In the photograph, Ulysses S. Grant stands behind a bench, back to the camera, leaning over the shoulder of his top subordinate, George Gordon Meade. Neither of their faces are visible, but I image the strain of the last two weeks wears on them like threadbare blankets.
It’s May 21, 1864, and the Federal army has marched, fought, and maneuvered nonstop since the third. It’s marching again even now as Grant tries to lure the Confederates out of their entrenchments at Spotsylvania and block them from or beat them to the strong position at the North Anna River. They’ve stopped here, at the intersection in front of Massaponax Church, to study the maps. The commanders are exhausted.
The benches in the photo are pews pulled out of the church so Grant’s men could get some rest on the march and so Grant could consult with them. Most of the faces in the photo are turned away. Others are blurry, men with faces so busy they’re caught in motion. Some, caught in mid-movement, look like transparent specters only half-there. They are ghosts haunting the photo.
One man, though, toward the right of the photo, has his left elbow perched on the back of his pew, and he has turned around over his left shoulder to face the photographer. He’s looking right at the camera, face clear and knowing. I see you, he says, and I know what you’re up to. Watch, and you’ll see something unfold that you could not have ever possibly imagined.
I’ve driven by the church, and the parking lot where the photo was taken, a hundred times. I’ve never been inside, however, never seen the parking lot from the angle where the photo was taken. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, traveling with the army, had climbed to the second story, lugging all his gear, and shot from on high the photo of the council of war held on church pews.
He manged to grab four photographs during his stop at Massaponax. A copy of one of those photos hangs in my office. I wonder how far that image has traveled, over time and distance, to end up on a cinderblock wall in western New York.
I wonder, too, what it must have been like for poor Meade to have his boss hanging over his shoulder all the time. This photo depicts the metaphor quite literally. Grant literally eclipses Meade just by being there in the picture, there with the army.
The image has become one of the most iconic of the war. On the surface, it shows hustle and bustle and exhaustion and dust, horses and wagons and mules and men. But it is also the picture of Meade’s frustration married to his devotion to duty. “If there was any honorable way of retiring from my present false position, I would undoubtedly adopt it,” he had written in the letter to his wife just two days previously, “but there is none and all I can do is patiently submit and bear with resignation the humiliation.”
Most of all, it’s a picture of a hurricane. That circle of pews is its eye. Tremendous kinetic frenzy swirls all around its edge. It is Hurricane Grant, and Meade is caught up in it like everyone else.