Wilmer McLean: A Prophetic Analogy for Moderate Republicans

On July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Manassas raged across Wilmer McLean’s plantation. He had fled with his family a day before a cannonball ripped through the fireplace of his kitchen destroying the meal being prepared for the Confederate generals who had taken up quarters in the house.

McLean did not join the crowds watching from the edge of the field as his home was unwittingly drawn into a war that would rip our country along an ideological seam that has not been fully knit back together over the last century and a half.  Yet, there they sat munching on picnic lunches — Senators, reporters, and common folk alike — watching the world they knew burn.

Across McLean’s farm, Yorkshire Plantation, two poorly trained mobs attempted to hack through each other. The Confederates held the day, and the Union troops were sent running back to DC. As McLean watched the smoke began to clear from his land, men, who had not yet donned the blue and gray uniforms of North and South, lay indistinguishable in death. Something had fundamentally changed in the country, and it would corrupt both sides just as the blood of the fallen had contaminated Wilmer’s fields.

A year later, following the 2nd Battle of Manassas, Wilmer McLean decided to leave his home and moved to Appomattox Court House. He had remained loyal to the Confederacy, but the proximity of the Union forces was making it impossible to do business in Northern Virginia. He wanted to avoid finding himself in the middle of another battle between Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. It had only taken him two years to see what it would take the Confederacy four to realize: this war was folly.

Wilmer McLean is an interesting footnote in most history books, but in his story, many moderate Virginia Republicans can probably find a kindred spirit. He was dragged into a fight over which he had no control and asked to follow leaders who only made his life more difficult. A second battle made life so intractable that he was driven completely from Northern Virginia. He tried in vain to be left alone, but the failing leadership of his cause dragged him into the war again and again.

Much like Wilmer McLean, many Virginia Republicans were driven from their political homes with the nomination of Trump, but we came back hoping to rebuild a home that we didn’t recognize. A year later, the battle played out again; the opposition’s forces were gaining strength and there were more Republicans. We were told not to worry because Republicans still held onto the House of Delegates and the Senate, if only by a coin flip.

Like McLean had with the war, many tried to wait out the rest of the Trump administration in the political hinterlands foreseeing what would come next. The 2019 elections were the Republican Party’s Antietam; the losses were too big to bear; it was the turning point wherein the other side took control of the war.

Again the battle cries of a Presidential election year are sounding across the land, but what lays ahead is potentially the political equivalent of Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. For the moderate Republican, there is no shock this time, no hoping that we will all wake up from this nightmare in which our Party is no longer recognizable. Like the Confederacy, ideological inertia has collided with fanaticism and megalomania, a cocktail more deadly than hemlock mixed with arsenic.

There is a chance that November 3, 2020, will not be our Appomattox. Perhaps, like 2nd Manassas, the Republican Party will be outnumbered in the popular vote and yet still hold the White House, just as Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet held the field in the face of a much stronger Union Army at 2nd Manassas.

Eventually, however, as the boys in gray lost more and more men, the Confederates could no longer outmaneuver the Union. They ultimately succumbed in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, the man who early on saw the inevitable coming and, after the cannons had quieted and the war was lost, moved back to Northern Virginia, but it was never the same.

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