Sherman’s destination, Grant’s busy headquarters at City Point, was on the same side of the Appomattox River as besieged Petersburg, nine miles away. It was at just that time a particularly interesting and dramatic place to be. President Lincoln enjoyed getting out of Washington and being with the troops, and his son Robert, who had graduated from Harvard the year before, was now serving as a captain on Grant’s staff. Lincoln and his wife had recently arrived for an extended stay. On the same day that Sherman left his men at their inland encampment at Goldsboro in North Carolina, Lincoln at City Point had been taken to a hill near the Petersburg front to watch the battle for Fort Stedman, an effort by Lee to break and weaken Grant’s line that cost the Confederacy more than four thousand casualties in one day.
During this presidential visit, it was Julia Grant’s misfortune to have to deal with Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife, who frequently had the idea that every woman was trying to steal her husband. In addition, Mary Todd Lincoln insisted on having every kind of privilege accorded her and often saw slights where none were intended. The Lincolns stayed aboard a handsome ship, the River Queen, which brought them down from Washington and was anchored in the river. Grant had at his disposal a smaller vessel, the Mary Martin, a fast little steamship that was frequently tied up at a dock near headquarters. The first time the Lincolns came ashore, the River Queen was brought alongside Grant’s Mary Martin, and the Lincolns walked across the Mary Martin’s decks to the dock, where they were greeted by Grant and Julia. That happened only once: Mrs. Lincoln let it be known that she did not want to have to cross another ship’s deck to come ashore, and while soldiers were dying some miles away, Grant’s vessel was moved out into the river every time she wanted to come ashore, so that she could step straight ashore from the presidential ship. A most unfortunate outburst occurred when, sitting beside Julia in an ambulance being used as a carriage at a large military review, she saw the beautiful wife of General Edward Ord, a stylish woman who was a superb equestrienne, riding her horse in a party of generals and other notables that included Lincoln. When Mrs. Ord was brought alongside the makeshift carriage to be presented to Mrs. Lincoln, her horse wheeled and carried her off in pursuit of the group that included Lincoln. An officer tried to explain to the jealous Mrs. Lincoln that Mrs. Ord’s horse was trained to stay near General Ord. The man added, trying to be helpful and pleasant, that the horse “will not let the lady leave her husband’s side. I would recommend that you get one just like it. If you would like … I will try to get him for you; he is just what you want.” Mary Todd Lincoln took this as a warning that Mrs. Ord might steal Abraham Lincoln from her if she did not get a horse and ride right beside him and angrily cried out, “What do you mean, Sir?” It took all of Julia’s tact and good sense to soothe her, and even then Mrs. Lincoln struck out at Julia with, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”
Lincoln, on the other hand, seemed to be calmer, even within the sound of the cannon firing back and forth at besieged Petersburg, than in Washington. He enjoyed riding Grant’s big horse Cincinnati—Grant let no one else ride his favorite mount—but Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff remarked that he seemed sad and tired, and described something that happened in one of the headquarters tents.
Three tiny kittens were crawling about the tent at the time. The mother had died, and the little wanderers were expressing their grief by mewing piteously. Lincoln picked them up, took them on his lap, stroked their soft fur and murmured: “Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken good care of,” and turning to Bowers [a colonel of Grant’s staff], said: “Colonel, I hope that you will see that these motherless little waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.” Bowers replied: “I will see, Mr. President, that they are taken in charge by the cook of our mess, and are well cared for.”
Several times during his stay Mr. Lincoln was found fondling these kittens. He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him. It was a curious sight … upon the eve of a great military crisis in the nation’s history, to see the hand which had affixed the signature to the Emancipation Proclamation … tenderly caressing three stray kittens.
On the morning of March 27, Grant’s headquarters received the news that Sherman had arrived at Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia coast, and that the Russia was proceeding up the James River to City Point. The reunion about to take place came not only at a critical point in the war but also at a critical moment in each of their careers. Sherman’s far-ranging campaigns had made him so famous that there were now those who thought that when victory came he might be made some sort of American dictator, or at least become president. (Of the latter idea, Sherman wrote to a friend, “You may tell all I would rather serve 4 years in the Singsing Penitentiary.”)
