When a war breaks out on your front lawn, and your chimney explodes from enemy fire, it’s time to find a new place to live. Neighborhoods like those are no place to raise children. That was Wilmer McLean’s opinion in the Civil War, anyway. That’s exactly what he did when the Battle of Bull Run erupted in front of his property.
The Confederate Army and the Union Army in the Civil War
The real fighting didn’t break out until three months later when the Confederate Army and the Union Army met in the first real engagement of the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run… or the First Manassas, depending on which side you were on. They’re the same battle.
Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard commandeered the house of a local man named Wilmer McLean as a headquarters during the battle. As the general and McLean sat in his dining room during the battle, a Union cannonball hit McLean’s chimney, the shot falling right into the fireplace. Beauregard thought it was comical. McLean didn’t think it was so funny.
McLean was too old for military service, but he was a merchant who helped supply the Confederate forces. Despite his need to be close to the fighting, he felt having a house on the actual front lines of the Civil War might be dangerous for his family, so they moved a little distance to the south.
They moved to a little place called Appomattox Court House.
This, of course, was the place where Gen. Robert E. Lee would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865. The two men would meet here and discuss the most honorable terms of surrender – and they would do it in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.
After the two generals signed the surrender and left McLean’s house, the lower-ranking officers on their respective staffs began to loot the house. They took whatever they could get their hands on as souvenirs of the surrender. One of them even took a doll from McLean’s daughter.
More than a decade after the war, McLean moved his family back to Manassas, now that it was safe from masses of infantry and his dining room was cleared of artillery shells.