First Battle of Bull RunThe initial engagement on July 21, 1861 of what would become the First Battle of Bull Run (First Mannasas) took place on McLean's farm, the Yorkshire Plantation, in Manassas, Prince William County, Virginia. Union Army artillery fired at McLean's house, which was being used as a headquarters for Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, and a cannonball dropped through the kitchen fireplace. Beauregard wrote 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."
McLean was a retired major in the Virginia militia, but at 47, he was too old to return to active duty at the outbreak of the Civil War. He made his living during the war as a sugar broker supplying the Confederate States Army. He decided to move because his commercial activities were centered mostly in southern Virginia and the Union army presence in his area of northern Virginia made his work difficult. He undoubtedly was also motivated by a desire to protect his family from a repetition of their combat experience. In the spring of 1863, he and his family moved about 120 miles (200 km) south to Appomattox County, Virginia, near a dusty, crossroads community called Appomattox Court House.
Appomattox Court House On April 9, 1865, the war revisited Wilmer McLean. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was about to surrender to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. He sent a messenger to Appomattox Court House to find a place to meet. On April 8, 1865, the messenger knocked on McLean's door and requested the use of his home, to which McLean reluctantly agreed. Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlor of McLean's house, effectively ending the Civil War. Later, McLean is supposed to have said "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor".
Once the ceremony was over, members of the Army of the Potomac began taking the tables, chairs, and various other furnishings in the house—essentially, anything that was not tied down—as souvenirs. They simply handed the protesting McLean money as they made off with his property. Major General Edward Ord paid $40.00 (equivalent to $616.26 in today's dollars). for the table Lee had used to sign the surrender document, while Major General Philip Sheridan got the table on which Grant had drafted the document for $20.00 (equivalent to $308.13 in today's dollars) in gold. Sheridan then asked George Armstrong Custer to carry it away on his horse. The table was presented to Custer's wife and is now on exhibit at the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. McLean's second home is now part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument operated by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior.