April 8, 2015
In honor of tomorrow’s 150th anniversary of General Lee’s surrender to Lt General Grant, I’d go to the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse in Appomattox VA. The room is depicted in countless paintings – the patterned red and green carpet of diamonds or squares, depending on your point of view, the heavy red floor-to-ceiling drapes, three paintings hanging from a picture rail that runs around the room (higher than we hang paintings now) and one over the mantle suspended from a nail or hook, tied with an ornamental sash.
In the foreground two men sit at a spindle leg writing desk. One wall of the room is lined with blue-jacketed Union officers. Closer to the desk stands Lt Colonel Charles Marshall, the only man Lee brought with him, great grand nephew of John M. Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court (fitting somehow) and Lt Colonel Ely Parker, Grant’s aide-de-camp and long-time friend, a Seneca Indian who wrote the final draft of the surrender agreement.
I’d like to see Lee and Grant but if I could go to that room, I’d study the other men. How do their faces interpret the events unfolding? Do they stand in rapt attention, craning in to hear every word? Do they whisper among themselves at the significance of what they are witnessing? Do they picture their homes and families and calculate how long it will take them to get there?
Mostly, I’d like to be there when the man tasked with writing the final surrender terms turns the task over to Ely Parker because he is too nervous and has already crossed through too many words. I’d watch Ely Parker write the surrender terms – cool and steady under pressure – as others in the room looked on. I’d lean in close when Lee is introduced to Parker and says, “I’m pleased to finally meet a real American,” and even closer, when Parker responds, “Today General, we are all Americans.”