A specific use of the word “beautiful”

I am about fifty pages into trying to put this real-life horror movie into book form, this story of cooties in the kindergarten playground, dictated to me, with an air of inevitability I can now almost taste, by a group of old friends, every detail exactly perfect as it happened. If by perfect we mean “beautiful” in the sense certain Ukrainian Jews used to use the word beautiful.

One example of this special use of “beautiful” was the explanation given to a Ukrainian Jew, in 1942, about why a Ukrainian policeman had to shoot a young Jew who had stolen bread. The Jew, who saw the policeman leading the boy away at gunpoint, had sought to save the kid’s life. He tried to convince the policeman, a man he knew, to punish him in a less extreme way, perhaps a beating and a fine. The Jew described how the policeman explained himself, “in a beautiful way.”

Let’s say I fine him,” said the policeman, “and he can’t pay the fine. And we both know he can’t pay the fine, that’s why he stole bread. So if I let him go with a fine that he can’t pay, am I really doing him any kind of favor? Things will go very badly for him in a very short time, with the SS, and I’ll also be in trouble. So by shooting him, I’m actually performing a kind of mercy, it’s better all around, for everybody.”

When I describe the story that a group of my lifelong friends have dictated to me as beautiful, this is the sense in which I mean beautiful.

Message from the Holy Land

Dearest Elliot [sic],

I got your letter yesterday and after trying to read the whole thing a few times, I stopped and just slept on it.

I tried to think about why you were writing it and why to me.

I can’t say I was able to make sense of it, but my heart clearly understood. 

I felt how much pain you are in and how deep your suffering goes. It obviously didn’t begin with the event that triggered your divorce from your bosom buddy and the community that came with him. It began way back within your own family and all the unfinished business you carry like an albatross throughout all your relationships and life.

The letter was more like a purge than an invitation to a conversation. 

I also don’t believe there’s anything I can say to you that will assuage your suffering. If you’re willing to unpack it all, you have to see a professional.  I can tell you that Ilan found his peace many many years ago through meditation. I can attest to the change the man internalized over the years and the impact it has had on our life together. 

If you’re comfortable with just being ‘right’ you’ll spend your life brewing and it will take it to the grave. If you want to find your peace, you know what you have to do. If you want to face your demons you have to find a neutral setting and do all the hard painful work that it takes. You can’t change all the people in your world, but you can change yourself and heal.

Think about it Elliot [sic]. Do you want to throw away the remainder of your years by being angry, by being ‘right’ or do you want to find your peace.

Only you have the answer. 

With much love,


I replied with more explanation of why I’d been so hurt and so forth. That night I had a call from the Flying Monkey, Redacted’s best friend and confidant. After that loving chat, I had no choice but to amend my reply:

Oh, one last thing.  You asked why I sent you the pages you could make no sense of.   A reason I forgot to mention in my previous email is that I consider you perhaps the sharpest and most perceptive person in the circle.  I was hoping for understanding, which, clearly, you could not provide.

In replying to you a few days ago I made the same stupid mistake I’ve been making all along, since that hideous year bookended by two angry Yom Kippurs.  I tried to use reason to persuade someone who had clearly made up her mind, based on the other party to my ugly “divorce” from X/Y having already persuaded everyone we know in common that they behaved perfectly and Eliot is, alone in the history of divorce and every other conflict, entirely to blame for everything that happened.  When he’s frustrated he says the fucking f-word!  And worse!

It was very clear from your moralistic response that you follow that interpretation, only one party has behaved aggressively and immaturely (from my point of view, I am not that party, of course – and I have the receipts, if anyone who has judged me unworthy of friendship were interested in being fair, or empathetic). 

Consider for a second: if I was the enraged person you portrayed in your pitying judgment, would I have reacted as mildly as I did to what can fairly be seen as the judgment of someone who feels infinitely superior to me?  Based on a false account imparted during a successful attempt to assassinate my good name among people I have long loved, listened to, made laugh?   No feelings I might have about being unfairly judged and banished by an entire group of old friends, most of whom I never had a hint of a quarrel with, are appropriate — except as manifestations of a need for intensive psychiatric work?  

