Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

THURSDAY, APRIL 13, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MORNING

The ides. As Booth takes the train to Baltimore, hoping to reenlist a former conspirator for that night’s expected executions, General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, arrive in Washington at dawn. They have taken an overnight boat from City Point, Virginia. Grant is in no mood to be there. He is eager to push on to New Jersey to see their four children, but Secretary of War Stanton has specifically requested that the general visit the capital and handle a number of war-related issues. Grant’s plan is to get in and get out within twenty-four hours, with as little fuss as possible. With him are his aide Colonel Horace Porter and two sergeants to manage the Grants’ luggage.

Little does Grant know that an adoring Washington, D.C., is waiting to wrap its arms around him. “As we reached our destination that bright morning in our boat,” Julia later exclaimed, “every gun in and near Washington burst forth—and such a salvo!—all the bells rang out merry greetings, and the city was literally swathed in flags and bunting.”

If anything, Grant is even more beloved than the president right now. Strangers cheer the Grants’ open-air carriage on its way to the Willard Hotel, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street. As they pull up to the entrance, workers are on the roof, installing the gas jets that will spell out UNION for that evening’s Grand Illumination—a mass lighting of every candle, gas lamp, and firework in the city. Thousands upon thousands of people are now streaming into Washington to witness what will be an attempt to turn night into day as yet another celebration of war’s end.

Julia Grant

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Grant, who has seen more than his share of fiery explosions, could not care less about the Illumination. Their journey has been an odyssey, and the Grants are exhausted. Since leaving Lee at Appomattox, Grant has endured two days of train derailments, another day waiting for a steamer in City Point, and then the dawn-to-dusk journey up the Potomac. But standing beside his beloved Julia revives Grant.

They have been a couple for more than twenty years and have endured many a long separation, thanks to the military life. It was Julia’s letters that sustained him during the Mexican War, when he was a homesick young lieutenant. And it was Julia who stood by her husband’s side during the 1850s, when he was discharged from the army and failed in a succession of businesses. They are happiest in each other’s company. Both are still young—he is not quite forty-three; she is thirty-nine. They have their whole lives in front of them. The sooner they can flee Washington, D.C., and get back to normal life, the better. And right now that means getting to their room, washing up, and letting the general race over to the War Department as quickly as possible.

There’s just one problem: the Grants don’t have a reservation at the Willard.

Grant has slept so many nights in impromptu battlefield lodgings procured on the fly by his staff that it never crossed his mind to send a telegram asking for a room. What he wants, he tells the flustered desk clerk, is a simple bedroom with an adjacent sitting room. It’s understood that Colonel Porter will need a room, too. The sergeants will bunk elsewhere.

The Willard Hotel is overbooked. Yet to allow the famous Ulysses S. Grant to take a room elsewhere would be an unthinkable loss of prestige.

Some way, somehow, rooms are instantly made available. Within minutes, Julia is unpacking their suitcases. Word about their location is already flying around Washington, and bundles of congratulatory telegrams and flowers soon flood the desk and bedroom. Julia will spend the afternoon reading each one, basking in the awareness that the man whose potential she had seen so long before, when he was just a quiet young lieutenant, has ascended from anonymity and disgrace to the level of great historical figure.

Not that General Grant cares. He just wants to get on with his business and get home. Within minutes, he and Porter meet in the lobby before the short walk to the War Department. It’s three blocks, just on the other side of the White House.

The two men step out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. At first the trek is easy, just two regular guys in uniform joining the sea of pedestrians, soldiers, and all those tourists pouring into the city for the Illumination. But Grant is hard to miss. Photographs of his bearded, expressionless face have been on the front pages of newspapers for more than a year. Soon the autograph seekers and the well-wishers, startled but elated by his presence, surround him. Porter tries to push them back, protecting his general in peacetime as he did in warfare. But he is just one man against many, and the diminutive Grant is swallowed by the mob. Porter pushes and elbows, grabbing Grant with one arm while shoving people back with the other. It’s a benevolent crowd, cheering for Grant even as they strain to touch him. But Porter knows a simple truth: this is a perfect opportunity for a disgruntled southerner to take a shot at Grant, then disappear in an instant.

Just when the situation begins to border on pandemonium, the Metropolitan Police come to their rescue. Grant and Porter are soon on their way again, this time inside a carriage, with a cavalry escort.

An introvert, Grant is pained by the attention and stares. Once inside the War Department, he hurries to formally conclude the logistics of war. Pen in hand and cigar clenched in his teeth, he tells the quartermaster general to stop ordering supplies and suspends the draft and further recruitment. With these orders, he saves the nation $4 million per day.

Though Grant hates public appearances, the city of Washington has planned the Grand Illumination celebration for this very night, specifically so he can be there. The Capitol dome will be lit, the Willard Hotel will illuminate the word UNION, and the governmental buildings are having a competition to see which can be the most brilliantly decorated. Stanton is fussing over the War Department’s display, which includes guns and flags as well as lights, while over at the Patent Office some five thousand candles will glow from every window. There will also be a massive fireworks display. And, of course, the bonfires that have blazed all week will still be burning bright. As intensely as Washington celebrated on Monday, Thursday night’s Grand Illumination will be even more monumental.

That afternoon, Grant meets with Lincoln in the Oval Office. The last time they met was the day after Petersburg fell, on that veranda in the midst of that shattered city. There, Grant promised Lincoln that he would catch Lee and end the war. Now that Grant has fulfilled that promise, a grateful Lincoln offers his congratulations. He calls for a carriage. The two men ride around the crowded streets of Washington with the top down, shocking the flood of arriving visitors, who can’t believe that they are actually laying eyes on President Lincoln and General Grant. The ride is Lincoln’s way of giving Grant his moment in the sun after so many months of being second-guessed and labeled a butcher and of deflecting the glory showered upon him onto the man whose genius made it all possible.

It works. The two men are loudly cheered on every street corner.

When it is done, they make plans to meet again that night for the Illumination. They will be the center of attention, these two men who won the Civil War, watched by one and all.

Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth and his band of assassins tend to their work of sharpening knives and cleaning their pistols, eager for their night of reckoning.

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