Late on April 9, Grant’s headquarters sent Sherman a telegram that included a copy of the surrender terms, but, partly because of the continuing need for telegrams to travel part of the way to North Carolina by ship and partly because Sherman stuck to his plan to “haul out towards Raleigh” on April 10, it took three days for the message to catch up to his headquarters in the field, between Goldsboro and Raleigh. At five in the morning on April 12, Sherman sent off a telegram to Grant that began, “I have this moment received your telegram announcing the Surrender of Lee’s Army. I hardly Know how to express my feelings, but you can imagine them. The terms you have given Lee are magnanimous and liberal. Should Johnston follow Lee’s example, I shall of course grant the Same. He is retreating before me on Raleigh, and I shall be there tomorrow. Roads are heavy [muddy], but under the inspiration of the news from you, we can march 25 miles a day.”
The word of Appomattox spread through Sherman’s sleeping regiments at dawn, with horsemen cantering through the bivouacs as they shouted, “Lee’s surrendered!” Regiment after regiment exploded with joy. A man from Minnesota wrote, “I never heard such cheering in my life. It was one continuous roar for three hours.” Muskets were fired in the air; fifes and drums played “Yankee Doodle,” and Sherman sent this statement to his units: “Glory to God and our country, and all honor to our comrades in arms towards whom we are marching. A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won, and our Government stands regenerated, after four long years of war.”
The festivities continued into the night. Theodore Upson, a long-serving sergeant of the 100th Indiana, left this account of how things went at an encampment that evidently received the news late in the day.
We had a great blowout at Hd Quarters last night … Gen Woods came out saying “Dismiss the guard, Sergeant, and come into my tent.” I thought he was crazy or some thing, so asked for what reason. He said, “Don’t you know Lee has surrendered? No man shall stand guard at my Quarters tonight. Bring all the guards here” … Officers were coming from every direction … He had a great big bowl sitting on a camp table. The General handed me a tin cup. “Help yourself,” he said … I never had drank liquor, and I did not know what it would do to me.
After a while a band came. They played once or twice, drank some, played some more … then they played again but did not keep very good time. Some of them could not wait till they got through a tune till they had to pledge [toast] Grant and his gallant Army, also Lee and his grand fighters … The Band finally got so they were playing two or three tunes at once …
General Woods shook my hand and said he would promote me, that I could consider myself a Lieut. After a little more talk … he made me a Captain, and I might have got higher than that if the General had not noticed the Band was not playing … He found the members seated on the ground or anything else they could find, several on the big bass drum … He got the big drum, other officers took the various horns and started through the camps—every fellow blowing his horn to suit himself and the jolly old General pounding the bass drum for all it was worth.
Of course we all followed and some sang, or tried to sing, but when “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and “John Browns Body” or “Hail Columbia” and the “Star Spangled Banner” are all sung together they get mixed so I don’t think the singing was a grand success from an artistic point of view at least.
As the celebrations wound down, Sherman was trying to get in touch with Joseph E. Johnston, to see if he could bring the war to an end on his front. As his men approached North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh, with Johnston’s rear guard clearly trying to avoid contact, Sherman issued orders to cease laying waste the enemy’s country: “No further destruction of railroads, mills, cotton and produce, will be made without the specific orders of an army commander, and the inhabitants will be dealt with kindly, looking to an early reconciliation.”
After an agreement had been reached with Raleigh’s mayor that there would be no resistance–Johnston’s forces had been withdrawn to the north and northwest—Sherman’s advanced troops entered the city. Only one remaining diehard, wearing a blue uniform that made him suspect as a spy, fired revolver shots at them on his own initiative, and he was captured and quickly executed on the grounds that he had violated the surrender agreement.
Then Sherman ordered his army to parade through the streets, bands playing. This display of force was intended to impress the city’s residents with the futility of further resistance, and it did. Major General Henry Slocum’s chief of staff, thirty-five-year-old Union general Carl Schurz, the German-born antislavery orator who had ahead of him a career as a nationally prominent newspaper editor and political figure, said of the endless columns, “As far as the eye can reach is a sea of bayonets.” A young Southern woman who was watching wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and said through her tears, “It is all over with us; I see now, it is all over. A few days ago I saw General Johnston’s army, ragged and starved; now when I look at these strong healthy men and see them coming and coming—it is all over with us!” (A small boy who had been told that all Yankees were devils said that he had been watching them pass all morning and hadn’t seen one with horns on his head.) Sherman’s troops were on their best behavior, far different from their actions and attitude in Georgia and South Carolina. The Raleigh Daily Standard soon commented on “the gentlemanly bearing of the officers and men. From General Sherman to the humblest private, we have witnessed nothing but what has been proper and courteous.”