When someone you care about is upset, you ask them what happened, you listen to them.  You offer to help, if you can. 

When someone is upset and you tell them they have no right to be upset, that they are wrong, and immature, and irrationally clinging to childhood pain, and unable to get past their previous abuse, are aggressively angry, unforgiving, hellbent on being right at all costs and trying to change everyone in the world but themselves, and are unwilling to do the hard work everyone else in pain has presumably done to become more fully human — well, you really shouldn’t sign that kind of message “much love,” darling.

I’ll leave our dear friend the final word on this ugliness (well, me, actually, but you know how I am).

The only way to flush these hard feelings, dear Seedj, is by having the last word in a quiet battle with self-righteous, toxically clannish pinheads.

Attachment v. Authenticity

Gabor Maté, in The Myth of Normal, points out that we have a primary need for attachment, that it is impossible to survive as infants or live healthily without close attachment to others.

Our other primary need is authenticity, being true to ourselves, being in touch with what we mostly deeply need. When these things are in conflict… watch out.

As Maté writes “for many people these attachment circuits powerfully override the ones that grant us rationality, objective decision making or conscious will, a fact that explains much of our behavior across multiple realms.”

Dig it.

Belated Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother, Evelyn, who died thirteen years ago today, would have turned 95 years old yesterday. I had intended to write something touching about her, and started on this yesterday, but … shoot, sorry, mom.

I found myself sitting at the piano yesterday working out a song she used to sing, a popular ditty from the 1940s called Mairzy Doats. My father would be driving the car, we’d be on a longish trip somewhere, and suddenly my mother would burst into song, with only slight self-consciousness, imposed by her husband. He was also a good singer who’d soulfully croon a handful of notes, the hook of a beautiful ballad, and cut himself off after five or six syllables. My father was well-known for singing just enough to let you know that he could actually sing, but not a note more, and he was equally famous for inhibiting my mother’s singing.

Evelyn loved to sing and my father’s side-eye as he drove was not always enough to make her stop, though it did make her a little self conscious. Nonetheless, as we drove across some bridge she’d suddenly sing “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lamzy divey, a kiddleedivey too, wouldn’t you?”

Now all these years later, being a proficient guitar player finally, and surprised to find a certain facility on the keyboard lately, which helps me work out songs I’m trying to learn, I find Mairsy Doats is a pretty hip little tune to play, in a nostalgic, artfully written pop tune kind of way. The singer explains in the B part, “and though the words may sound queer to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey, say ‘mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” And this B part, if I may say, I could play the hell out of this B part on the guitar, and it works out just fine on the keyboard, thank you.

And as I played and sang the song on the piano yesterday, with the sheet music from an actual paper song book, Songs of World War Two, which also, of course, had the lyrics, I called out “Happy Birthday, Mom!”

I thought to myself what a goddamn shame I couldn’t have played this simple, jumping accompaniment thirty or forty years ago and let my mom just sing it. Same with “Do Nothing till you Hear From Me” another genius tune from the genius Duke Ellington, my father would sing just that riff, with the opening line, the riff that Ellington placed over three different sets of chord changes to such brilliant effect. I could have backed both of them on a tenor ukulele, if things had been different.

But again, as in my mother’s actual life, my love and birthday greetings for her get mixed up in a lot of bullshit that has little or nothing to do with her.

It was my mother’s love, and, as I realize now, that she never gave me reason to doubt her love, that literally saved my life in the brutal war zone my sister and I were forced to grow up in. As I emailed the day before yesterday to a genius from high school (truly, one of only two I’ve ever met in this long life of mine):

Tomorrow I’ve got to write something sensitive about my mother, who’d be 95 tomorrow.  I’ve realized only very recently that in spite of [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] she never let me doubt her love for me in that war zone I grew up in and in the end she always listened to me.  Even if I couldn’t change her mind, which I sometimes did, she always eventually heard me out — which is no small thing.  Probably saved my life, actually.

