By the Way: Touch the past


The book Randy Weinstein opens on the table is simply and solidly bound, and it looks like the books on my grandparents' shelves. My father's parents were born at the turn of the 20th century, and my grandfather may well have had his own copy of "The Federalist," essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay urging the signing of the Constitution.

But this one belonged to a 5-foot-tall, 17-year-old, Ohio boy, whose father had just ordered him to go to West Point. It is May 1839. Trying to prepare himself, he bought this book in Cincinnati and signed it -- "Ulysses H. Grant."

(The H., Weinstein tells me, is genuine. The president was born Hiram Ulysses Grant and chose to go by Ulysses when he became a cadet -- for a jot of courage or to avoid the initials H.U.G.? The S came from a paperwork error at West Point.)

On a crisp and sunny afternoon, Weinstein has invited me to North Star Rare Books and the W.E.B. DuBois Center, in Great Barrington, to step into the past. Weinstein is a book collector turned book seller, a writer and a historian. He has run North Star for 20 years now, he said. And each book, manuscript, letter or piece of paper in it becomes a connection to a past moment that he can touch.

Imagine Grant, the future president, as a slight boy, not yet grown, holding this book as he sits on the train -- or wagon, or trolley? Train travel from Ohio to New York had barely begun. Imagine him reading late at night in his West Point bunk.

On another spring morning, 26 years later, imagine him standing in the front room of a brick house with a white porch in Virginia. It is April 9, 1865. Grant stands in trousers, flannel shirt and muddy boots, in the aftermath of a blinding headache, and stops his men from cheering. Robert E. Lee has agreed to end the Civil War.

The day is mild, and the men who have ridden here are hungry and saddle-sore and have come from camps and battle fields. Guns were still firing when the day began.

Ely S. Parker, a Seneca lawyer, diplomat and adjutant to Grant in the war, sketches a plan of the room, writing the names of the men on it where each man stood.

Lee is said to have said, on seeing him, "It is good to have one real American here."

Weinstein unfolds a sheet of paper not much larger than a page of my notebook. The names appear in concise handwriting. What did it feel like to sit in that room on that morning, listening to Robert E. Lee accepting terms for peace in the South?

What did it feel like to be Ely Parker, to be a Seneca man, a soldier and a politician, on that morning? The Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect two years before. Slavery was ended. And the U.S. cavalry, now that this war was over, was about to head west, to slaughter buffalo in the millions and drive the nations on the plains and in the Southwest into reservations.


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