On April 14, Sherman received a letter from Johnston, asking for “a temporary suspension of active operations … to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.” This request for a truce was just what Sherman wanted, and he replied that the two armies should remain apart and that “I undertake to abide by the same terms and conditions as were made by Generals Grant and Lee … I will add that I really desire to save the people of North Carolina the damage they would sustain by the march of this army through the central or western parts of the State.”
Sherman felt that, after his meeting with Grant and Lincoln at City Point, he understood exactly what he was empowered to do, and that it was now up to Johnston to consult with “the civil authorities” to which he had referred in his letter. In a telegram to Grant, with a copy for Stanton, Sherman set forth the text of his exchange of letters with Johnston and said that he thought this “will be followed by terms of capitulation.” He repeated his intention of following Grant’s items of surrender agreed upon at Appomattox and added that he would “be careful not to complicate any point of civil policy.” He closed by saying he expected that, once Johnston received the Confederate governmental decision to surrender, “all the details are easily arranged.”
Joseph E. Johnston moved as quickly as he could, visiting scattered and confused Confederate officials in various locations in North Carolina. He finally tracked down Jefferson Davis in Charlotte, only to find the Confederate president talking about raising new Confederate armies and fighting on. Johnston bluntly told Davis that “it would be the greatest of human crimes for us to continue the war” and added that “the only function of government left in his possession” was that of agreeing to negotiations for peace. Davis did not give Johnston authority to do more than surrender his own army, but a meeting between Sherman and Johnston was finally set for April 17.
While Grant had been closing out the military side of the war, Lincoln had visited the enemy capital soon after its defenders evacuated the city. Alerted by Lee, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had left Richmond the night of Sunday, April 2, and within hours fires were set to destroy the Confederacy’s military records; warehouses filled with cotton, tobacco, and military supplies were also put to the torch. These soon burnt out of control, and other fires started by looters merged into an inferno that engulfed most of Richmond. Everything went up in flames: factories, hotels, business offices, residences. The following morning, federal cavalrymen rode into the still-flaming city, followed by white infantrymen led by a band playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and black troops marching to the tune of “Dixie.”
On the same day, Lincoln went from City Point to just-evacuated Petersburg, visited with Grant for an hour and a half, and returned to City Point. (Neither man left a record of what they discussed.) The following morning, April 4, the president left City Point for Richmond aboard the USS Malvern. Coming ashore accompanied by Admiral Porter and a squad of sailors armed with carbines, he was welcomed by Major General Jacob Weitzel, in charge of the Union forces occupying the smoldering enemy capital. As Lincoln walked through cheering crowds of blacks, many of these freed slaves fell to their knees before him, crying out that he was a “Messiah.” Asking them to get back on their feet, Lincoln told them, “Don’t kneel to me. You must kneel to God only and thank him for your freedom.”
After visiting the Confederate White House that Jefferson Davis had occupied until forty-eight hours before, Lincoln was driven through the city in a carriage and met with John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court who had served as the Confederacy’s assistant secretary of war. The president had last seen Campbell in early February, at the unsuccessful talks that became known as the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, held aboard Lincoln’s steamer River Queen in the waters off Fort Monroe on the Virginia coast. On that occasion, Lincoln and his secretary of state William Seward had met with Campbell, Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, and the Confederacy’s secretary of state R.M.T. Hunter, only to find that the South’s representatives still would not consider any peace that did not leave the Confederacy as an independent nation entitled to practice slavery.
As he left Richmond, Lincoln said to General Weitzel, speaking of the defeated Southerners, “If I were in your place, I’d let ‘em up easy, let ’em up easy.” Back at City Point two days later, knowing that Jefferson Davis was still fleeing, Lincoln wrote Weitzel: “It has been intimated to me that the gentlemen who have acted as the Legislature of Virginia, in support of the rebellion, may now … desire to assemble at Richmond, and take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops, and other support from resistance to the General [federal] government. If they attempt it, give them permission and protection.” With this, Lincoln was recognizing for the moment at least the legitimacy of Virginia’s Confederate legislature to act on behalf of Virginia in cooperating with the federal government—something that would soon bring him once again into a confrontation with the Radicals, who felt that a legislature that had voted to secede from the Union had no authority whatever, and that the only government suitable for a defeated Confederate state was a military occupation.