Thanks again, mom, for giving me life, and saving it time and again, by simply listening with an open mind and a loving heart.


Accepting things we should not accept

The world is, more often than not,  a war zone, a very tragic thing considering the miraculous nature and boundless natural beauty of the besieged place where we spend our fleeting lives.  Think too much about its potential to be a peaceful place where neighbor does not lift up sword against neighbor and your heart will break. 

Right now, worldwide, a violent war is raging over who will own everything – a few people with the power to impose their will on those with less power, even if it comes at the price of destroying the habitat all living creatures depend on to survive — or the rest of us.  The powerful will spend unimaginable sums of their vast fortunes to ensure that their will becomes permanent, inviolable law. 

They will hire huge armies, capable of exerting whatever terrifying force is necessary to silence dissent and all alternatives for the present and future.  They will divide us all and make many angry enough to kill, and make sure they have easy, legal access to the firepower to spray death as easily and terrifyingly as humanly possible.

They will destroy all records of the past, rewrite history by rewriting the laws to prevent the dissemination of history they find repugnant.  They will obliterate all avenues to compromise that could help create a more perfect, more just, more sustainable world.  They want total war because they see the world as a war zone and they have the means to win a total war.  Most of us don’t.

Antisemites call this small group of willful, powerful people with immense wealth, hellbent on destroying morality, controlling governments and imposing their hateful will on the rest of humanity The Jews.  Racists, who can’t give the race they hate credit for being intelligent enough to have thoughts of their own, attribute their feeling of lost power to the Jews, who are replacing them as the power bloc in democracy with brown robots programmed to do the infernal work of the Jew, so they can impose their sick vision on the rest of the good, God-fearing people, the rest of the people like them. 

You don’t have to be an antisemite to reduce the war-torn world to this kind of paranoid cartoon.  Just think of the unknown aged billionaire who legally left Leonard Leo, architect of the 6-3 extremist Federalist Society Supreme Court majority,  a war chest of $1,600,000,000 to strategically spend doing whatever is necessary to finish creating the world this small, powerful minority hopes to see in perpetuity.

We learn the names of most of these creepy reactionary billionaires (and, to be fair, there are some billionaires who bankroll Democrats hence corporate Democrats) only in their old age, after a lifetime of dirty deeds: The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, reclusive Robert Mercer (patron of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, Cruz turned Trump patron), secretive Jeff Yass, Ken Langone (Home Depot), Betsey DeVos, Erik Prince, Harlan Crow, who bought his own far right Supreme Court justice, Peter Theil, Elon Musk, among others on the far right with money to burn. There are dozens of these motherfuckers, all cursing George Soros, a Jew, for being the evil radical left puppet master/bankroller of pedophile Democrats.

The Age of Reason, we are reminded, was an aspirational age.  Like the Warren Court, that expanded rights and greater justice to all citizens of our democracy, The Enlightenment was an outlier in human history.  Most of our bloodstained past is written by ruthless rulers, in the blood of the oppressed.  Oppression itself, with its attendant atrocities, is so ubiquitous in human history that we have many words to describe it over the ages, including serfdom, slavery and genocide.   So let’s not talk about any of that anymore, shall we?

The larger war sadly rages in our personal lives too, when conflict arises and empathy disappears.  Damage done to us by damaged people who were in turn damaged by damaged people lingers, may become all we can see.   For a feeling of safety in a hostile world, for the comfort of attachment to others, we sometimes accept things we should not accept. 

As I’m unable to sleep because the replaced knee is making things too uncomfortable, for the 24th night in a row, I find myself wondering about the things damaged people accept from other damaged people that may be unacceptable.  We can accept mistreatment that damages us worse than we already are, thinking it is the price we must pay for things of greater value, like love, friendship, a feeling of community.

