Few could say that they were present at the first major battle of the Civil War near Manassas, Virginia in July 1861 and at its close at Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865. A handful of senior officers can say they were, on the Union side generals Romeyn Ayres, Joseph Bartlett, Charles Griffin, Henry Hunt, James Ricketts, George Custer and Frank Wheaton were present at both and on the Confederate side generals James Longstreet, Thomas Rosser and George Steuart were also at both. In all probability there were hundreds of enlisted men and line officers that were also present as well. There was also one civilian and his family but their presence was not by choice.
Wilmer McLean had moved to Manassas in 1853 and purchased a farm. He was a retired Virginia state militia officer and had grown wealthy speculating on commodities like sugar and renting properties. With his military background he was only too happy to offer his home and barn as a headquarters for Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard when he arrived on scene in July 1861. The estate itself, called Yorkshire, dated to 1733 when Richard Blackburn built a lodge on the property. It was situated near Bull Run and a ford nearby was named for Blackburn. By the time of the Civil War the farm was over 700 acres in size with a large barn and several slaves.
As war came ever closer on July 18 McLean sent his family away. When Beauregard sat down to supper that afternoon a cannonball crashed through the home and landed in the fireplace. Beauregard continued eating dinner as if nothing happened but would move his headquarters to another residence later. One of McLean’s relatives, Edward P. Alexander, a Confederate signal officer, watched the battle begin from McLean’s front yard. The ensuing battle was something that this continent had never witnessed in its scope. Nearly 36,000 soldiers were engaged with about 5,000 casualties. While this would pale in comparison to later battles this was entirely new to the American public.
McLean’s barn was used as a hospital and over time the war moved on though his family would not return until that winter. The family moved to Richmond and for a time Wilmer worked in the quartermaster department for the Confederate army. War again returned to his doorstep the following August and while his property was well away from the fighting this was enough for Wilmer and his now-pregnant wife Virginia. With Federal troops occupying the area his business interests evaporated so it was time to move. The McLean’s picked a spot that they hoped would be out of the way in the hopes that the raging war would not find them relocating to a quiet crossroads town 100 miles to the southwest called Appomattox Court House. From the safety of his new home he continued his business dealings with the Confederate government.
The family lived and farmed there in peace and solitude for two years until April 1865. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was on the run after the fall of Richmond and had arrived at Appomattox looking for supplies. They found the roads blocked by Union cavalry with infantry fast approaching to surround them. The Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee knew the game was up and sent a flag of truce to ask for terms of surrender from the Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. While Lee waited under an apple tree, Lee’s chief of staff Charles Marshall asked McLean if they could use his home for the meeting. McLean reluctantly agreed. On April 9 Lee and Grant met for about 30 minutes and after that the Civil War was for all intents and purposes over.
Following the surrender Union soldiers wanting souvenirs took whatever was not nailed down on McLean’s property. In 1867 the family returned to Yorkshire as McLean could not keep up with his mortgage payments and defaulted on his loans for the Appomattox home which was later sold at public auction. With the abolition of slavery McLean’s farming interests dried up leaving him with a massive debt. Nearly destitute he became a real estate agent and eventually went to work for the Internal Revenue Service and later the Bureau of Customs until he died in 1882.
Knowing the significance of the Appomattox property a plan was considered to dismantle it and to use it as a tourist attraction at several proposed locations around the country including Washington DC. The home and some of the outbuildings were actually dismantled but never moved due to financial difficulties and the property was neglected and fell into ruin. The Federal government bought the land and following World War II reconstructed the home and it is today the main feature of Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. Outbuildings including slave cabins were also reconstructed. McLean’s Manassas property had a different fate. After McLean sold the property it continued to be farmed until the turn of the 20th century when the land was sold and subdivided. The barn remained standing until 1958 when a severe thunderstorm leveled it. The ruined structure could not stay in the cross hairs of progress long and today the land has been lost to development as the Washington suburbs expanded into northern Virginia thanks to Interstate 66. Much of the farm is today a parking lot of a CVS pharmacy and a junk yard along Virginia Route 28 and Yorkshire Lane. Some barns should be preserved as they too are witnesses to history but in many cases they are neglected. They are more than just scrap or reclaimed wood, they are our history.