Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Who was Wilmer McLean (1861-1865) ?

Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean was born in 1814, was orphaned before he was nine, was raised by relatives in Alexandria, Virginia and became a prosperous food merchant in Alexandria.  In 1853 he married Virginia Hooe Mason a wealthy widow, with extensive real estate holdings and other property. She owned Yorkshire plantation in Prince William County, Virginia, estimated to have some 1200 acres; a tract of 330 acres in Fairfax County, and two other tracts containing 500 acres in Prince William County. She also owned fourteen slaves. There were two daughters by the first marriage, Maria (born 1844) and Osceola (born 1845). Both girls lived with the Wilmer McLeans at Manassas and were described by Confederate officers as McLean’s “two pretty daughters.” Two other children were born of the McLean marriage, Wilmer McLean, Jr. (born 1854) and Lucretia Virginia (born 1857).

Following the First Battle of Manassas, Mrs. McLean and the children left the area. Wilmer McLean, however, worked diligently as a civilian with the Confederate Quartermaster Department. He worked to expedite the flow of food supplies to the troops in camp near Manassas. There was a time when the troops were down to one day’s rations. McLean’s experience as a wholesale merchant was invaluable in solving the purchasing of supplies in the fertile country around Manassas.

McLean’s most valuable contribution to the Confederacy was agreeing to let the army take over the buildings of the family plantation, “Yorkshire”, for use as a military hospital. The barn was a hospital and the dwellings and outbuildings were used as living quarters of surgeons and hospital attendants from July 17, 1861 until February 28, 1862. McLean gave his full cooperation to the establishment of this hospital. By 1862, however, he was completely disenchanted by the misconduct of soldiers and hospital personnel at Yorkshire. Large quantities of wine and whiskey were consumed by the hospital attendants. Sanitation was woefully lacking, flies covered the faces of patients. The dwellings were grossly mistreated while occupied by surgeons and attendants.

Further evidence of his disillusionment was his growing price demands on the Quartermaster. McLean apparently purchased candles and other scarce items in Richmond, had them shipped to Manassas, and then sold them to the Confederate Quartermaster for the highest price he could get.

Wilmer McLean had left the area in March 1862 as the Army retreated. From his experience as a merchant he knew that a long war would cause the price of commodities to rise higher and higher. He began to speculate in sugar and made a tidy income during the war. McLean moved his family to the quiet village of Appomattox Court House to escape the fury of war. But fate once again took a hand. The war which had virtually begun in McLean’s kitchen in Manassas, when a Union artillery shell exploded in the cookhouse at Yorkshire, ended in his front parlor in Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant.

The McLeans left their rented house in Appomattox and returned to the Manassas area, virtually penniless. McLean still owned many hundreds of acres of land in Prince William County, but the land was virtually worthless for resale and McLean was heavily in debt.

Eventually the ever practical McLean turned his attention to politics, joined the Yankee Republican party, supported Grant in the election of 1872 and was rewarded by an appointment to a U.S. Treasury job.  Wilmer McLean died on June 5, 1882 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria.  

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