Wilmer McLean, who died almost two decades after the American Civil War ended, used to tell people that, “the war began in my dining room and ended in my parlor.” He was right.
In 1861, McLean was a retired major from the Virginia militia. He was too old to fight in the war between the states, but he was living in the middle of the first battlefield. On July 18, the first engagements in the Battle of Bull Run were fought, and McLean’s home served as the headquarters to a confederate general. McLean was too old to be a part of the fight, but his dinner was interrupted by a Union shell that crashed through his fireplace.
By 1865, McLean had moved from Manassas and was now living in the town of Appomattox, in a home very near the courthouse. On April 9, General Robert E. Lee decided it was time to stop fighting and surrendered the Confederate Army to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. It is often said that he did this at the Appomattox Court House, but he actually did it in the parlor of McLean’s home nearby. Moments later, the home became completely unlivable: aware of the historic importance of the moment, the soldiers who were present raided the house for every last souvenir. By the time they left, there wasn’t a chair left to sit on.
McLean’s home is part of the Appomattox Court House National Park. Find information about visiting it here.
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Most eigteenth-century residents of Konigsburg, the hometown of Immanuel Kant, were unlikely to have read the great philosopher’s work. He wrote extremely dense treatises, particularly the three great “critiques”: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of Judgment. But while Kant’s work may have been impenetrable to most of his neighbors, they were very aware of the eccentric professor in their midst. It was said that Kant’s daily walk was so regular in its timing and route that residents of the town could adjust their timepieces when he walked past their windows.
There was one amusing instance, however, of Kant’s philosophy colliding with his habits. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant, after a typically complex train of thought, concludes that every man has a duty to give charity so long as he can provide for himself. Konigburg’s panhandlers never read Kant’s metaphysical speculations, but they knew where the professor would be every afternoon, and they always waited there for the generous donations that Kant would make. Eventually, the old philosopher began feeling somewhat less charitable, and he changed his route.
Feeling brave? Read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals here.
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Some of the most famous works of art are actually excerpts from larger enterprises. One well-known example is William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem reads, in its entirety:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This mysterious little work, famous for its stark imagery and its use of “enjambment” (line breaks that don’t correspond to grammatical breaks), is part Carlos’ 1923 book Spring and All, a mixed collection of poetry and prose. He never published it as a stand-alone poem.
Another famous example is Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. It is one of the most reproduced and recognizable works of art ever created, yet it too was a small part of a larger whole. In 1880, Rodin was awarded the commission to create the gate to Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts. Rodin chose to depict “The Gates of Hell.” The work was never completed, but still contains over 180 figures, most of them writhing and disfigured bodies. Directly above the doors, however, was the image of a serene, powerful man, seated and lost in though. This piece of the larger work was called The Poet, and it was meant to represent the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who had conceived of hell in the most spectacular way possible in his twelfth-century poem The Inferno. Eventually, Rodin presented The Poet as an independent work. He renamed it The Thinker.
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