Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington DC.

I chose this picture because it contains  the house around which the cemetery grew up. Arlington.
The home of Robert E. Lee.

When the Civil War started, Lee threw his lot with his home state Virginia. As the war dead began to need burial, the Union pointedly decided to inter them in Lee's front yard so that he would never be able to live there again.

It was a bitter war, as all civil wars must be.

Which makes the event that ended it all the more remarkable. In April 1865, when Lee saw that Grant's forces were simply too massive to overcome, he arranged to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. At Grant's request, he chose the place: the home of Wilmer McLean. Ironically, McLean had moved to Appomattox for safety after the first battle of Manassas took place in his front yard.

The conduct of these two men was both extraordinary and --this is my point in this post today-- rooted in the noblest traditions of soldiering. Despite the years of carnage between them, Grant treated Lee with deference and respect (they were both West Point graduates) and his terms were astonishingly generous: that the Confederates agree to lay down their arms and return home. That's all. When Lee was leaving Appomattox, Grant tipped his hat to him.

Having lost his war, Lee was adamant against any guerrilla resistance and sought to lead others to return to life in the Union. Some time later, at St Pauls Episcopal Church in Arlington, a black man shocked the Sunday congregation into immobility by approaching the communion rail. It was Lee who first came forward to receive the sacrament.

Both of these men, Grant and Lee, very different in temperament and background, understood duty and they understood honor. War, which brings out the worst in men, can also bring out their best.

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