Robert extended his hand gravely to the man before him, focusing on the forms of civility the situation dictated.
“General Lee,” the shorter man responded, indicating a chair with his left hand. “It has been many years since last we met.”
Robert nodded, casting his mind back. Many times during the last year he had attempted to recall what Ulysses Grant looked like, but it had been two decades since they served under the same flag. Grant had been only a lieutenant in the Mexican War, and hardly one of his close associates. Any memories of the man were overshadowed by the blood and frustrations of the current war.
Robert squared his shoulders and took the proffered seat, hand resting on the ornamental sword he wore. Bile clawed at the back of his throat yet again. Surrender was even more galling now that he had seen his adversary in person. He was a little man, dressed in the rough garb of a private. Only the shoulder straps denoted his rank as lieutenant general. Neatness and decorum had never been hallmarks of the younger man’s career, he recalled.
The silence lingered, broken only by the shifting of Grant’s staff members as they arranged themselves on the far side of the room.
Lord, grant me patience.
“I remember you from our days under General Scott,” Robert offered as it became apparent Grant would not take the initiative to begin. “Your horsemanship was legend.”
“You remember me? I am flattered, General,” Grant said, nearly stuttering in his surprise. “Given our age and rank difference, I hardly expected it.”
Robert stroked his beard, weighing the best way to respond. “I confess I could not recall your face, but I well knew your name and reputation.”
The comment set Grant to reminiscing about the old war. Robert kept up with the conversation about tactics and battles, but his eyes were drawn to the window, where the sole other representative of the Confederacy stood, staunchly clasping the white flag. Brave lad.
He could see again the grim, set expressions on his staff’s faces as he called the retreat and sent for ink and paper. They had believed to the end that he would pull them out somehow. The army had watched him ride out with the white flag with nary a grumble, but he knew they would have charged forward with the same fervor.
Perhaps he had underestimated his men… Robert swiftly stopped the self-recriminations. His men were living on parched corn. The Confederacy as a whole was bankrupt, starving and completely incapable of carrying out the war. His regrets over how many lives had been lost before arriving at this moment were of far greater import than his wounded pride.
He was as polite as his strained nerves would allow him to be, but after a time he broke in on Grant’s reminiscing.
“General, I believe we have terms to discuss.”
The man started as if he had forgotten why they met.
“Were the terms of my letter acceptable?” he asked.
Robert nodded, and Grant sent for paper for them to be written. The Union general seemed intent on making this process as little demeaning as could reasonably be expected. On the whole, his attitude was rather one of sorrow than one of victory.
Robert could respect his reticence. His estimation of the man before him was rising from “butcher” to something akin to “comrade.” Grant had drawn much fire with his bloody tactics, but he had prevailed. General Longstreet’s face came to his mind, arguing that the battle plans Lee had drawn up would cause carnage in the ranks. Robert had answered him with what now seemed like farcical calm. “To be a good soldier, you must love your army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.”
And sometimes its surrender. He mentally amended.
Grant paused in his writing and glanced toward him, eyes at the sword by his side. Robert tensed, waiting for that final bit of humiliation that would make the surrender complete. Grant’s eyes met his, and the Union man gave a half-smile. Robert shifted to remove it, but Grant gave a nearly imperceptible headshake and returned to his writing.
Emotion strained in his chest, but Robert managed to control it. Perhaps it meant little to Grant, but for him, the gesture was inestimable. The country might mend after all.
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