Everyone who saw Lincoln at this time, in Washington and anywhere else, was struck by the sorrow marked on his face. The poet Walt Whitman, who profoundly admired Lincoln and had spent the war working with the wounded in military hospitals in the Washington area, had recently described Lincoln in a letter to a friend he had met in the course of his work, a nineteen-year-old Confederate captain from Mississippi who lost a leg at Fredericksburg and was taken to Washington as a prisoner: “He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.” In addition to bearing the enormous responsibilities of the convulsive national crisis for the past four years, Lincoln had truly meant it when in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4 he had said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Above even his constant concern for his soldiers and their families—in his speech he pledged “to care for him who has borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan”—he loved the entire nation, the South as well as the North, and was painfully aware of the passions bred by four years of war. On the one hand, he had such Radicals as Congressman George W. Julian of Indiana, who three years before had said, looking ahead to a Union victory, “Let us convert the rebel States into conquered provinces, remanding them to the status of mere Territories, and governing them as such in our discretion.” Since then Julian had developed that view into this, from a speech he made on the House floor on February 7, less than a month before Lincoln’s “With malice toward none” address: “Both the people and our armies … have been learning how to hate rebels as Christian patriots ought to have done from the beginning.” On the other hand, Lincoln was equally aware of Southern emotions such as those expressed after the surrender at Appomattox, when a Union general told Confederate general Henry A. Wise that he hoped there would be good relations between North and South. Wise, a former governor of Virginia, replied, “There is a rancor in our hearts that you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”
Apart from the great issues that weighed upon him, Lincoln, like Sherman, had experienced personal tragedy during the war. A year and a half before the Shermans’ son Willy died at the age of nine, the Lincolns’ eleven-year-old son William Wallace Lincoln had died of malaria in Washington. (Jefferson Davis and his wife Marina also lost a child when their five-year-old son Joseph Evan Davis fell to his death from a porch fifteen feet high at the Confederate White House in Richmond in 1864.)
With all his cares, Lincoln spoke of himself as “very greatly rejoiced” by the news of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9. The day after that, talking to a crowd in Washington that had brought along two or three bands to serenade him, Lincoln said, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted … that we fairly captured it.” As the crowd applauded, Lincoln added, to more applause and laughter, “I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his opinion that it is our lawful prize.”
The next evening, as he made a much longer speech, the public saw a different Lincoln, thoughtful and intense. Here was the eve of peace, but throughout the war he had never been able to get a consensus in Congress for his specific plans for the postwar treatment of the South, and had opposed the Radicals in such a way that they could not enact their harsher views into law. His mood at the moment seemed to match the weather. It was a misty night; reading by the light of a candle held by an aide, Lincoln began speaking to an enthusiastic crowd that had gathered beneath the shadowy second-floor balcony window of the White House, expecting to hear a victory speech. He began as his listeners expected him to, saying, “We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” and added, paying tribute to the recent successes of “General Grant, his skillful officers, and brave men,” that “no part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine.”
Despite Lincoln’s saying that he hoped for “a righteous and speedy peace,” those who wanted a rousing speech soon found themselves disappointed. They were listening to a scholarly soliloquy, in which Lincoln revealed himself as still wrestling with the moral problems and political realities that lay ahead at this moment when Lee had surrendered to Grant and Sherman was clearly moving to finish off the one remaining large Confederate force under Joseph E. Johnston.
Concerning “reconstruction, as the phrase goes,” Lincoln called it a prospect “fraught with difficulty.” Speaking defensively, he referred to a criticism “that my mind has not seemed definitely fixed on the question whether the seceded states, so called, are in the Union or out of it.” Terming that question “a merely pernicious abstraction,” he said, “We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation to the Union, and that the sole object of the [federal] government, civil and military, is to again get them into that proper practical relation.” Lincoln told the crowd, “We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements.” He added, using as an example the continuing efforts made during the war to form and maintain a state government in Louisiana that was acceptable to the Union, that in the coming period “no exclusive, and inflexible plan can be prescribed as to details.” Again using the example of what might be accomplished in Louisiana, he spoke in favor of “giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the franchise upon the colored man.” As for who among the blacks should have the right to vote, Lincoln was at the moment for being selective: “I would myself prefer that it now were conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
The mist turned to rain; before Lincoln finished speaking, a considerable number of the crowd drifted away. The man who had led the nation through its greatest crisis, the man who had held the border states in the Union and nonetheless freed so many slaves was being honest and realistic enough to say of those who had supported the Union that even now “we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.” This speech of Lincoln’s on April 11, two days after the surrender at Appomattox, was not the speech the crowd wanted to hear.