We are all born reaching out for love and attachment.  Chemicals are released in the brain of the baby, of the parent, to create an intoxicating pleasure in bonding.  Things do not always go according to this beautiful plan, because most people have been damaged during this earliest stage of life, including, tragically, the parents.   

Parents are often overcome with their problems and nobody bothers to teach anyone how to do the difficult, almost impossible, job of being a compassionate parent when you are beset with your own terrible challenges.  It can’t be easy, to be always loving, always kind, always patient, when you are exhausted and the fucking baby won’t let you sleep.  Behaviors arise in the parent and the child that nobody bargained for.   Then the child is an adult — and then?   We wind up accepting things we should not accept, as the price for things we need in a dangerous life that ends, for all of us, in death.

Being abandoned when you are physically impaired, is it something you should ever tolerate from people who love you?   What goes on in the group of lifelong friends when they decide “if he’s too weak to keep up, he’ll just have to do the best he can, it’s not our problem”?   

Instead of waiting, or turning back to make sure he is not in trouble, let him struggle on, if he’s strong enough, he’ll make it, We made sure he bought hiking sticks and has a bottle of ibuprofen.  If he’s really too weak, we’ll unfortunately have to go back and see what happened.  Why is his trouble walking our problem when we are out on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place, enjoying a beautiful aerobic hike?  Why would he selfishly think we’d be thinking of him if we hadn’t seen him in an hour or two?  He knows the way back to the car, it’s at the end of this clearly marked six mile trial.

When, limping, you show up at the end of the hiking trail, where they have been resting, and will rise as soon as you appear, ready to continue, they will smile at you and say “we wondered what happened to you.  Are you ready?”  Meaning, we’ve had a nice rest, for a while, since you’ve been struggling to catch up with us for the last few hours, you don’t expect us to wait longer for you to rest yourself now, do you?   

Meaning, we smile, you smile, you accept that there is nothing wrong with the strong not waiting for the weak, it is clearly the way of the world.  You have to keep up, or you die.  In the end, you did not die, all’s well that ends well and you go out for a nice meal, pretending, for the sake of old friendship, that nothing is amiss.  Why get angry just because you were treated thoughtlessly?  This is a lesson you learned as a baby, you show you’re fine by acting fine and everything is as fine as it can be.

Being abandoned emotionally when you feel most in need of reassurance from loved ones, is that something you should ever accept?  Imagine what is going through the minds of those who turn away when they know you are most in need.  Imagine what makes them so angry afterward that you can be so unfair as to question their love just because they didn’t reach out after they promised to.  Imagine the immensity of the damage that makes someone act like that. 

Whatever it was, can you really accept a lack of basic empathy from a person who claims to love you?  It harms you in a place where healing is very difficult, it attacks your ability to trust.

I feel great fear for the adult son of parents who live by this ruthless credo of strength and shifting all blame to others.  The son feels he lacks the basic strength of an ordinary person, because, in fundamental ways, he has always been struggling to keep up with the illusion of vigor, indomitability and self-sufficiency his parents have set before him.   

If he can’t accept something as basic as that, maybe he’s not ready to take his place as heir to their good name.  I wonder if they really meant to teach their children the ruthless truth that someone they love can be removed from the world because their parents insist, in spite of they guy being alive and well, and desperately hoping to speak to the one most clearly in danger, that he is fucking dead to them. 

There are winners, son, and there are losers.  Winners persevere, never hesitate, do whatever is necessary to win, they face their fear and conquer it with their will.   You, sad to say, although we raised you to win, to keep up, to never pity yourself, do not seem able to do these things.  We love you no matter what, of course, but you must accept that we had nothing to do with the sad state you are in now. 

The son smiles, accepts their help whenever they offer, winds up, days after moving back into his parents’ house,  in a psychiatric hospital.

