At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Wilmer McLean (1814-1822) was a retired major in the Virginia militia. Too old to return to active duty, he made his living selling sugar to the Confederate Army. McLean’s misfortune was that his farm at Manassas, Virginia was located on the road between Richmond and Washington. McLean lived in the middle between the Confederate and Union capitals.
Needing a headquarters for himself and his staff, Confederate General P G T Beauregard decided to base himself in McLean’s cottage. In the first engagement of the war, Union artillery fired on the house, initiating what was to become the First Battle of Bull Run. One cannonball fell down the cottage chimney and exploded in the stewpot, requiring a revision of the General’s lunch plans The General weote after the battle:
"A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House.”
Union casualties were 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing or captured; Confederate casualties were 387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing.
McLean decided to relocate but took too long in doing so. The Second Battle of Bull Run took place 28-30 August 1862 outside of his front door. Union casualties were about 10,000 killed and wounded out of 62,000 engaged; the Confederates lost about 1,300 killed and 7,000 wounded out of 50,000.
McLean relocated in 1863. He moved as far away as he could with the money he had, buying a property about 200 kilometres to the south at Virginia Hill, Virginia. The name of Virginia Hill was later changed to Appomattox Court House.
On April 9, 1865, the war came back to Wilmer McLean.
On that date Confederate General Rober E Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ullyses S Grant in the parlour of McLean’s house, effectively ending the Civil War.
After the surrender, members of the Union Army took the tables, chairs, and various other furnishings in the house as souvenirs, over McLean’s protests. George Custer was given the table on which the surrender document was drafted by Grant.
In 1867 McLean sold his house, unable to meet the mortgage payments, and returned to his house in Manassas McLean's Appomattox Court House home is now part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument.
McLean is supposed to have commented at the time of the signing of the surrender:
"The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlour".