Ulysses S. Grant looked up from his cigar. Its ashy tip had just flaked off into a small pile onto the floor of the porch where he sat. His aide, Capt. Horace Porter, sat with him. They’d been marching all day and had stopped on this porch for a brief rest. It was late afternoon, May 21, 1864, along the road to Guiney Station.
The owner of the house, Edmund Motley, was later described by one of Grant’s staffers as “an elderly man of a certain sour dignity.” He was “a bitter rebel, plainly.”
Grant’s ashes were no more in danger of burning down the house than Grant himself was. The fieriest thing on that porch was Motley’s temper.
So Grant and Porter excused themselves and took a stroll, looking for a more hospitable porch.
They found one at the next plantation house, less than a mile east: Fairfield. They settled onto a pair of chairs in the shade and continued their conversation.
A few minutes later, the front door swung open. Why, good afternoon, gentlemen, the lady of the house asked. How may I be of service to you? Whether she knew it was Grant or not at first, she soon learned his identity. He and Porter stood, took off their hats, introduced themselves.
She was Mary Chandler, she said. This was her husband’s plantation, Fairfield, although he was not available to welcome them himself.
Mrs. Chandler charmed her guests as though they were old friends, not invaders. And they had something in common, too.
To illustrate, she drew their attention to the small white office building that sat near the main house. The building had witnessed some sad scenes, she said: “One of our great general died here just a year ago—General Jackson—Stonewall Jackson of blessed memory.”
Grant’s last year at West Point had overlapped with Jackson’s first, lo those many years ago, so the two had known each other, but not well, Grant confided.
“Then you must have known what a great and good man he was,” Mrs. Chandler said.
“Oh yes,” Grant replied, “he was a sterling, manly cadet, and enjoyed the respect of everyone who knew him.” Grant recalled Jackson’s “indomitable energy,” and spoke of him as “a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.” “I can understand fully the admiration your people have for him.”
Mrs. Chandler, overcome by Grant’s words and the sad memories from a year earlier, nearly broke down as the conversation continued. Grant took the opportunity to politely excuse himself, and he and Porter made their leave.
The road to North Anna still waited.