Something very serious must have occurred for these two parents, the strongest, proudest, most admirable people any of us have ever met, to subject themselves to the shame of admitting their son to a mental ward.  They taught their adult son that their word is final, if they say people he loves, who are walking around right now, are suddenly and forever dead, those people are fucking dead. 


Bad moves 101

I was raised by an angry, narcissistic father and an angry, but non-narcissistic mother.  While my father could never admit being wrong or doing anything that hurt you, my mother could eventually see things from the victim’s point of view, at least in my case.  

Her love is what saved my life, I realize now, in that constant war zone where my father fought my sister and me every night over our steak, salad and rice-a-roni.  My sureness in her love is what sustained me in an endless, senseless war with my father that I didn’t start and that lasted until the last three days of my father’s life.  

In the end, he saw he’d been mistaken and we finally came to a tragically too-late, but blessed, understanding, the last night of his life.  Before that time, like all narcissists, the idea of being imperfect was humiliating to him.  He could not bear to “lose” and would do any number of ruthless things to ensure his ongoing “victory”.

Twenty years earlier, as I was turning thirty, I began to realize that my dream of becoming a famous artist was actually my ambitious grandmother’s dream for me.  I had talent, but not the “vision” and drive that marks the great immortal artists whose work graces the world’s museums and the walls of those who can afford $20,000,000 for a picture to hang in their home.  

It turns out I was always more of a philosopher than an “artist,” another rarefied calling with a very secure career path.  I was always more interested in discovering deeper truths about this perplexing shitstorm we live in than creating work that the wealthy tastemakers, those who decided who were real artists and who were just regular people with a passionate hobby, traded in. The difference between an artist and someone who simply loved to create, I was beginning to realize, was that very rich people bought and sold artist’s work to decorate their lavish homes, while the hobbyist was just a poor bastard with delusions of grandeur. 

I was too critical and angry at the injustice of vast wealth and vast poverty to be an interior decorator for those entitled fucks but I had a hard time abandoning the dream of living like Picasso.  I became depressed.

I had a minor accident while making deliveries on my bike.  Cutting diagonally across West 57th Street  in a reckless, illegal move, ironically right in front of some prestigious art galleries I used to haunt, the handlebars of my bike were sideswiped by a young driver.  Many months later I was awarded about $7,000 when some shysters won a lawsuit suing the driver.  The accident had actually been my fault, but what the fuck, the kid’s father’s insurance paid.  I took the money.  

With that money I was going to finance my fourth film and then travel to Israel and then east, up to Nepal.  For whatever reason, both of those ideas became too daunting for me.  I’d already put the movie idea on hold and promised to sublet my apartment to a friend but found myself increasingly unable to make decisions.  Soon no decision was too small to cause me agony, in a short time I was paralyzed.  

I remember spending hours in a shoe store, trying on shoes, and in the end leaving with none.  The salesman was furious.  I felt like shit.

The day for the sublet was rapidly approaching, and my father, disgusted by what was happening to me, made the decision for me.  “You made a promise to Brendan,” he said, “you can’t screw up his life because you are having trouble making decisions.  You can move in here until you go to Israel.” 

I took the worst advice I’ve ever followed and moved back into my childhood home.  It was like a miracle, I woke up in my old room crushed with depression.  Things got worse and worse.

One aspect, looking back, is that it seemed my father had won.  It turned out I was a weak, self-pitying, egotistical, grandiose, lazy, unrealistically dreaming young man filled with idiotically self-serving ideas about some imagined glorious life that had led me directly, and deservedly, into the dark abyss I found myself in.  There was no escape.  

I don’t remember my mother’s love in those days, though she was clearly heartbroken.  What I remember is my father’s scorn and that, although he was ashamed of what I’d become, he also had an odd sense of vindication.  My sudden inability to do anything, in spite of my talents, proved to my father that he’d been right about me all along, and look how wrong I’d been about it all.