The next day, in a cabinet meeting and in separate discussions with several cabinet members, Lincoln discovered that his advisers had learned about his recent dealings in Richmond with the Confederate leader Campbell and his subsequent instruction to Union general Weitzel to allow the Virginia legislature to assemble for the purpose of withdrawing from the Confederacy. (Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, who had been with Lincoln at City Point and knew about all this, had sent reports to his superior, Secretary of War Stanton, about the matter, and Stanton had passed on the information to Attorney General James Speed and Postmaster General William Dennison.) Lincoln, who took the position that he had “just seen” a letter from Campbell to Weitzel in which Campbell spoke of reassembling the Virginia legislature in its official capacity, tried to argue that he was simply trying “to effect a reconciliation as soon as possible.” He added that he had never intended to treat the Virginia legislators as “a rightful body,” but his cabinet resolutely opposed him on the issue. Finally admitting that he “had perhaps made a mistake,” Lincoln gave up on the initiative he had discussed with Campbell and later in the day wrote Weitzel, concerning the Virginia legislators, “Do not allow them to assemble, but if any have come, allow them safe-return to their homes.”
While Sherman continued trying to bring things to an end in North Carolina, Julia Grant reported that in Washington “everyone was wild with delight” about the surrender. Grant returned to City Point from Appomattox shortly after four a.m. on Tuesday, April 13, and Julia noted, “About fifty generals of high rank and other officials breakfasted with us that morning.” Later in the morning, she, Grant, and “a large number of other officers” went up to Washington aboard the Mary Martin, and as they came up the Potomac, “all the bells rang out in merry greetings, and the city was literally swathed in flags and bunting. The sun shone brightly, and the very winds seemed on a frolic.” Julia was struck by the appearance of the American flag at the landing: the wind had come up strongly, and the Stars and Stripes was “broadly spread as though to show that not a single star was lost from that blue field … Our Union is safe.” Grant drove in a carriage with Julia and the wife of John Rawlins to the fashionable Willard Hotel and then, Julia said, “as soon as he saw me comfortably located, went straight to the Executive Mansion” to meet with Lincoln.
The excitement in the city that Julia saw on arriving by boat was a foretaste of the evening to come: Washington was to have a “Grand Illumination” that night, with government buildings lit by flaming gas jets, some designed as stars and eagles, and others spelling out “Peace” and “Victory.” Candles would shine brightly in every window of the government buildings and many of the residents’ houses; there would be bonfires in the streets and in front of statues, and fireworks in the sky. Julia was looking forward to the events of the evening, which would include a reception honoring Grant at Stanton’s house, to take place after the Grants and the Stantons rode around the city together in a carriage to see the city in its festival mood. Then, at a moment when Grant was out, a note from Mrs. Lincoln was delivered to the Grants at the Willard, and Julia opened it. Addressed only to Grant and not mentioning Julia, it said, “Mr. Lincoln is indisposed with quite a severe headache, yet would be very pleased to see you at the [White] house this evening about 8 o’clock & I want you to drive around with us to see the illumination.”
When Grant returned—apparently Lincoln was feeling so bad that he held meetings with Grant, Secretary of War Stanton, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles but did not venture out of the White House until the next day—Julia showed him this invitation. Grant’s first reaction was that this would be fine; Julia would ride around the city with the Stantons and he would ride with Mrs. Lincoln and come by himself to the Stantons’ after that, but he quickly learned that would not do. “To this plan,” Julia recalled, “I protested and said I would not go at all unless he accompanied me.” Grant retreated and said he would first ride around Washington with Julia and the Stantons, then “escort the wife of our President to see the illumination” as he felt it his duty to do, and then come to the party at the Stantons’. “This was all satisfactory to me,” Julia said, “as it was the honor of being with him when he first viewed the illumination in honor of peace being restored to the nation, in which he had so great a share—it was this I coveted.”
