Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Excerpt from Grant's Indian

Chapter I
“An Indian at Appomattox”
Appomattox 1865

It comes back to me now with the ponderous clarity of a dream, the figures larger than life, big and grainy as they loom and fade, now close, now far, their actions determined and purposeful as gods, as if they had conned by rote the parts they would play in American history’s most perfect moment. They ride slowly out of the noontime haze of a Virginia Palm Sunday in solemn procession, five uniformed men, two blue, three gray.

First comes Tucker the sergeant, his cap in tatters, the crown flapping like a chimney-lid, his gray coat buttonless, a white handkerchief nodding before him on an apple branch, his hands easy on the reins of Champ, his dead commander A.P. Hill’s dappled gray -- stragglers killed Hill a week ago today. “Tell Hill to come up now!” shouted Stonewall Jackson as he died two years ago, and Lee would cry the same before his order to “Strike the tent” on his own deathbed five years hence. Then comes Lee’s aide Marshall in borrowed gloves and clean paper collar, a brave stab at gentility in extremis. Then our own Babcock in full federal fig, from his fresh-trimmed beard down to his bright and jingling spurs, his dress kit somehow salvaged while the rest of us had abandoned ours in the pell-mell week-long mad pursuit from Richmond. Beside Babcock rides Lee, in a fresh uniform unpacked from thin paper this very morning, complete with red sash, snowy linen, and a magnificent dress sword with a lion’s-head hilt, wrapped in gold wire and sheathed in a gold-filigreed English-leather scabbard -- the gray fox brought to bay and sitting Traveller as grave and massive as a cathedral. At a discreet distance in the rear rides Lieutenant William Dunn, Babcock’s orderly, soft and unobtrusive, head down, wrists crossed over the pommel, so silent and workmanlike that history will soon forget he was there.

The group pauses at the bridge, and after a brief conference Tucker and Marshall spur forward into the little town. Lee urges Traveller down to the stream to drink. Babcock and Dunn sit fidgeting and silent, until Tucker returns and leads them clopping over the bridge and up to the porch of the two-story brick farmhouse Marshall has found for the meeting with General Grant.

History droops an eyelid. The house’s owner is Wilmer McLean, who moved here after shells crashed through the windows of his previous house at Bull Run during the war’s first battle four years ago. He moved west and managed to ride out the rest of the war unmolested, hunkering down in the remote Virginny hills while the thing runs its course. But history must have its symmetry. The war, begun in Wilmer McLean’s old back yard, has sniffed him out to finish in his new parlor.

Lee enters, removes his gloves, sits at a small table and waits. Colonel Marshall shifts from foot to foot. Babcock tries to make conversation, moving furniture around so the room is how he thinks Grant will want it. Tucker and Dunn wait outside with the horses, showing the white handkerchief. The clock ticks a slow half hour, the loudest sound in the room, as history awaits General Grant.

Oh, did I want to eat Lee’s brain that day, as we used to say, to get into his head and look around. One thing I wanted to know was where his surrender uniform came from, that beautiful dress gray with all the brass and the dress sword with all that gold. We, after all, had been pelting after him so fast we just had the clothes on our backs, and he’d been in even direr straits. I’ve thought about it often, sitting here thirty years later at my desk and shuffling my papers, and I’ve begun to think maybe he had it with him the whole war, packed away in his traveling trunk, waiting for just such an inevitability as this.