The Bizarre Bad Luck Of Wilmer McLean, Who Had Two Separate Homes Ravaged By The American Civil War

In 1853, Wilmer and Virginia McLean established their so-called Yorkshire Plantation on a spot of farmland at Manassas Junction, Virginia, located along the Bull Run tributary, which feeds into the Occoquan River. Little did the McLeans known just how closely their prosperity would be tied to the American Civil War, an event that would erupt in less than a decade.

In 1861, the Union and rebel Confederate forces that made up the two sides of the American Civil War fatefully converged right on top of the McLean family’s Yorkshire Plantation. Wilmer McLean was considered too old to be conscripted by either side in the war, but he was a Confederate affiliate, who worked as a supplier for the quartermasters of the Confederacy. When battle loomed, McLean sent his family away to safety, but he personally stayed to continue his civilian work with the Confederacy.

From July 1861 to August 1862, the Union and Confederacy fought in two major battles at Bull Run. The buildings on McLean’s plantation were well used by the Confederacy during the Battles of Bull Run. P. G. T. Beauregard, the leading general of the Confederacy during the Battles of Bull Run, set up his headquarters in McLean’s farmhouse, and transformed Yorkshire Plantation’s barn into a makeshift hospital and prison. With McLean’s plantation serving such roles as these for the Confederate forces, the Union army deemed the Yorkshire estate to be fair game for their artillery. During one notable incident in 1861, Union artillery thoroughly annihilated McLean’s kitchen. After an experience like this, Wilmer McLean understandably decided to flee his war-torn plantation and relocated his family to the peaceful town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

In 1683, the McLeans set up their new home in a former tavern located in Appomattox. From there, Wilmer McLean worked as a sugar merchant and continued his operation as a supplier for the Confederacy. Although the war raged on, he must have hoped that the front lines would remain clear of Appomattox Court House. Nevertheless, in 1865, the Union and Confederate forces clashed in their last significant skirmish in the vicinity of McLean’s new home.

With disastrous luck, the McLean home was chosen as the location where Confederate General Robert E. Lee would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee formally admitted defeat on April 9, 1865, from within the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House—this historic moment would destroy McLean’s life.

Unfortunately for the McLean family, their home was the sight of an important historic event. As such, the victorious Union soldiers inside the McLean home at Appomattox Court House wanted material keepsakes with which they could remember the occasion—regretfully, the only souvenirs that were available all belonged to the McLean family. Despite this obstacle, the soldiers wanted their remembrances and were not in a mood to pay fair prices for the items that they took. The desk and inkstand that Lee used in his surrender was looted, as were McLean’s chairs, candlesticks, and even a cloth doll that belonged to McLean’s daughter. Furthermore, soldiers cut away countless strips of fabric from curtains and upholstered furniture. By the time the soldiers left Appomattox Court House, the McLean House was thoroughly pillaged and vandalized.

Although the war was over, Wilmer McLean’s financial troubles were just beginning. With his plantation at Manassus Junction destroyed at the start of the war, and his home at Appomattox Court House looted after the end of the war, Wilmer McLean found himself heavily in debt and short on assets. After he defaulted on his debts in 1869, McLean’s Appomattox Court House “Surrender House” was repossessed and sold in a public auction. The house was then sold from person to person until it fell into the hands of a businessman in 1891 who had an ambition of turning the historic place into a mobile tourist attraction—he demolished the home, brick by brick, and planned to make Washington D.C. the new home of the Surrender House. The businessman, however, was bogged down by financial and legal troubles, which kept the dismantled home in Appomattox. Thankfully, the United States Park’s Service purchased these bricks, as well as the property that made up McLean’s estate in the region, and went to work carefully rebuilding the historic home. It was officially opened to the public in 1950 and remains a tourist destination, to this day.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Wilmer McLean, c. 1860, in front of The Room Where Lee Surrendered to Grant in the McLean House of Appomattox Court House, published by The Major & Knapp Eng. Mfg. & Lith. Co. 71 Broadway, c. 1867, both images [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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