Monday, April 09, 2012

'In the squalor of life and war, what a magnificent act!'


I am thinking today of another April, of Appomattox, 1865.

You know the story. Gen. Robert Edward Lee, refusing to lead his Army of Northern Virginia into either slaughter or guerrilla war, called for a meeting to surrender to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Somebody found a building owned by Wilmer McLean (who has quite a story himself) at Appomattox Court House, Va.

Lee dressed in a crisp new uniform; Grant, taken aback by the request for the meeting and dressed only for battle, sported a private's coat splattered with mud.

They talked awhile. Grant reminded Lee they'd met during the Mexican War. Grant later wrote he enjoyed the conversation so much he almost forgot the reason for the meeting.

(Grant's memoirs, by the by, are the best of the genre.)

Richard Nixon used to tell a story about Winston Churchill's fascination with this April moment at Appomattox.

In his book "Leaders," Nixon said that during a stag dinner in Washington, Churchill declared Lee was "one of the greatest men in American history and one of the greatest generals of all time."

Nixon writes:

"He (Churchill) said that one of the war's greatest moments came at the end, at Appomattox. Lee pointed out to (Grant) that his officers owned their horses as personal property and asked that they be allowed to keep them.

"Grant said, 'Have all of them take their horses, the enlisted men and the officers as well; they will need them to plow their fields.'

"Churchill's eyes glistened as he looked around the spellbound group and said, 'In the squalor of life and war, what a magnificent act!'"

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