In contrast with the image Sherman had gained of being the all-conquering general, Grant was embedded in the public mind as the bulldog who knew only how to throw regiments straight ahead in his constant bloody battles with the equally tenacious Lee. In fact, like Sherman and Lee, Grant was a great practitioner of the war of movement: he had demonstrated that skill in his Western campaigns and in his slipping 115,000 men away from Lee’s front after Cold Harbor to reappear swiftly before Petersburg. In the last year, however, both Grant and Lee had become prisoners of the Confederate determination to hold the two neighboring cities of Richmond and Petersburg at all costs, a political decision that required Lee to defend that area. Grant’s goal was to destroy Lee’s army rather than to capture Richmond, but to do the one thing, it appeared that he would have to do the other as well.
Whatever the public perception of him, Grant was doing much more than presiding over the war of attrition against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia: as general in chief, in the days just before Sherman arrived he sent specific operational orders to the commander at Knoxville, made recommendations for a reorganization of the command structure for Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas, suggested a campaign be made in northeast Texas to subdue the remaining Confederates there, and dealt with matters concerning the United States Army as a whole that involved promotions, prompt pay for black soldiers, and the exchange of prisoners.
Grant’s aide-de-camp Porter stood nearby as Sherman arrived aboard the Russia at three in the afternoon.
General Grant and two or three of us who were with him started down the wharf to greet the Western commander. Before we reached the foot of the steps, Sherman had jumped ashore and was hurrying forward with long strides to meet his chief. As they approached Grant cried out, “How d’you do, Sherman?” “How are you, Grant!” exclaimed Sherman; and in a moment they stood upon the steps, with their hands locked in a cordial grasp, uttering earnest words of familiar greeting. Their encounter was more like that of two school-boys coming together after a vacation than the meeting of two actors in a great war tragedy.
Grant walked Sherman up to his headquarters, where Julia greeted Sherman warmly, and members of Grant’s staff crowded around. Porter said, “Sherman then seated himself with the others … and gave a most graphic description of the events of his march through Georgia. The story was the more charming from the fact that it was related without the manifestation of the slightest egotism. Never were listeners more enthusiastic; never was a speaker more eloquent. The story, told as he alone could tell it, was a grand epic related with Homeric power.” Another officer noted Sherman’s appearance: “his sandy whiskers closely cropped … sharp twinkling eyes, long arms and legs, shabby coat, slouch hat, his pants tucked into his boots.” A man from Massachusetts who first saw him during this visit observed that “his features express determination, particularly the mouth, which is wide and straight with lips shut tightly together … a very remarkable-looking man such as could not be grown out[side] of America—the concentrated essence of Yankeedom.”
After an hour of Sherman’s accounts, Grant said, “I’m sorry to break up this entertaining conversation, but the President is aboard the River Queen, and I know he will be anxious to see you. Suppose we go and pay him a visit before dinner.” About an hour after that, the two generals returned to Grant’s log cabin. This first visit had been largely a courtesy call; Lincoln had initially expressed concern that Sherman was not with his army but then relaxed and listened intently to Sherman’s stories of his recent campaigns. It was understood that Grant and Sherman were to meet with Lincoln the following morning for a conference on the military and political strategy to be followed in ending the war.
Porter had been talking with Julia as he waited for his chief to reappear and witnessed what came next. Julia had prepared the two generals some tea, and as they entered, she asked her husband, “Did you see Mrs. Lincoln?” Grant, taken aback, said “Oh,” and sheepishly added, “We went rather on a business errand, and I did not ask for Mrs. Lincoln.” Sherman chimed in with, “And I didn’t even know she was on board.”
“Well, you are a pretty pair!” Julia said, chiding them. “I do not see how you could have been so neglectful. Now, you have got your foot in it.”
Grant replied contritely, “Well, Julia, we are going to pay another visit in the morning, and we’ll take good care then to make amends for our conduct today.”
