Friday, May 3, 2013

Wilmer McLean, born May 3, 1814

Wilmer McLean was born on May 3, 1814 in Alexandria, Virginia.  He was orphaned eight years later and lived with relatives for the remainder of his childhood years.

He was 47 years old when the Civil War began. 

The First Battle of Bull Run, July 1861
 McLean was a wholesale grocer in Virginia.  In 1853, at the age of 39, he married the wealthy widow of a physician, Virginia Hooe Mason.  In 1854, the couple and Virginia’s two daughters from her previous marriage moved into a farmhouse inherited from Virginia’s family.  This house was located on the 1,200 acre Yorkshire plantation in Bull Run, Virginia. Wilmer and Virginia McLean had five children: the two daughters from her first marriage, and two more daughters and a son.

McLean Home, Yorkshire Plantation
The Civil War began in April 1861.  The initial engagement on July 18, 1861 of what would become the First Battle of Bull Run  took place on McLean's farm.  Union Army artillery fired at McLean's house, which was being used as a headquarters for Confederate General P.G.T. Beuregard.  Edward Porter Alexander, a relative of Wilmer McLean and Beauregard's chief signal officer, witnessed the beginning of the battle from McLean's yard. 

Edward Porter Alexander
A cannonball dropped through the kitchen fireplace while Confederate officers were eating there; Beauregard wrote after the battle, "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."

After the first Battle of Bull Run, McLean’s farmhouse was transformed into a Confederate hospital and imprisonment for Union captives. Confederate soldiers lingered for the next five months and 15 days. McLean received a rent payment of $825 upon their departure in March of 1862.

McLean was a retired major in the Virginia militia, but at 47, he was too old to return to active duty at the outbreak of the Civil War.  
He made his living during the war as a sugar broker supplying the Confederate States Army.

He decided to move because his commercial activities were centered mostly in southern Virginia, and the Union army presence in his area of northern Virginia made his work difficult. He undoubtedly was also motivated by a desire to protect his family from a repetition of their combat experience. In the spring of 1863, he and his family moved about 120 miles south to Appomattox County, Virginia, near a crossroads community called Appomattox Court House.

On April 9, 1865, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall of Robert E. Lee’s staff asked McLean if his house could be used for a meeting between Lee and Ulysses Grant.  The conference between Lee and Grant lasted about an hour and a half. 

Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlor of McLean's house.   Altogether, Lee spent about two hours at the McLean House and Grant remained there for about three hours.  

Edward Ord
Once the ceremony was over, members of the Army of the Potomac began taking the tables, chairs, and various other furnishings in the house—essentially, anything that was not tied down—as souvenirs. They simply handed the protesting McLean money (or not) as they made off with his property.  General Edward Ord paid $40 for the table Lee had used to sign the surrender document.   
Philip Sheridan
General Philip Sheridan got the table on which Grant had drafted the document for $20 in gold.  

 George Armstrong Custer 

Sheridan then asked George Armstrong Custer to carry it away on his horse. The table was presented to Custer's wife. 

Custer and his wife, Libbie
Another general got the chair Grant sat in, and General W.E. Whitaker procured the caned armchair that Lee used.

Lula McLean, the McLean's seven-year-old daughter, had left her favorite rag doll doll in the parlor.  One of the Union officer picked up the doll and called it the "Silent Witness" to the surrender. They all laughed, and he threw the doll across the room t0 Thomas W.C. Moore, of Major General Sheridan's staff.  For well over a century, the Moore family kept the doll as a "war trophy".  The doll was kept in a glass case with a brass plaque, sitting on the mantle in Moore's library.

The "Silent Witness" to the Surrender

"I have heard Mrs. McLean say frequently that the Union troops not only stole the tables and chairs besides other small furniture, but even took the childrens' play things..."

~ H.E. Spillman, Wilmer McLean's Son-In-Law
Union General John Gibbon, commander of the 24th Corps, Army of the James, used the house as his headquarters from April 10-17, 1865.

Union Troops at Appomattox Court House, Virginia
Later, McLean is supposed to have said "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor".

The McLean Family on the porch of their home
McLean is the gentleman closest to the front door wearing the light colored jacket.
 His wife, Virginia “Jennie,” sits to his left. Also in the photo are Maria (21 years old), Osceola “Ocie” (20), Lucretia “Lula” (7), and Nannie (2).
(Wilmer Jr. (11) does not appear in the photo)
Photograph by Timothy O'Sullvan
Appomattox Court House, Virginia
Summer of 1865
After the war, McLean was unable to keep up the mortgage payments on the Appomattox Court House home, and the family returned to Mrs. McLean's Prince William County estate in the fall of 1867.  The "Surrender House" was sold at public auction on November 29, 1869.

The McLeans later moved to Alexandria, Virginia.  He worked for the Internal Revenue Service from 1873 to 1876.  In 1876, he transferred to the U. S. Bureau of Customs and remained employed until 1880.

McLean died in Alexandria on June 5, 1882 at the age of 68.  
He was buried at St. Paul's Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria.  

McLean's Grave
McLean's second home is now part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument, operated by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior.

In 1912, Mrs. Custer lent the table to the National Museum. In 1936, according to the terms of her will, the loan became a bequest, and the table has remained in the national collections ever since.

Lula McLean's rag doll was donated to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in December 1992, and is now on permanent exhibit at the park.

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