Dec. 6, 2011
I was headed to the hospital where my granddaughters were born. It excited me to think that they were born on my late fathers 101st birthday. My Pop was the Yankee-est of Yankees, born in Brooklyn. He never tired of telling me tales of the Civil War. He was a serious student of Lincolns diplomacy.
I was born in Brooklyn, too, and less than ten miles from the Old Navy Yard where the great Union warship, USS Monitor, had been built. It was the Monitor that defeated the Confederate ram Merrimack in a monumental clash off Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 9, 1862. As Pop taught me, the day before that fateful encounter, the ironclad Merrimack had devastated Union warships blockading the South. The rebels had re-named their seized Union warship the CSS Virginia.
This monster sank the Congress, and the Cumberland the previous day and was bearing down on the vulnerable wooden Minnesota. The day prior to the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack was the worst single day for the U.S. Navy in its history, prior to Pearl Harbor. If the South succeeded in breaking the Union blockade, then recognition of the independence of the Confederate States of America might rapidly follow and a breakup of the Union would be inevitable. Thats how important it was when that little cheese box on a raft steamed forth to meet the Merrimack.
Most writers record the results of that one-day battle as a draw, noting that the Monitor and the Merrimack both withdrew after hours of face-to-face combat. In reality, however, it was a Union triumph. The Souths super weapon had been checked. The blockade would continue, Europe would not intervene, and the Union would survive.
Strong as I was for the Union, I remembered Lincolns words. He would not play the Pharisee. We should, he said, struggle to be on Gods side.
I thought of all this a lot as I headed South to visit with my beloved family. I could hardly pass a town in Virginia on I-95Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Petersburg, Richmondwithout having a flood of rich associations from my countrys and my familys history. A great-uncle was taken prisoner by Union forces at Spotsylvania in 1864.
Then, it struck me: My grandchildren, a grandson who turns three this week, and my twin granddaughters born last week, have all been born in Dixie, in the Old Dominion. And I was visiting them early on a frosty mornin. That line from the old tune, Dixie, warmed my heart.
We are told that you cant play Dixie. Why not? When news came to Washington that Gen. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln spoke to a jubilant crowd from the White House. He leaned out from a balcony window and asked the military banda United States Army bandto play Dixie. He noted that he had always liked that tune. And now that the war was over, or nearly so, the Attorney General had advised the President that Dixie was once again the property of the American people. And those rebel flags surrendered to Gen. Grant were also federal property.
Lincolns son Tad delighted the crowd by excitedly waving a captured rebel flag as his father was speaking.
During my long drives South, I listened to The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. This literary masterpiece was written as the former president lay dying of throat cancer in 1885. The intelligence, candor and goodwill of this great man shines through every line.
Grant was an uncompromising Union man. He offered this message to a West Point classmate, a close friend who had attended Grants wedding, but who in 1862 commanded the Confederate Fort Donelson: No terms except unconditional surrender.
Instantly, Grant became a Union hero. U.S. GrantUnconditional Surrender Grant.
Yet, it was this Gen. Grant who met Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and sought to protect the Southern chieftains dignity. No word of reproach, no hint of humiliation of his defeated rival was allowed. When Union batteries began a 101-gun salute to celebrate the rebels surrender, Grant ordered it stopped. Cease fire. It was also Grant who, upon learning the rebels were starving, quickly ordered 25,000 rations sent to his former foes.
Too many today fail to recognize Grants gallantry, his almost unbelievable sense of chivalry. No other nation on earth would so treat a defeated rebel chieftain. He was following Abraham Lincolns guidance to let `em up easy.
Grants sense of duty and honor did not end at Appomattox. When President Andrew Johnson, the martyred Lincolns unworthy successor, tried to prosecute Lee for treason, Grant hurried to the White House. He would resign, he told the avenger Johnson, and so would Sherman, if this dishonorable business went any further, Grant said. The willful Johnson backed down.
Of course, we still have vengeful people today. Some journalists persist in calling Lee a traitor, and saying he is unworthy of any honors. Lee never asked for honors. But he surely gave them. One of his professors at Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) denounced Grants nomination for president. The Confederate veteran harangued Lee, the schools president, about Grants drunkenness, Lee fixed him with a cold stare: If you ever say anything like that about Gen. Grant again, one or the other of us will end his association with this college.
The Civil War was a wrenching experience for our country. We can all give thanks that our nation produced such men as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman to guide us through that fiery trial. And I am grateful to God for my much-loved Southern friends and family.