“And now,” Sherman suggested to Grant as they settled down with their tea, “let us talk further about the immediate movements of my army.”
At this point Julia said, “Perhaps you don’t want me here listening to all your secrets.”
Sherman smiled at Julia and asked, “Do you think we can trust her, Grant?”
“I’m not so sure about that, Sherman,” Grant answered lightheartedly. This led to some banter about Julia’s trustworthiness, and Sherman said, “Now, Mrs. Grant, let me examine you, and I can soon tell whether you understand our plans well enough to betray them to the enemy.”
“Very well,” Julia replied. “I’m ready for all your questions.”
Porter described what happened next. “Then Sherman turned his chair squarely toward her, folded his arms, assumed the tone and look of a first-class pedagogue, and, in a manner which became more and more amusing as the conversation went on, proceeded to ask all sorts of geographical questions about the Carolinas and Virginia.”
In fact, Julia had studied the big headquarters maps with great interest during her sometimes weeks-long visits to City Point and knew a great deal about the territory in which the Union forces were operating. She decided to answer “wide of the mark,” as she later put it. Porter said, “When asked where a particular river in the South was, she would locate it a thousand miles away, and describe it as running up stream instead of down; and when questioned about a Southern mountain she would place it somewhere in the region of the north pole. Railroads and canals were also mixed up in interminable confusion.”
After some minutes of what Julia described as “throwing dust in Sherman’s eyes,” with Grant enjoying it all greatly, Sherman turned and said, “Well, Grant, I think we can trust her.” Then he said to Julia, “Never mind, Mrs. Grant; perhaps some day the women will vote and control affairs, and then they will take us men in hand and subject us to worse cross-examinations than that.”
Grant suddenly spoke up. “Not if my plan of female suffrage is adopted.”
“Why, Ulys,” Julia said, “you never told me you had any plans regarding that subject.”
“Oh, yes,” Grant continued. “I would give each married woman two votes; then the wives would all be represented at the polls, without there being any divided families on the subject of politics.”
Then Grant and Sherman got down to business, in what Julia called “a long talk of troops and movements.” They both knew the various possibilities—the war could end with Sherman defeating Johnston in North Carolina and Grant defeating Lee in Virginia, or Lee might make a sudden march south with the remains of his Army of Northern Virginia to link up with Johnston for a final combined stand, or Johnston might be able to come north to aid Lee. Sherman now said that whatever movements Johnston might make, he felt he could march north immediately to join in a final defeat of Lee. “Grant, if you want me to help you, I can come up. Yes, I can manage it, I’m sure.” Grant answered, “No, I can manage everything myself. You hold Joe Johnston just where he is. I do not want him around here.”
When dinner was announced, Sherman took Julia into the headquarters mess on his arm. After all the other dinner guests had gone and Grant and Sherman continued to talk, with Grant’s staff officer Horace Porter still present, thirty-four-year-old Major General Philip Sheridan arrived near midnight, explaining that he was late because the train bringing him had been derailed. In the sixteen months since Grant commended him for his “prompt pursuit”—indeed, the only effective pursuit—of the enemy after the taking of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga at the end of November 1863, Sheridan had risen to hold a unique place within the Union Army. From being an able, aggressive commander of foot soldiers who had experience with mounted troops, he had become the leading cavalry general whose seven-month-long Shenandoah Valley Campaign against Jubal Early laid waste the fertile valley to the point that Sheridan said, “A crow could not fly across it without carrying his rations with him.” His campaign produced the important victories at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Waynesboro, but his most dramatic day came at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. When Sheridan, returning from a conference in Washington, learned at Winchester in the morning that his army had been routed in a surprise attack eight miles to the south at Cedar Creek, he raced there on his horse Rienzi. Arriving amid his demoralized retreating troops at about ten-thirty a.m., he leapt Rienzi across an improvised barricade made of fence rails. Facing his startled soldiers, he bellowed, “Men, by God, we’ll whip them yet! We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight!”
