How the U.S. Civil War Started and Ended in One Man's House

How the U.S. Civil War Started and Ended in One Man's House

Why you should care

Because war is hell, and playing host to its practitioners is no picnic either.

Rare is the historical boast more provocative than Wilmer McLean’s statement that the U.S. Civil War “began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.” Rarer still is one that, like McLean’s, is actually true. How did McLean, a 47-year-old Virginia merchant, wind up as the Civil War’s alpha and omega, a single man whose residence would bookend a nation’s grueling four-year ordeal? As with many of life’s great synchronicities, it was mostly about location, timing and luck — or simple misfortune, as the case may be.

Wilmer McLean

Virginia merchant Wilmer McLean.

On the evening of July 18, 1861 — three months after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter — a Union cannonball slashed through a wall of McLean’s home, landing in his kitchen fireplace and disrupting the Confederate soldiers dining there. “A comical effect of this artillery fight,” Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard noted in his diary, “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.”

McLean, a retired member of the Virginia militia who was too old to fight, had offered up his strategically positioned home in rural Prince William County, just south of Washington, D.C., as a headquarters for Beauregard and his officers for what was about to turn into the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war and considered by many the moment when the Civil War began in earnest.

A successful wholesale grocer, McLean had inherited the property, a 1,200-acre plantation amid cornfields and pastures, when he married a widow named Virginia Mason. McLean, his wife, and her two daughters had lived there happily for almost a decade before the war entered their backyard. The bulk of the fighting in the Battle of Bull Run would take place in and around McLean’s property, which would ultimately be rented out during the war by Confederate forces, who used the barn as a military hospital and a detention center for captured Union soldiers.

The war would follow him, and in its closing days, once again come knocking on Wilmer McLean’s door.

Despite the risks, McLean made out well for a while, serving as a landlord to the Southern army and helping run sugar and other supplies through Union blockades. By the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, however, McLean’s business was suffering, his property was in shambles, and his family, including his now-pregnant wife, was growing weary of the danger on their doorstep. So he and his family moved about 120 miles south to a two-story cottage in Appomattox County in south-central Virginia, safely removed from the front lines.

Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean and his family sit on the porch of his house.

But the war would follow him, and in its closing days, once again come knocking on Wilmer McLean’s door. In early April 1865, Union troops had surrounded Gen. Robert E. Lee and his retreating Confederate forces in southern Virginia. After one final skirmish near Appomattox, Lee and his troops, hopelessly outnumbered, were forced to surrender. And so, on April 9, Palm Sunday, leaders from both sides commandeered the nicest room in the area, which just happened to be McLean’s parlor, to make the cessation of hostilities official.

With the Union Army camped outside, the immaculately attired Lee arrived by horse that afternoon to meet with the disheveled Union commander, and future U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant. And just 25 minutes after they had sat down in McLean’s parlor, the Civil War was over. As the vanquished Lee rode off McLean’s estate on his gray horse, Grant stood on McLean’s front steps and, with his men, saluted his former rival.

Undoubtedly a moving, if not sorrowful, sight for the Confederate bystander McLean, but things could have been worse, and soon they were. With the ceremony concluded, Grant’s men, including high-ranking Union commanders, set about doing what all victorious soldiers are prone to do — they went foraging in McLean’s home for souvenirs. Tables, chairs and other household items — what the soldiers didn’t pick clean, local civilians later would from the largely helpless McLean. Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer — yes, that General Custer — made off with McLean’s desk (now in the Smithsonian), upon which the surrender had been penned.

And while the officers did reimburse McLean for some of the bigger-ticket items (including the desk) with what cash they had on hand, they could not compensate him for the full extent of the damage. After the war, his Confederacy notes without value, his home stripped of possessions, McLean and his family relocated yet again, leaving their house to be foreclosed on (it would become a tourist site in 1949). McLean died in 1882, living out the rest of his life as a tax auditor for the IRS — bitter, abused by fate, but with one hell of a story to tell.

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