The American Civil War ended (effectively) 150 years ago this week. I had a Pesach-related anecdote last week, herewith is a series of anecdotes relating to the surrender at Appomattox Court House specifically (as, I see, I promised years ago). The first tale is a bit bizarre:
Wilmer McLean was a businessman who lived on a farm in Manassas, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C. The First Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war, took place on his land on July 21, 1861. (Southerners call it First Manassas, as they name battles after towns, as opposed to Northerners, who named them after physical features, in this case Bull Run Stream- perhaps because the Confederates actually lived there. This is reflected to this day on United States military battle streamer flags- units that fought for the South, and there are still some in the U.S. Army, use the Southern names and put grey over blue.) His home was requisitioned for use as headquarters for Confederate General Beauregard's staff, which naturally made it a target for Union artillery. A cannonball dropped down his kitchen fireplace chimney and exploded in a pot of soup. No one was hurt (in the house, that is- among all these light touches, let's not forget that over 800 were killed and 2,700 wounded in the one day battle alone), but McLean decided that the neighborhood was too dangerous and that (for that reason and more prosaic ones) he had to get his family out of there.
He took enough time doing it that he was still in the area when the Second Battle of Bull Run/ Second Manassas took place just over a year later. (Over 18,000 killed and wounded in a three-day battle. My God, that war was horrible, not that any war isn't.) McLean then packed up and moved much further south, deep in Virginia, to a sleepy little out of the way town called Appomattox Court House.
You can guess where this is going. The Battle of Appomattox Court House took place on April 9, 1865, as Robert E. Lee's fleeing Army of Northern Virginia was finally pinned down there by Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac. (It wasn't such a major battle as battles go, but well over 600 were still killed or wounded.) Lee decided to surrender, and a suitable location had to be found. McLean had a nice large house with a nice large parlor, and the knock came at his door. He wasn't happy about it, but the surrender took place there, and Union officers took anything that wasn't nailed down for souvenirs, tossing cash at the protesting McLean to attempt to make up for it. Some minor skirmishes and lots of other surrenders followed, but Lee's essentially marked the end of the war. McLean later said, "The war started in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."
McLean couldn't maintain mortgage payments on the house (which is now a museum, the furniture recovered or replicated) and moved back to Manassas after the war. He later moved to Alexandria, worked for what is now the IRS, and died and was buried there in 1882.
Of course, what happened in (and, as we'll see, what didn't happen in, and what was said in) the parlor is far more important.
Lee arrived at the McLean house with his aide. He was dressed in his best uniform, neat and clean and honorable. Grant's only thought (as he told an admirer years later) was that, his luggage having been misplaced, he was wearing a muddy private's uniform on which he had stuck his two shoulder straps with his three-star rank insignia (the highest at the time), and was worried Lee would think he was insulting him. He therefore apologized, and the two chatted for a bit. They had served in the Mexican War together, although Grant was considerably younger and assumed, correctly, that Lee wouldn't remember him. It took them a bit of time to get down to business. Grant was not happy: "I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse," he later wrote.
Lee wasn't just wearing his best uniform- he was wearing a sword. Traditionally, surrendering generals hand over their swords. And he wasn't wearing any old sword that he could afford to lose- he was wearing a beautiful one, with a lion-headed pommel, gold-plated hilt, and ivory grip, that a Maryland admirer had commissioned for him in Paris. And Lee could have offered the sword, and Grant could have taken it, and no one would have said anything, and Grant could have given it to a museum or his children, and would have been remembered as having behaved in a completely proper fashion.
Or Grant could have returned the sword to Lee, as was sometimes done by magnanimous victors. And again, there wouldn't really have been anything wrong with that, although it certainly drives the symbolism of defeat home a little more, and would have been somewhat humiliating to Lee, the gentleman.
But Grant did none of those things. As soon as he saw the sword, he had one thought in mind: How to keep Lee from even offering it in the first place.
Grant had his adjutant, Colonel Ely S. Parker (much more on him later) write up the surrender terms. They were very generous, especially considering that they were coming from "Unconditional Surrender Grant": The Confederate soldiers were all free to go home provided they pledged never again to rebel against the United States. When Lee mentioned that many of his men were farmers and that planting season was upon them, Grant said that any Confederate soldier who claimed a horse or mule could take it to plow his farm. He also ordered that the Union Army provide food for the starving Southerners. Lee reviewed the terms, and said they would go a long way to reconciling the two halves of the country- which was, of course, the point. And then Grant took a pencil and added one line: The surrender, he wrote, "will not embrace the side-arms of the officers". No one said a word, but everyone knew what that meant. Lee never offered his sword, and rode off with it still strapped to his side.
After the surrender was signed, Grant introduced his officers to Lee. The most important words said that day were said at that point.
