Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


11:00 A.M.

A hazy sun shines down on Washington’s empty streets. The city is so quiet it seems to be asleep. The Good Friday observance means that its citizens are temporarily done celebrating the war’s end. They are now in church or at home repenting, leaving the local merchants to lament the momentary loss of the booming business they’ve enjoyed the past few days.

Hundreds of miles to the south, in Fort Sumter, South Carolina, a massive celebration is about to take place, commemorating the raising of the Stars and Stripes. Major General Robert Anderson stands before forty-five hundred people as the very flag that was lowered there four years earlier, marking the beginning of the war, now climbs the flagpole. A minister offers a prayer of thanksgiving. The Union is reunited.

Back in Washington, General Grant walks to the White House, feeling conflicted. He was supposed to meet with Lincoln at nine A.M., but the president rescheduled for eleven so that Grant can attend the cabinet meeting. Now he feels obligated to attend the theater tonight with the Lincolns. But Julia Grant, who thinks Mary Lincoln is unstable and a gossip, has bluntly refused. When the theater invitation arrived from Mary Lincoln earlier that morning, Julia replied with a firm no, stating that the Grants would be leaving town that afternoon and noting, “We will not, therefore, be here to accompany the President and Mrs. Lincoln to the theatre.” She is, in fact, adamant that they catch the afternoon train out of Washington. Going to the theater with Mary Lincoln is out of the question.

General Grant is caught in the middle. Lincoln has become such an ally and dear friend that turning down his invitation seems rude. But displeasing his wife, who has endured many a sacrifice these past years, is equally daunting.

The two soldiers standing guard at the White House gate snap to attention as their general in chief arrives. Grant tosses them a return salute with the casual ease of a man who has done it thousands of times, never breaking stride as he continues on to the front door.

The doorman nods graciously as Grant steps inside, dressed in his soldier’s uniform, moving past the police bodyguard currently on duty and a rifle-bearing soldier also in dress uniform. Then it’s up the stairs to Lincoln’s second-floor office, where another soldier stands guard. Soon Grant is seated in Lincoln’s cabinet meeting, somewhat surprised by the loose way in which such matters are conducted. He assumed that Lincoln’s entire cabinet would be in attendance, particularly since there are so many pressing matters of state to discuss. But a quick glance around the room shows no sign of Secretary of War Stanton or Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher. Secretary of State William Seward, home recovering from his carriage accident, is represented by his son Frederick. And as Lincoln leans back in his chair along the south window, the half-filled room feels more like a collegiate debating club than a serious political gathering. Lincoln guides the dialogue, which jumps from elation at the war’s end to other topics and back, taking no notes as he soaks in the various opinions. His behavior is that of a first among equals rather than the ultimate decision maker.

The meeting is into its second hour as Grant is shown into the room, and his entrance injects a new vitality—just as Lincoln intended. The cabinet, to a man, is effusive in praise of the general and begs to hear details of the Appomattox surrender. Grant sets the scene, describing the quaint McLean farmhouse and the way he and Lee sat together to settle the country’s fate. He doesn’t go into great detail, and he makes a point of praising Lee. The cabinet members are struck by his modesty but clamor for more.

Lincoln tries to draw him out. “What terms did you make for the common soldiers?” the president asks, already knowing the answer.

“To go back to their homes and families, and they would not be molested, if they did nothing more.”

There is a point to Lincoln’s inviting Grant to this meeting, as evidenced by this new line of inquiry. Lincoln hopes for a certain pragmatic lenience toward the southern states, rather than a draconian punishment, as his vice president, Andrew Johnson, favors. Lincoln has not seen Johnson since his second inauguration. But Lincoln’s lenient plan for the South is not borne solely out of kindness nor with just the simple goal of healing the nation. The South’s bustling warm-water ports and agricultural strength will be a powerful supplement to the nation’s economy. With the nation mired in more than $2 billion of wartime debt, and with Union soldiers still owed back pay, extra sources of income are vitally needed.

Grant’s simple reply has the desired effect. Lincoln beams as the cabinet members nod their heads in agreement.

“And what of the current military situation?”

Grant says that he expects word from Sherman any minute, saying that General Joe Johnston has finally surrendered. This, too, is met with enthusiasm around the table.

Throughout the proceedings, Grant’s feeling of unease about that evening’s plans lingers. He makes up his mind to tell Lincoln that he will attend the theater. Doing otherwise would be ungracious and disrespectful. Julia will be furious, but eventually she will understand. And then, first thing in the morning, they can be on the train to New Jersey.

The cabinet meeting drags on. One o’clock rolls past. One-thirty.

A messenger arrives carrying a note for Grant. It’s from Julia and she’s not happy. Mrs. Grant wants her husband back at the Willard Hotel immediately, so that they can catch the 6:00 P.M. to Burlington, New Jersey.

General Grant’s decision has now been made for him. After months and years of men obeying his every order, he bows to an even greater authority than the president of the United States: his wife.

“I am sorry, Mr. President,” Grant says when the cabinet meeting ends, just after one-thirty. “It is certain that I will be on this afternoon’s train to Burlington. I regret that I cannot attend the theater.”

Lincoln tries to change Grant’s mind, telling him that the people of Washington will be at Ford’s to see him. But the situation is out of the general’s hands. Lincoln senses that and says good-bye to his dear friend.

The Grants will make their train. Julia is so eager to leave town that she has chosen the local, which takes thirteen long hours to reach Burlington. The faster option would be the seven-thirty express in the morning, but that would mean a night at the theater with the daft and unbalanced Mary Lincoln. Julia Grant’s mind is made up.

What Ulysses S. Grant does not know is that he will be returning to Washington by the same train within twenty-four hours.

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