The General Is Older Than the Capital, from Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

I. The General Is Older Than the Capital

Cover of 2001 reprint of 'Reveille in Washington'That winter, the old General moved from the rooms he had rented from the free mulatto, Wormley, in I Street to Cruchet’s at Sixth and D Streets. His new quarters, situated on the ground floor–a spacious bedroom, with a private dining-room adjoining–were convenient for a man who walked slowly and with pain; and Cruchet, a French caterer, was one of the best cooks in Washington.

In spite of his nearly seventy-five years and his increasing infirmities, the General was addicted to the pleasures of the table. Before his six o’clock dinner, his black body servant brought out the wines and the liqueurs, setting the bottles of claret to warm before the fire. The old man had refined his palate in the best restaurants in Paris; and woodcock, English snipe, poulard, capon, and tête de veau en tortue were among the dishes he fancied. He liked, too, canvasback duck, and the hams of his native Virginia. Yet nothing, to his taste, equaled the delicacy he called “tarrapin.” He would hold forth on the correct method of preparing it: “No flour, sir–not a grain.” His military secretary could saturninely foresee that moment, when, leaning his left elbow on the table and holding six inches above his plate a fork laden with the succulent tortoise, he would announce, “The best food vouchsafed by Providence to man,” before hurrying the fork to his lips.

From his splendid prime, the General had retained, not only a discriminating palate, but the defects suitable to a proud and ambitious nature. He had always been vain, pompous, exacting, jealous and high-tempered. Now that his sick old body could no longer support the racking of its wounds, his irascibility had dwindled to irritation, and his imperiousness to petulance. His love of flattery had grown, and he often declared that at his age compliments had become a necessity. While taking a footbath, he would call on his military secretary to remark the fairness of his limbs. In company, he spoke of the great commanders of history, and matched with theirs his own exploits at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, at Cerro Grande and Chapultepec. Near his desk stood his bust in marble, with shoulders bared; classical, serene, and idealized. The walls were brilliant with his portraits at various ages, from the young General Winfield Scott who had been victorious over the British in 1814 to the already aging General-in-Chief who had defeated the Mexicans in 1848. They were arresting figures, those generals on the walls; handsome, slender, heroic, with haughty eye and small, imperious mouth. Gold gleamed in spurs, in buttons and embroidery and huge epaulettes, in the handle of the sword which had been the gift of Virginia; and one portrait showed the superb cocked hat, profusely plumed, that had earned for Scott the sobriquet of “Fuss and Feathers.” He stood six feet, four and a quarter inches in height, and had been wont to insist on the fraction. But, swollen and dropsical, he spoke no longer of his size. He pointed instead to the bust, to the portraits, to show what he had been.

Such was the commanding general of the Army of the United States in December of 1860, but not so did his compatriots see him. His eye had lost its fire and he could no longer sit a horse, but in huge epaulettes and yellow sash he was still his country’s hero. Europe might celebrate the genius of Napoleon; the New World had its Winfield Scott. For nearly half a century the republic had taken pride in his achievements as soldier and pacificator; and if he now lived in a glorious military past, so did his fellow-countrymen. He was the very figure to satisfy a peaceful people, fond of bragging of its bygone belligerence. The General was as magnificent as a monument, and no one was troubled by the circumstance that he was nearly as useless.

Reveille in Washington is back in print (at $39.95 list — Ouch!), so, for the moment, it can’t be considered completely neglected. But as the above excerpt suggests, it’s a richly detailed and wisely comic narrative that ranks as one of the best pieces of American historical writing around. Used copies can be found for as little as $0.01 plus postage, although I suppose it’s hypocritical to write about neglected books and then encourage you not to buy your own copy from a publisher that’s keeping it in print. Multi-Pulitzer winner David McCullough often cites it as one of the books that inspired him to become a historian, and it’s difficult not to believe that Gore Vidal didn’t have a copy close at hand while he was writing his Lincoln. An excellent book for some winter nights’ reading.

Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941

5 thoughts on “The General Is Older Than the Capital, from Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

  1. I just bought this book. It’s sitting on my desk as I speak, waiting for me to dive in during my lunch hour. I bought it based on McCullough’s recommendation and I plan to read her other books as well.

  2. It’s a terrific book, full of wonderful details like the passage above, drama, comedy, and a cast of great characters. Dive in and revel in it!

  3. I first read this book in 1980 and find myself repeatedly referring back to it as a lively source of minutia about Civil War Washington and the charcters who inhabited it . I can’t recommend it too strongly . A $39.95 list price is a bargain for this gem . Any avid reader of Civil War history will find it an engrossing read

  4. I often raid my great aunt’s library when I need something to read on my flight home. This last time I came across Reveille in Washington. It is such a special book. The minutia of daily life of so many citizens of Washington, famous and unsung, is fascinating. At first, I was suspicious of the depth of detail, thinking it could be attributed to artistic license. Finally, I flipped to the bibliography and was amazed! Ms. Leech knew why so many injuries resulted in amputation, what Clara Barton was really like, what was on the menu in prisons, etc., etc. When I finished Reveille, I was so sorry that no living person except myself knew what a great book this was. My aunt’s copy was published in 1941, and I had no expectation that such a unique book would be remembered. But I decided to Google the author, and there was a New Edition! Some books deserve to live more that one life.

  5. New York Review [of Books] Classics will be reissuing Reveille in Washington in April 2011, in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the “late unpleasantness.”

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