyal to Virginia and therefore the Confederacy, McLean was too old for active duty. A sugar broker by trade, McLean supplied the Confederate army during the War. But his business was in the southern part of his state while his farm — now in disrepair due to the fighting — was up north. Further, the Union army was occupying northern Virgina, and McLean — a family man — wanted to keep himself and his family out of harm’s way. He did what anyone would do if they could: he moved. In the spring of 1863, he moved about 120 miles south, to Appomattox County, Virginia.
But it was not to be. On April 9, 1865, war would find McLean again.
Over the course of two weeks in March/April, 1865, the Union army launched the Appomattox Campaign, a successful attempt to cut off the Confederate army’s last viable supply line. On April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s troops were surrounded, suffering, and low on supplies, and General Lee accepted Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s terms of surrender. All that was left: the signing of the surrender documents. The two sides agreed to meet in Appomattox Courthouse, a small village where the county seat was. Needing a place for the signing, they settled on a nearby house — the house of Wilmer McLean (pictured at the top). Quite literally, the war began on his farm and ended at Wilmer McLean’s house — even though he moved.
For McLean, this was decidedly bad luck. While a successful sugar broker (or, perhaps, smuggler), his money was in Confederate notes, now worthless. His house, mortgaged, was ransacked by souveneir-seeking troops. Most everything in the house was taken against McLean’s wishes, although apparently, most looters offered him money in exchange for the items. By 1867, McLean was in arrears, and the house was auctioned off. McLean returned to his farm outside Manhassas.
Bonus fact: General George Custer, later famous for his “last stand” in the Battle of Little Big Horn thirty years after the Civil War, ended up taking the table upon which the Civil War surrender document was signed. His widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, bequeathed the table to the U.S. government in her last will and testament.
From the Archives: John Wilkes Booth’s Heroic Brother: Another Civil War-era coincidence.
Related: “Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War” by William C. Davis, 4.5 stars on 12 reviews.