From that moment, aided by the Confederate delay in trying to exploit their original success, the Union front began to stabilize; when one of his generals said he could organize his units to cover an orderly retreat, Sheridan exclaimed, “Retreat, hell! We’ll be back in our camps tonight!” Reorganizing his scattered front, at noon he cantered all along the line, swinging his hat in his right hand, his head bared so that his men could see that it was indeed their commander, and was greeted with a roar as he came by. At four o’clock that afternoon, two hundred of Sheridan’s buglers sounded the signal to attack, and within ninety minutes the Confederates were swept from the field, pursued by some of Sheridan’s cavalrymen until long after dark. Grant praised Sheridan for “turning what bid fair to be disaster into glorious victory.”
A week before the night he walked into Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Sheridan had finished a daring month-long raid deep into Virginia, destroying railroads east of the Shenandoah Valley after finishing his valley campaign. The five-foot-five West Pointer, now the best-known Union general after Grant and Sherman, with George Gordon Meade being next due to his victory at Gettysburg, had proved to be the North’s bold and successful answer to the brave and dashing horsemen of the Confederacy. As he did with Sherman, Grant treated this commander of large and powerful mounted columns almost as an equal: he listened to Sheridan’s ideas and sometimes was persuaded by them, but his word was final.
Like Sherman, Sheridan wanted his share of the final victory. Having torn apart much of the western side of Virginia, he had decided to “join General Grant in front of Petersburg … Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.” Grant had urged him to come ahead, and the muscular little cavalryman now had nineteen thousand of his troopers, and their horses, encamped south of Petersburg, poised to go into action.
There would be different versions and interpretations of what Grant had previously told Sheridan concerning the role that his two cavalry divisions were to play in what they both knew was to be the last phase of the war. Grant had written Sheridan that he was to cut the Southside Railroad and the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which were Lee’s last means of moving south from Petersburg and Richmond to link up with Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. After that, Grant told Sheridan, he could either return to Grant’s front facing Lee in the north, “or go on to Sherman, as you deem most practicable.” (In his memoirs, Grant offered the questionable explanation that any talk of Sheridan going to serve with Sherman at this point was simply a “blind,” apparently to prepare an excuse; if Sheridan’s raid against the railroads failed, they both could simply claim that the real objective of the movement was to link up with Sherman’s army.)
That was the background against which a midnight talk among Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan now took place. Sherman started exploring the idea that the best use of Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions would indeed be to leave the Petersburg-Richmond area, heading immediately toward his army, so that by being farther south Sheridan would be in a better position to cut off Lee if he made a quick retreat to join Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Grant’s aide-de-camp Porter was still present and noted that “Sheridan became a good deal nettled by this, and argued earnestly against it; but General Grant soon cut short the discussion by saying that it had been decided that Sheridan was to remain with our army, then in front of Petersburg.”
Everyone then went to bed, but Sherman persisted: waking Sheridan well before dawn, he tried again to persuade him to move his cavalry divisions so that they were at least somewhat better positioned to come to North Carolina. This time, without Grant being present, Sherman got a taste of the powerful personality that had been directing destructive assaults in the Shenandoah Valley that compared with what Sherman had wreaked in his own famous campaigns. Sheridan, who knew he would be leading his columns to a jumping-off point within a few hours and wanted to sleep a little longer, bluntly told Sherman that they both had heard what Grant said. Orders were orders: Sheridan was staying in Virginia with Grant to deal with Lee, and Sherman was supposed to go back to North Carolina and catch up to Joseph E. Johnston.
Later in the morning, after General Meade and other leaders of Grant’s Eastern army came to visit with Sherman, Grant and Sherman were joined by their colleague from the Vicksburg campaign, Admiral David Dixon Porter, whose ships would be supporting the final land offensives. The three men presented themselves aboard the River Queen for what was to be a momentous conference with Abraham Lincoln, and the president greeted them and conducted them to the after cabin. Mindful of their breach of etiquette the day before, Sherman said that, “After the general compliments, General Grant inquired after Mrs. Lincoln, when the President went to her state-room, returned, and begged us to excuse her, as she was not well.”
