The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

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.

11 thoughts on “The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Interestingly enough. I am John Mason Hughes, direct descendent to George Mason and named after his son John. My sister is Maryanne McLean Hughes, directly related to Wilmer McLean. Our family tree/ genealogy shows the relationship. Wilmers wife Virginia Mason of the Mason family is very important. John Masons daughter Anna Maria Mason , married Sydney Smyth Lee..Robert E. Lee’s brother. So I am directly related to George Mason, founder of our Bill of Rights, Wilmer McLean and Robert E. Lee. John Masons portrait has been handed down and hangs on our wall, as well as letters from George to John and a silver coffee pot that was given to George Mason by Lafayette ,as a gift. It was on loan to Gunston Hall for a while. I have a brick from Wilmer McLean foundation and one from the hearth of the Carroll House. Lot of history here

    1. Wow. Not surprising that you family tree has so many notable members of the founding families. The guiding families of Virginia, ie those who received land grants and had vast estates, married within the aristocratic families. Washington had to go to Cape Charles VA to get a bride that was not a cousin. I sure hope you have a compilation of your history that can be shared with other members of you clan. My cousin in Aghada Ireland assembled our family tree back to the late 1500’s where it becomes a record of “mentions” of early derivatives of the name. Some very successful people but NOTHING like yours.

    2. Who is Wilmer Mclean? My descendant was John Mclean, emigrated to America from the Isle of Jura Scotland in about 1797. Could they have a connection. Who were his parents and how old was he when the civil war ended. I have Mclean descendants that were also at the Appomattox court house in 1865.

    3. I am also a direct relative of Wilmer McLean. We are also related to Betsy Ross born Elizabeth Griscom through Wilmer’s relation to the Ross family. My paternal grandmother was a McLean, her brother, my uncle was named Wilmer C McLean in honor of my G G Grandfather. I have old letters detailing the McLean family history in VA passed down to me by my G Grandmother Amanda McLean who was born in 1877. She was the one who told me about the relation to Elizabeth “Betsy” in 1967 when she showed me a McLean family bible with the entire family tree in the front. That bible was unfortunately lost. I have traced the link to Elizabeth and it is legitimate and provable. I have been doing Geneology for almost 30 years now and this is why I started.
      I do not think all the info presented here on this web page is completely accurate but who knows at this point. The family information passed down from my G Grandmother does not match some of the details given here.
      I also knew about the relation to George Mason through my geneology research.

    4. Interesting reading of history, I’m a McKay and have McLean in lineage as well as Hughes.
      Thanks for sharing,
      Annemarie McKay/Fuller

  4. I was under the assumption that Wilmer McLean lived in South Carolina and that the Confederates set up a cannon in his front yard to help bombard Fort Sumter, is this correct ?

    1. NNO. He was a member of the Virginia Militia pre-Civil War and became a commodities speculator (wholesale grocer in those days). He retired to Yorkshire and grew wealthy.

  5. My ancestors were enslaved by Wilmer McLean and his wife Virginia Hooe McLean. We believe that the Hooe family enslaved them before Virginia married Wilmer. One story is that the cannonball fell into the kitchen at the McLean’s Manassas home, barely missing the cook. We believe that the cook was my ancestor–great-great-great grandmother Bettie Love Stewart. She was born in Bloom’s Grove, Prince William County on property owned by Col. John Hooe, moved with the McLeans to Manassas after the battle of First Manassas and was in Appomattox at the time of the surrender.

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