One day he asked me to type a letter for him.  I was not a particularly good typist (it was only years later, getting a degree in creative writing, and typing hours a day, that I really began to type well — later, in law school I discovered, to my great surprise that I could touch type with no need to look at the keys) but my hunting and pecking was much faster than my father’s.   We had no correction tape or white out in the house, no way to fix a typo.  

My father stood beside me and dictated the short business letter.  I sat at the kitchen table typing carefully.  Amazingly, I typed the whole thing without a mistake.  Until the world “sincerely” which somehow contained a typo.  My father exploded in frustration, which was his way of dealing with things not being the way he needed them to be.

A friend called to check in on me and was alarmed by how despondent I sounded.  I told him the story of typing the letter.  He told me “you have to get out of there.  Today.  I have a spare bedroom in the apartment, you can stay there.  Whatever you do, get out of there.  You will die if you stay there.”

A few days later I was living in his spare bedroom, playing the guitar and recording melancholy songs I was coming up with on his four track reel to reel tape recorder.  I still dreaded every day light hour and was seeing a therapist twice a week.  It was a long, dark road back, but one day, shortly after moving back into my own apartment, I met and began having sex with a very cute young woman, and shortly thereafter a second one.  After a few weeks of this I chose the one I liked better, said goodbye to the other one, and took with me the lessons I’d learned during that long season of depression.   

Lesson number one, do not kick, whip or beat yourself, for any reason, and get the destructive voice of the internalized victimizer (in my case my father) out of your head.  It was a long project, over many years, but I no longer kick myself, and my father’s voice has changed to the humanistic one he displayed the last night of his life.  It has since evolved into the clever, insightful, merciful one that I’ve been in dialogue with ever since.  

Imagine what a curse this is

Imagine you are on stage at your junior high school, playing the piano. Your parents are in the audience, along with several of their closest friends.  As you play, your father turns to his best friend, a guy who was always like your funniest uncle who is also a guitar player.   Your father says quietly to this guy “it’s a shame she doesn’t have the discipline to ever become a great concert pianist.  We started her too late, that other girl is so much better than her.”

You will of course never hear about this, unless decades later this beloved uncle figure is suddenly rejected by your parents as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.  The transformation became necessary after he witnessed embarrassingly human behavior and your parents both felt humiliated by his moral stance.  Uncle Hitler might write something like this, like this thing you’re reading right now:

You were a musical prodigy, my dear, the independence of hands that you had at the age of 6 was as amazing as your ability to play full classical pieces by ear.  Your musical talent was mind blowing, off the charts, phenomenal. But your parents, who, as I only recently learned, are both narcissists and see the world as strict hierarchy, black and white, win or lose, glory or shame, didn’t understand that somebody with your degree of musical talent should be guided by love of music to wherever that talent takes her. 

In their ignorance/arrogance your parents decided they could harness your love of music to instill discipline in you by forcing classical piano lessons on you.  I always gave them the benefit of the doubt on this, neither one realized that the greatest musicians we know often can’t read music.  You know the long list of these Paul Simons, John, Paul and Georges as well as I do.  You hated these lessons, and the straightjacket of classical piano training, although you easily mastered everything they required.  You fought a succession of these overmatched teachers, who were surrogates for your implacable fucking parents who wound up needing to convince you, decades later, that, among other things, your beloved uncle was actually Uncle Hitler. 

I am so sorry to be the bearer of this unbearable, but hopefully helpful news, that your feelings about the unsafeness of the world are based in real experience, and you are not to blame for the hurt you feel. I’m there with you now, in solidarity.

My door is always open to you for any insight a guitar playing mass murderer who has known you since you were born can share. 

Have a nice day, and if you will excuse me now, I have to get back to my unslakable, inchoate rage and ongoing mass murder project.  I’m on a timetable here, dear, and the clock is ticking.

