A Story of Irony: Wilmer McLean


Column: Doorway to Diversity
by Darold Ingram

This April marks the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

The Civil War was fought in then thousand places. From 1861-165, 3 and a half million men fought in the war. More than six hundred thousand died in it (2 percent of the American population in 1860). More Americans died in the Civil War than all other American Wars combined. On September 17th, 1862 (the Battle of Antiteam) more Americans died in a single day than any other day in our nation’s history (3,654 dead and over 23,000 wounded).

But instead of telling you a depressing story of the tremendous carnage of the year, I thought I’d tell a somewhat ironic story.

Wilmer McClean was a Virginia store owner at the beginning of the War in April 1861, he lived on a farm near the town of Manasas, Virginia; not too far from Washington. In the summer of 1861 the Civil War was just a few months old and there had been no major battle at that time. But in July 1861 the Union and Confederate armies prepared to fight each other in what would become the first major battle of the War.

The battle took place on July 21st, in Manasas, Virginia, a few hundred yards from Wilmer McLean’s doorstep. From the front door of his house McClean watched the two massive armies do battle in his front yard. As the battle raged on, a Union artillery shell tore through his house and exploded in his kitchen. No one was hurt, but Wilmer McClean had had enough.

Shortly after the battle McLean packed up his things and moved his family from Manasas, knowing perfectly well that more battle was to be expected in an area so close to Washington. He moved his family 120 miles Southeast to a small town, called Appomattox County, Virginia. His new residence was near a small crossroads called Appomattox Courthouse.

And it was here that four years later, as the war was drawing to an end, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would agree to surrender his army, The Army of Northern Virginia, to Union General Ulysses S. Grant; virtually ending the war.

A house was needed to provide a meeting place for the two generals to draw the documents of surrender and have them signed and approved as necessary. As Confederate soldiers went thought the small town, the came upon, you guessed it, the house of Wilmer McLean. Reluctantly, McLean allowed his house to be used by the two Generals to meet and discuss the terms of surrender.

On April 9th, 1865 Wilmer McLean looked on as the two great generals met in his living room, drew the papers making the surrender official, and ending the war.

Until the day he died Wilmer McLean could honestly say “The War began in my kitchen, and ended in my living room!”

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~ by daroldingram on April 5, 2011.

One Response to “A Story of Irony: Wilmer McLean”

  1. How interesting!!! There are more and more facts about the Civil War that amaze me. What an insane time in our country’s history! Glad I didn’t have to deal with that in my kitchen or living room!!

    -Caitlin

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