Getting down to business, Grant reported, in Sherman’s words, that “at that very instant of time, General Sheridan was crossing James River from the north, by a pontoon bridge below City Point; that he had a large, well-appointed force of cavalry, with which he proposed to strike the Southside and Danville Railroads, by which alone General Lee, in Richmond, supplied his army; and that, in his judgment, matters were drawing to a crisis.”
Sherman, still wanting some part in defeating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, remarked that his own army in North Carolina “was strong enough to fight Lee’s army and Johnston’s combined,” if Grant could quickly support him. He added that in any case, if Lee would stay in his defensive positions in front of Richmond and Petersburg for another two weeks, he could vanquish Johnston in North Carolina and march into Virginia to help Grant finish Lee. Grant and Sherman both indicated that they expected there would be one more major battle. His voice filled with emotion, Lincoln said that there had been “blood enough shed” and asked if “another battle could not be avoided.” Sherman replied that the answer to whether a big final battle would occur lay with the enemy and that he thought Jefferson Davis and Lee would bring on “one more desperate and bloody battle.”
With Grant and Sherman assuring Lincoln that they were ready for any military eventuality and could soon defeat the armies of both Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, the conversation turned to what should happen when the final surrenders occurred. From this point on, Admiral Porter wrote in his notes of the meeting that Grant “sat smoking a short distance from the President” and had little more to say. Sherman said of his own part that he asked such things as, “What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc.? Should we allow them to escape, etc.?”
Now Lincoln started to speak at some length. “When at rest or listening,” Sherman recalled, “his arms and legs seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form unfolded.” In answer to what to do with Jefferson Davis, Sherman noted that Lincoln said Davis “ought to clear out, ‘escape the country,’ only it would not do for him to say so openly.” Lincoln often used homely little stories as political parables. Now he told of a man who offered a teetotaler some lemonade but pointed out to his guest that it would be “more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy.” Lincoln finished the anecdote with the teetotaler’s reply: “His guest said, if he could do so ‘unbeknown’ to him, he would not object.” Sherman later wrote, “From which illustration I inferred that Mr. Lincoln wanted Davis to escape, ‘unbeknown’ to him.”
As Grant continued to smoke a cigar and listen, Lincoln and Sherman proceeded to talk about what terms of peace should be offered to the states of the Confederacy. With this, the meeting came to a moment of supreme significance: four years before, the legislative bodies representing eight million white Southerners had withdrawn their respective states from the United States of America, to create a separate nation, the Confederate States of America. That effort, considered to be treason by many in the North, had failed, at a cost of more than half a million American lives. On what conditions were those rebellious states to reenter the national political framework from which they had removed themselves? As Sherman recalled what Lincoln now said, “In his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over … As soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country; and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto till Congress could provide others.”
This account of Lincoln’s postwar intentions suggests more crystallization of his specific ideas than was seen at this time by some of his governmental colleagues, but the president certainly had a deep desire for the fighting to end. Porter later stated that his impression during the meeting was that Lincoln “wanted peace on almost any terms,” and Sherman was soon to prove that he thought Lincoln was giving him a virtual carte blanche in bringing the war to a close in his area of operations. Grant, who sat silent throughout this part of the discussion, may have been less sure about the degree of latitude that Sherman thought he had: less than a month before, when Grant had forwarded to Secretary of War Stanton the overture sent him by Robert E. Lee, he had swiftly been told that Lincoln would authorize him to accept a military surrender but directed Grant that “you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands.”
Near noon, after a conversation of an hour and a half, Lincoln escorted Grant and Sherman to the gangway of the River Queen. Admiral Porter had arranged that Sherman would return to North Carolina aboard the Bat, an even faster ship than the one that had brought him to City Point. At that moment of harmonious parting among the participants in the meeting, no indication of any misunderstanding about policy seemed to exist. After being in Lincoln’s presence, Sherman had this impression of him: “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” Grant had the same reaction, describing Lincoln as “incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
Grant and Sherman had been reunited at City Point. When they saw each other again, it would be in the midst of an altogether unforeseen crisis.