Love always, 

Your Uncle Adolf

Ten minute drill (pre- surgery)

Got to stick to the timer, which I will set now, because Sekhnet is very stressed about leaving on time to be more than three hours early for my knee replacement surgery today.   I woke up with the poor, stripped joint yowling top volume, the limp to the bathroom was harder than usual.  So, off to have the knee replaced.  

For some reason, I need a few moments to compose myself before showering with the special antibacterial soap they gave me and packing my overnight bag for the hospital.  This I should not be doing, with only 29 minutes remaining to the time I promised to leave (compromise– we’ll only arrive 20 minutes before they asked me to be at the hospital two and a half hours prior to surgery), but, God help me, I can’t help myself.

Years ago, before a trip to London, I agreed to leave whenever Sekhnet wanted.  I have a history of arriving at airports at the last minute and even once missed a flight because of it.   So, to avoid stress, we arrived four hours before the international flight.  When we got there she turned to me with a big smile and said “isn’t this nice?”.   I gave her a grim version of a smile and nodded, wondering if I’d manage not to kill myself in all that time in a terminal before a long flight.   I hate getting up early as much as I hate an unneccesarily long wait.  Sekhet put her head down on our luggage and feel into a deep, happy sleep.

On the airport PA, as I paced, they kept paging Mohammed Atta, asking him to call the desk.  “Mohammed Atta,” a woman’s voice said every two or three minutes, “please use a courtesy phone to call the main desk.”   A coincidence, I know, since the only Mohammed Atta I ever heard of blew himself up on one of the planes the maniacs crashed into the World Trade Center.  Sekhnet had been at the catastrophe as it unfolded, filming the horrors for the news station she worked for, and still suffers PTSD and other health troubles from being in the toxic cloud when the first tower fell.  I looked over at her and watched her happily sleeping.

“Good for you,” I thought.  She certainly didn’t need to hear them paging Mohammed Atta over and over.


A timeless masterpiece by Heather

April 8, 2023


On April 8, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant was having a hard night. 

His army had been harrying Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s for days, and Grant knew it was only a question of time before Lee had to surrender. The people in the Virginia countryside were starving, and Lee’s army was melting away. Just that morning a Confederate colonel had thrown himself on Grant’s mercy after realizing that he was the only man in his entire regiment who had not already abandoned the cause. But while Grant had twice asked Lee to surrender, Lee still insisted his men could fight on.

So, on the night of April 8, Grant retired to bed in a Virginia farmhouse, dirty, tired, and miserable with a migraine. He spent the night “bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning.” It didn’t work. When morning came, Grant pulled on his clothes from the day before and rode out to the head of his column with his head throbbing.

As he rode, an escort arrived with a note from Lee requesting an interview for the purpose of surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia. “When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache,” Grant recalled, “but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”

The two men met in the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee had dressed grandly for the occasion in a brand new general’s uniform carrying a dress sword; Grant wore simply the “rough garb” of a private with the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general.

But the images of the wealthy, noble South and the humble North hid a very different reality. As soon as the papers were signed, Lee told Grant his men were starving and asked if the Union general could provide the Confederates with rations. Grant didn’t hesitate. “Certainly,” he responded, before asking how many men needed food. He took Lee’s answer—”about twenty-five thousand”—in stride, telling the general that “he could have…all the provisions wanted.”

By spring 1865, the Confederates who had ridden off to war four years before boasting that their wealthy aristocrats would beat the North’s moneygrubbing shopkeepers in a single battle were broken and starving, while, backed by a booming industrial economy, the Union army could provide rations for twenty-five thousand men on a moment’s notice.

The Civil War was won not by the dashing sons of wealthy planters, but by men like Grant, who dragged himself out of his blankets and pulled a dirty soldier’s uniform over his pounding head on an April morning because he knew he had to get up and get to work.


U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885), volume 2, chapter 67, “Negotiations at Appomattox,” at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm#ch66


© 2023 Heather Cox Richardson
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