I got a lot of this information from a series of articles Grant's grandson wrote for National Geographic fifty years ago. The magazine featured a painting that had been made just for the article, which now hangs in their Society's headquarters in Washington. Here it is; the artist has done a masterful job conveying the emotions of the moment. The Union (brevet) general on the far right is the famous George Armstrong Custer; Parker is next to him.
Among the people Grant introduced to Lee was Colonel Parker, essentially his top assistant. Parker had dark skin, and Lee at first thought he was black- that Grant was trying to make a symbolic point about the fight against slavery by having him there. But then he realized that Parker was, in fact, an American Indian.
Parker (who, in fact, was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General that very day, one of only two Indian generals in the war- the other was Stand Watie, a Confederate) was a Seneca from Upstate New York. He was named Hasanoanda at birth; Ely Samuel Parker was his Christian name. He became a lawyer and then a civil engineer, and represented the tribe in their dealings with the government. He eventually became the Chief of the Seneca (and the Six Iroquois Nations as a whole), with the name Donehogawa, "Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois." He moved out West to supervise engineering projects, where he met and befriended Grant, who commissioned him a captain. He served as an engineer in the siege of Vicksburg before Grant made him his adjutant. At the McLean house, he wrote the surrender documents. (I got some of the ideas below from A History of US, a history series for kids.) Later he recounted his encounter with Lee:
"General Lee stared at me for a moment. He extended his hand and said, 'I am glad to see one real American here.' I shook his hand and said, 'We are all Americans.'"
Let that sink in for a second. Lee said what today would be considered the perfect politically correct statement- only American Indians are "Native Americans," the only "real Americans." Maybe Lee thought that he didn't have a racist bone in his body, all that fighting for slavery notwithstanding. (And maybe, indeed, he didn't. We just don't fully "get it" sometimes.) It took the real colorblindness of Parker to set him straight- all Americans are "real Americans," no one- not even a minority- is more privileged than another. You start holding one group up, and soon you start holding others down. 150 years later, I fear that the "enlightened" and damaging view of Lee (great as he was) is prevailing over what held the country together.
Did it help Lee, at least? Maybe. Read on. Lee put on his hat and gloves, bowed, and he and his aide went outside and mounted their horses. Grant and his officers came out onto the porch and saluted them; when he heard the Union soldiers start to cheer, Grant ordered it stopped immediately. "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall," he later said. At the actual surrender of the troops, the Union side provided full military honors. Lee gave a farewell address to his men, who didn't want to give up. They loved Lee, and told him that he should encourage the Army to head to the hills and carry on guerrilla warfare. Lee refused: He told them the war was over, that the two parts of the country should reconcile, and that he was happy slavery had been abolished- it would even be better for the South. What should his men do? "Go home," he told them, "and be Americans." It seems Parker's words had sunk in.
Parker remained in the Army for a few more years, assisting Grant and negotiating with Indian tribes. After Parker left the service, Grant (by then president) appointed him Commissioner of Indian Affairs- the first Indian to hold the position. He worked to end the military actions against Indians in the West. He then left government service, moved to New York City, made and lost money in the stock market, and ended his career as an official with the NYPD. He became close with the reformer Jacob Riss, who wrote a cute short story (trigger warning: very un-PC language), featuring Parker at this stage of his life. He died and was buried in Connecticut; as this was considered Algonquin territory, his widow, at the request of his tribe, had him reinterred in Buffalo. Look him up on Wikipedia and follow the cemetery links for a fascinating tour through history. Speaking of history, Parker had one daughter who died in 1956. Sometimes history isn't so far removed from us after all.
Grant went to meet the Confederate Army and then sat with Lee on the McLean porch receiving visitors. Lee then went home, and Grant got on a train to Washington to submit his final report. The coda for the whole war took place on that train.
I previously mentioned that Grant's grandson, Ulysses S. Grant III (himself an Army general) wrote a series of articles for National Geographic for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. I drew on the final article for this post, and conclude them with the same anecdote he did. He had been told the story by his father, Major General Frederick Dent Grant (you notice how generalships traveled in the family), who in turn had been told it by his father, Ulysses S. Grant himself. Grant was on the train back to Washington from Appomattox:
"In the railroad car, two or three seats ahead of General Grant and across the aisle, sat one of Lee's soldiers, evidently on the way home. A man- apparently a planter who had not been in the war, dressed in corduroy breeches, boots, and wearing a broad hat- sat down by the Confederate soldier and started a conversation.
"'Well,' he said. 'So you have all surrendered. Couldn't you have taken to the hills and carried on for a year or more?'
"To which the soldier indignantly replied: 'Look here, my man. I have been in this war for nearly four long years. I have been in eight pitched battles, innumerable skirmishes, and have been wounded three times- and I am plumb satisfied.'"