Once Upon A Time – part 3

Someone emailed me to ask if the General in ‘Part 2’ was the same person as the boy in ‘Part 1’. The answer is ‘yes’. And here is Part 3…….

 

The small house was damp and crowded. The various bodies assembled therein gave off the usual mixture of affects: the itchy fug of men who have been in the saddle far too long; a smell of sweat, stale cigar smoke and cheap cologne; the gentle murmur of serge cloth, leather and metal that accompanies every movement. There was a faint and unaccountable whiff of mustard that men came across from time to time, some even pausing to sniff the air surreptitiously.

It was early afternoon, but the room was dimly lit by the intermittent sun, and the crowd of men inside the parlour could barely move without blocking the light. Two were seated at the simple round occasional table in the centre of the room, while the remainder stood back against one wall. The majority were dressed in dark blue, and only two in light grey.

The two men who sat at the table had known each in another war, which now seemed a world away from where they now sat. The man in grey was fifteen years older than The General, who wondered if the distinguished lieutenant colonel of engineers of those days would remember the young captain he had been. Now the older man’s hair was as grey as his uniform, and he had the look of someone made older than his time by life. A man of reserved gesture and speech, his movements nonetheless also betraying the stiff arthritic nature brought about by too many days spent in the field in inclement weather. The General’s beard was close-cropped, and still for the most part retained its natural colour, but his brow was furrowed. He had woken early with a pounding headache that had not shifted despite mustard presses and a long gallop, had not relented until the message arrived that the final business was about to be done. These men were here to end the war, and both knew it would be done that day.

They had shaken hands, and attempted some very brief small talk. Did the older man remember him from their days in Mexico, as he certainly did the other? The reply was courteous, but brief. He had no such recollection, although he did remember the fact of their meeting. If The General took offence, he did not show it. He continued with some memories of the campaign on which they had fought together, as if only too aware of the bristling energy behind him that came from his commanders and aides, at long last confronting their mortal enemy. The older man interrupted, his expression blank except for the obvious pain at the humiliating nature of the situation betrayed in his eyes, determined not to prolongue his own or his peoples’ agony for one moment further.

“I suppose, sir, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood?”

Here was the crux. He knew that The General held all the cards. His army, diminished by disease, starvation, desertion and fighting, had been harried for weeks by the blue hordes. It was barely an army in anything but name, held together by the personal loyalty shown to him and his commanders.He knew they would fight if he asked them to, but he knew also that the remorseless power of the enemy could no longer be effectively resisted. Some of his younger lieutenants had wanted to take to the woods in in small bands to continue the war, but he knew where that would lead – the land would be devastated by the enemy’s marauding cavalry who would hunt down and kill without any particular discrimination, a license for further suffering that his people simply could not stand.

Was it to be an unconditional surrender, his army taken into captivity and possibly never to return home? The hatred on the other side had grown as the war had progressed, had multiplied with every bloody nose and frustrated plan that the stubbornly resistant rebel nation had delivered. The cost had grown too high, it seemed, for gentlemanly agreement, and blood would have to be paid for in blood.

He looked across the table at The General. Sooner or later, he had said two years ago, having just dispatched yet another adversary to shameful retirement, they will find someone who can fight. And here he was, this stubborn bulldog of a man who looked as if he was just about to ram his head through a wall, but with the glint of intelligence in his eyes that made him truly dangerous. The bulldog had gotten his teeth in and had simply refused to let go, confident in his ability to wear the other down and in doing so diminish his opponent’s main advantage, that of  tactical surprise and manoeuverability.

But there was a softness in those eyes as well, and the old man could see it. The others were impossible: gawky mad Sherman – not there that day, but his malign spirit now cast a shadow right across the South – and that obnoxious little spitball Sheridan; pushy Rawlins, the man from nowhere. Hateful, vindictive men who would sooner see him hang as utter a civil word, now standing behind their champion and glaring at him.

The General silently acknowledged the shift in the conversation with a brief nod of the head.

“The terms I propose are those stated substantially in my letter of yesterday…”

The rest of the words were lost. He allowed himself a sigh of relief. There was to be no further humiliation, but an honourable surrender of arms and a parole for every man. He began to think of home, and family, and the quiet repose that a proper bed might bring at last. His army was no more. Pete Longstreet had been right after all. He had claimed to know The General well enough from their service together before the war – they were of an age. “Sam is an honourable man, in his own lights. He knows how this should end,” he had said. He glanced out of the window and saw McLean, the owner of the house, pacing up and down beside the picket fence. Poor man, he had fled with his family from the Manassas battlefield three years before, leaving his farm and livelihood behind, in search of somewhere away from the war. Well, the war has touched us all now, he thought, and will for some time to come.

Had The General the presence of mind to look with his softer eye,  it would have been plain that the only fight left in his adversary was centred on the further avoidance of the agony of shameful surrender. But he too was fixated on his inner state, on his desire to honour the other man’s seniority, his courage and the peculiar integrity that led him to fight simultaneously for two causes, one of which he believed in passionately and they other he did not. This man had fought to the bitter end for an honourable principle that defended the indefensible. He had fought for his homeland because it was his homeland, right or wrong – but what could be more wrong than the practice of shackling men and taking their lives and labour as a chattel. Nevertheless, he would honour that which was honourable, and every thought was directed towards the maintenance of the other’s dignity, and the observance of proper protocol. He was not much of a man for protocol, and conscious that the angels of history were hovering in the room, he wanted to get it right.

“A general suspension of hostilities”, he began, “would be most beneficial in avoiding the further effusion of blood.” There were other armies, hard pressed and desperate no doubt, but still a potential threat. Here was a chance to end it all, here and now, and the enemy would listen to their senior commander.

Invited by he older man to specify his terms, The General did just that. Adopting the posture he used at his camp desk, and taking up pen and paper, within minutes a sheet of tersely worded sentences took shape, clear and unequivocal like the orders his staff were by now used to receive from him. In a final gesture, he stipulated that the officers could keep their sidearms, and the cavalry their horses. For some it would be a long ride home, and The General knew that a horse made all the difference to the viability of a hard scrabble homestead. ‘I served my hard time scraping a living from the land’ he thought. ‘God save them.’

The rest was ritual. The pointless inspection of the surrender document itself, the preparation of copies, the signatures – it took forever while the two men sat stiffly while the clerks and aides conferred in hushed tones, and Sheridan and Rawlins gleamed triumphantly. Finally, when all was done, they shook hands once again, and went their separate ways. The General returned to his field command post  to compose a telegram to his President. “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”

The old greybeard’s ride was slow and painful, surrounded at every step by anxious soldiers who asked the same question over and over ‘General, are we surrendered?’, in reply to which he could only fight back his tears and nod. If it seemed like the end of a world, it most surely was.

Back at the McLean house, chaos reigned. Souvenir hunters descended on the parlour like furious vultures, stripping everything. The furniture not purloined by senior officers was chopped to pieces and sold in lots. Ten dollars for two brass candlesticks, fifty cents for a strip of carpet. McLean refused the money, and was left surveying the wreckage of a second home. It was an awful portent of the years to come.

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