From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War
The crisply uniformed Lieutenant from Jefferson Barracks paused in shock in the middle of the St. Louis street. “Sam? Sam Grant?”
The man he was calling out to was dressed in shoddy clothes and held a wicker basket full of firewood, which he was hawking from the street corner.
A bright smile split Ulysses S. Grant’s haggard face as he recognized his friend. “Old Pete!”
Grant dropped the firewood and the two men embraced. The two had seen nothing of each other since Longstreet had stood in as Grant’s best man when he married Julia Dent back in ’48. Eleven years later it was clear the two men had gone down vastly different paths.
“You look quite sharp indeed,” Grant said to Longstreet. “Back at the barracks?”
“For now,” Longstreet allowed. “And you, you’re in the city?”
Grant gestured at the wood. “Here for the week to work. I rent a room. Then walk home each weekend to see Julia and the children at White Haven.”
“Walk?” Longstreet was surprised. “It’s over twelve miles.”
“An easy jaunt,” Grant said. “I’m glad we’ve met. There’s something that has been troubling me all these years.” He reached into his pocket and emptied it of the only coin he had, a five dollar gold piece. “In all the excitement of the wedding I’d forgotten I have a debt I owe you.” He held out the coin, but Longstreet didn’t take it.
“There’s no need,” Longstreet. “I’ve long since forgotten it.”
“It’s a debt of honor,” Grant said. “You loaned me the money when I needed it.”
“Truly, Sam,” Longstreet said. “No need.”
“You must take it,” Grant insisted. “I cannot live with anything in my possession which is not mine.”
Face flushed, Longstreet took the coin and awkwardly shoved it into his pocket.
“Do you have the hour?” Grant asked, as if the debt had already disappeared in the current of time now that it was resolved.
“Where’s your watch?” Longstreet asked without thinking.
“Pawned it two years past to make Christmas happen for the children,” Grant said, as always honest to a fault. “It was a bad year,” he added, as if selling firewood on the street corner was a sign of a much better one. “The hour, if you don’t mind, Pete?”
“Half past one.”
“Ah!” Grant grabbed his basket. “I have an appointment I must make. Would you like to accompany me?”
“Certainly,” Longstreet said.
Grant set off with a purposeful stride, Longstreet at his side.
“I tried farming,” Grant said. “West Pointers make poor farmers, I’m afraid. Hardscrabble I called it after some town in the Colorado Territory that Elijah Cord told me about. You remember Elijah, don’t you?”
“He’s still out west. A mountain man or some such,” Grant said. “A noble occupation, but one that does not seem suited to having a family. Now, while farming would seem to favor family life, it didn’t for me. Each time it seemed as if things would work, that the crop would come in, I’m afraid nature saw it differently. A flood. A late frost in the spring. An early frost in the fall. Mother Nature is most unforgiving.”
They turned a corner and the courthouse loomed ahead. Longstreet eyed it nervously. “An appointment with the law?”
Grant laughed. “Yes, but don’t worry, Pete. I’ve broken no laws. A matter I need to resolve.”
They took the steps and entered. Grant wove his way through the crowded hallways and entered a room where a harried clerk was shuffling papers.
“Sir, I am Ulysses Grant. We have an appointment.”
The clerk flipped through one of the many stacks on his desk. “Yes, yes. I’ve got it right here.” He looked Grant up and down, not impressed, but then saw Longstreet. “Is this your witness?”
“He is,” Grant said.
“What am I witnessing?” A bemused Longstreet asked.
“I have a slave.”
“Just one?” Longstreet asked. “My relations, the Dents, certainly have many more than one and must have bestowed more than one on Julia.”
“They did to Julia, but they bestowed one on me,” Grant said.
“Did he run away?” Longstreet asked.
“Gentlemen?” The clerk interrupted. “Can we get this done?” He shoved the piece of paper across his desk and pointed at the pen resting next to the ink well.
Grant took the pin, dipped it, then signed. Then he offered the pen to Longstreet. The officer leaned over the desk, pen in hand, but paused when he saw the wording. “You’re freeing your slave?”
“Certainly,” Grant said.
“But . . .” Longstreet grasped for words. “Sam, an able-bodied slave can fetch over a thousand dollars on the St. Louis market.”
“I’m aware of the market,” Grant said. “It’s my decision.” He said the latter with such finality, that Longstreet remembered Mexico and West Point and knew the matter was no longer to be discussed. He signed.
The clerk took the paper, shook it to dry the ink, then stamped the document. “Your property is now a freedman.”
Grant turned to Longstreet. “Thank you, Pete.”
Longstreet took the hand. “I’ve got to get back to Jefferson Barracks, but perhaps you could come out and visit?”
Grant smiled sadly. “Not for a while. But I’m sure we’ll meet again.”