Wilmer McLean (1814 – 1882)
If you are looking for someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time twice, then Wilmer McLean, a wholesale grocer and plantation owner from Virginia, would feature high up on your list.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, McLean was too old to enlist for the Confederate army but soon found himself engulfed in the early skirmishes of the conflict.
The problem was the location of his plantation which was situated near Manassas junction. More crucially, a small stream called Bull Run meandered through his land and this is where the first major battle between Union and Confederate troops took place, in July 1861.
Not only was his house commandeered by the Confederate General, P G T Beauregard, for use as his headquarters but it was struck by a Union shell during the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford which, as well as tearing into the fireplace, ruined the General’s dinner. Three days later on 18th July, during the First Battle of Bull Run McLean’s barn was used as a makeshift hospital to treat wounded Confederate soldiers and as an impromptu prison to hold captured Union soldiers.
If that was not enough, the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 caused more damage to his plantation. As McLean commented later, “these armies tore my place on Bull Run all to pieces, and kept running over it backward and forward till no man could live there.”
Sensibly, McLean decided to move to pastures new and in the autumn of 1863 moved to the quiet hamlet of Appomattox Court House, some 120 miles to the south-west, on the other side of Virginia. If he thought he had escaped the ravages of the Civil War, he was sadly mistaken.
On 9th April 1802 a Confederate Colonel, Charles Marshall, rode into Appomattox Court House and upon encountering McLean, asked him if he could suggest somewhere to host a meeting between Union and Confederate commanders. As McLean’s first suggestion, a run-down, vacant house, didn’t pass muster, he was forced to offer up his own well-furnished abode. And so it was that on that very afternoon that General Lee offered the Union’s surrender to General Grant in McLean’s front room. By astonishing coincidence, McLean’s two properties had served as bookends to the American Civil War.
But McLean’s travails were not over. Union officers went on the rampage, carrying out the chairs and tables used by Grant and Lee, a stone inkstand, brass candlesticks and even his seven-year old daughter’s rag doll. His cane-bottomed chairs were torn apart, strips of upholstery were cut from his sofas and as recompense the soldiers threw some loose change on the floor. The crestfallen McLean observed, “And now, just look around you! Not a fence-rail is left on the place, the last guns trampled down all my crops, and Lee surrenders to Grant in my house.”
A year later McLean put the house, by now referred to the as the Surrender House, up for sale but there were no takers. He gave up on the house which was eventually sold at public auction in 1869 and he moved back to the Manassas area. He was one of the few Virginians given a position in the post-bellum administration, working for the Internal Revenue Service, and voted for his temporary house guest, Grant, in the 1872 election. But as John Cleese might have said, don’t mention the war.