Saturday, May 29, 2010

It Began and Ended At Wilmer McLean's

There is no reason to try to tell the story of the actual battles of the Civil War here in this medium. There are hundreds of excellent books on that subject, I can recommend several if you want to learn more. The most recent that I read on Lincoln, his presidency, his cabinet, and the war was "Team of Rivals" I strongly recommend it, truly and outstanding read on many levels.

The realities of the war was it was one of the most bloody and violent in the history of man with more than 600,000 who died, Americans all. To get a perspective on the loss of life, and the personal loss to American families, it would be the same as six million dying from today's population in war.

Part of the cause was a new bullet developed in France, known as the Mini-ball. This new bullet was used by both the Union and Confederacy. It was the first "bullet shaped" ammunition instead of the ball shaped of old, with the new concept of grooves cut in a spirally motion through the inside of the barrel of the weapon called "rifling" it made this a much more accurate ordinance than any used before. It was deadly accurate to six hundred yards. These new rifles and mini-balls were eight times faster to load than any used in previous wars as well.

When you add the modern weaponry to the archaic military strategies, where the two armies still would face each other on opposite sides of a battle field and fire upon each other, it led to massive numbers of dead and wounded. It did, by necessity create new battle field medical procedures. There were thousands of amputation, at first more men died of infection than the operation. Through the efforts of so many women who volunteered to help nurse in these military medical units, and the never ending supply of newly injured arriving, the new ideas of triage taking those who were more critical but possible to save first came into being. The demands of Clara Barton, later the founder of the American Red Cross, that the hospitals kept fresh bandages available and that they kept the wounds clean and old soiled bandages replaced, cut the death rate to a small fraction of what it had been.

All wars are violent, the purpose of armies once turned loose on each other is to kill people and break things. This was no different, it was just fought in our own country against ourselves assuring that even winning would involve massive loss. Mistakes were made on both sides, but the bravery and heroism displayed by so many have been there to inspire us as well.

At the end of the war, Wilmer McLean stood on the front porch of his two-story brick house awaiting the arrival of General Robert E Lee. In the early afternoon on that day, General Lee, accompanied by Colonel Charles Marshall, arrived on horseback. Wil extended his greetings to the two Confederate officers and invited them into his parlor. And there, on April 9, 1865, they awaited the arrival of the other guests. At about 1:30pm, General Grant and several of the Union officers entered the parlor where General Lee was waiting. For the next hour and a half, General Lee and General Grant discussed and came to agreement on the terms of surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which, for all practical purposes, ended the long, bloody war.

Wil, a retired Major in the Virginia militia, was too old to be conscripted when that Civil War began. For the majority of the war, he was a merchant primarily dealing in the buying and selling of sugar, but, at the outset of the war in 1861, he was a farmer living in northern Virginia with his family. The war struck close to home early on and McLean moved his family from northern to central Virginia out of concern for their safety, settling eventually in the home at Appomattox Court House.

The First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) took place on Wilmer McLean’s farm on July 21, 1861 and inspired the move. So, in a most unusual twist of fate, the Civil War started in McLean’s backyard in 1861 and ended in his parlor in 1865. So Wilmer McLean and his family had a front row seat to both the beginning and end of the war.

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