In the sweltering heat of July 21, 1861, exactly 150 years ago today, two great armies converged on Wilmer McLean’s Manassas, Virginia farm. It was the first major battle and the beginning of the American Civil War, Bull Run or Manassas as the Conferderates called it. Union artillery would fall on McLean’s farm with a shell tearing through his kitchen.
At the time Bull Run was the largest and bloodiest battle in American history. 35-thousand Union soldiers fought 21-thousand of their southern countrymen at Manassas. The Union and Confederate armies saw casualties numbering nearly 5,000. 900 of their soldiers were killed. It’s where General Thomas J. Jackson earned his famous nickname Stonewall. Many in the north and the south had romanticized the war, but with the deaths of troops as well as civilians the battle suddenly made it all too real. It erased the notion that the War would be short and settled with one decisive blow.
McLean who was a retired major in the Virginia militia at 47 was too old to be drafted to active duty. By the spring of 1863 he had enough with war and to find safety for his family moved from Manassas. Praying he’d be out of harm’s way he went south. They settled west of Richmond about 120 miles distant in a dusty little crossroads village. There he would spend the next two years of his life as a grocer.
By the spring of 1865 Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who also had seen enough of war, was about to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee sent Colonel Charles Marshall to Appomattox Courthouse to find a suitable building in which he and Grant might meet. The streets were almost deserted when Marshall stopped the first civilian he happened to see. It was Wilmer McLean who reluctantly agreed to loan the army his home.
On the afternoon of April 9, 1865 the war once again revisited the McLean family. After a ninety-minute discussion, Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, effectively ending the Civil War. Just five days later Abraham Lincoln would be shot. More than 600,000 Americans died in the conflict, more than those killed in all the major U.S. wars since, and all of them perished on American soil. It was a defining event and arguably the most important one in the country’s history. Brothers fought brothers and fathers their sons. The war profoundly changed the way Americans envisioned their own nation, seeing it no longer as a group of independent states but as one nation, indivisible.
Wilmer McLean had a unique and personal perspective on the Civil War as it can be said the conflict began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. McLean’s second home is now part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument. After the war, he and his family sold the house in 1867, unable to keep up the mortgage payments. They returned to their Manassas farm and later moved to Alexandria, Virginia where he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. He died there in the summer of 1882.
NOTE: I had the good fortune years ago to become a fan of filmmaker Ken Burns through his acclaimed documentary The Civil War. Burns is a master story-teller and cinematographer. His style of using archival footage and photographs, as well as his technique of bringing life to those pictures, has been copied by filmmakers around the world. His method has come to be known as “The Ken Burns Effect.”
The Civil War was the first of many Burns documentaries and my interest in the Wilmer McLean story was borne from it. Many more Burns’ trademark films have followed and to say the least I’ve been mesmerzed by them ever since. Found in his documentaries are stories within stories, most of them I’d never heard before. I hope to share others in the future. ~ Rick
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