Something over a year ago (April, 1965) we published a short Civil War narrative by Mary A. Benjamin, based on a biographical sketch of Union General E. O. C. Ord written by his granddaughter. It revolved around the famous scene in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, at Appomattox Court House, when Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. The gist of the story was that McLean presented to Ord the table on which Grant wrote the surrender terms—because Ord had, a few months before, kindly let McLean’s young son, a sick Confederate soldier, pass through his lines on his way to the safety of home. There has always been much confusion and controversy about which of the two small tables in McLean’s living room Grant sat at, and which Lee; and Miss Benjamin’s version stirred that up again. In addition, we got letters, some of them quite ill-natured, attacking the story of McLean’s son as a fabrication on the ground that this son could not have been more than eleven in 1865.
Luckily, the Senior Editor of AMERICAN HERITAGE happens to be one of the most esteemed authorities on the Civil War. With some agitation, we put the complaints on his desk, and elicited the following memorandum:
“It is indisputable that the table Ord got from McLean was the table on which one of the signatures to the surrender terms was signed. Whether it was Grant or Lee that signed on this particular table is assuredly a matter of minor importance. For the rest, our story is a recital of the Ord family tradition regarding the way General Ord came into possession of the table, and as such is worth presenting in anybody’s magazine. That the good general, years afterward, may have been confused about the identity of the young Confederate soldier—he could have been some other relative of McLean’s, or the son of a friend or neighbor—is a little beside the point.”