And so Julia and her “Ulys” drove through the brilliantly lit streets—the Capitol’s marble dome and portico were gleaming, and many flags hung from the balconies and windows of the White House. There were thirty-five hundred candles in the windows of the Government Post Office, and six thousand illuminated the Patent Office. Lanterns glowed everywhere, and fireworks exploded high above them as crowds surged through the streets while bands playing patriotic tunes marched in every direction. Later, at the Stantons’ house, Grant was the center of attention. Julia wrote, “All of the great men of the nation who were necessarily in Washington at that time were assembled that night. Such congratulations, such friendly, grateful grasps of the hand and speeches of gratitude!” The next day would mark the fourth anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sumter after the Confederate bombardment that began the fighting. On that day in 1861, Ulysses S. Grant, who had been forced to resign as a captain, a rank three grades below that of colonel, was not yet back in the army. Now he was the victorious commander of a force that had grown to a million men.
On the morning of that next day, Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Julia had plans to go to Burlington, New Jersey, where she and Grant had rented a house for her and their four children to use when they were not visiting him at his headquarters at City Point. She had their seven-year-old son Jesse with them in Washington, but now she wanted to get back to the other three children and asked Grant to come with her on the evening train to Philadelphia and then on to Burlington. Grant explained that he had to go to the White House at eleven that morning to meet Lincoln and his cabinet to discuss “the reduction of the army” and doubted he could get away at any point that day. Finally, when Julia said she could not wait until the next day, he said, “Well, I will see what I can do. I will certainly go if it is possible.”
At noon, a man whose looks Julia did not like arrived at the Willard Hotel and said to her, “Mrs. Lincoln sends me, Madam, with her compliments, to say that she will call for you at exactly eight o’clock to go to the theater.” On hearing what he had to say—there was no written message, and in any event the tone of it “seemed like a command”—she told the man to convey her regrets to Mrs. Lincoln and to say that she and Grant would be leaving the city that afternoon. The man persisted, saying, “Madam, the papers say that General Grant will be with the President tonight at the theater.” Julia told him to leave.
I dispatched a note to General Grant entreating him to take me home that evening; that I did not want to go to the theater; that he must take me home. I not only wrote to him, but sent three of his staff officers who called to pay their respects to me to urge the General to go home that night. I do not know what possessed me to take such a freak, but go home I felt I must.
Grant sent word that if he could possibly accompany them to Burlington, he would pick Julia and Jesse up at the hotel and they would go together to the station. Lincoln had indeed invited him and Julia to the theater—Mrs. Lincoln wanted to see Our American Cousin, a popular farce that was having its last performance at the Ford Theatre—but Grant was able to make their excuses. Julia was having a “late luncheon with Mrs. Rawlins and her little girl and my Jesse” at the hotel when four men came in and sat at the next table. Julia thought she recognized the man who had brought the message purporting to be from Mrs. Lincoln, and she was particularly struck by the behavior of “a dark, pale man” who “played with his soup spoon, sometimes filling it and holding it half-lifted to his mouth, but never tasting it. This occurred many times. He also seemed very intent on what we and the children were saying. I thought he was crazy.” Quietly, Julia asked Mrs. Rawlins what she thought of the men at the next table, and when Mrs. Rawlins agreed that their behavior seemed “peculiar,” Julia said, referring to a famous Confederate raider, “I believe they are part of Mosby’s guerrillas and they have been listening to every word we have said. Do you know, I believe there will be an outbreak tonight or soon. I just feel it and am glad I am going away tonight.”
The cabinet meeting that Lincoln had invited Grant to attend began at eleven and went on for three hours. The entire cabinet was present, except for Secretary of State Seward, who had been severely injured in a carriage accident nine days before and was in a weakened condition at home in bed. On some matters there was agreement: as soon as the victory was complete, unhindered commercial relations should be established with the states that had seceded, and the Departments of Treasury and the Interior would resume their normal functions in the South, along with the reestablishment of one national postal service under the postmaster general.
Then the substance and the mood of the meeting changed. Lincoln not only believed in magnanimity toward the defeated South, but was convinced, as he now told his cabinet, that as a practical matter, “We can’t undertake to run State governments in all these Southern states. Their people must do that—though I reckon at first some of them may do it badly.” This did not precipitate an argument, but it was generally agreed that an army of occupation would be needed, with military governors ruling the former Confederate states under martial law until some form of civilian rule was reestablished. (In this connection, the Commonwealth of Virginia would become, in administrative terminology, Military District No. 1.)
Lincoln was ready to give up on some of the specifics of what was to be done in the postwar situation, even deferring for the moment the matter of who in the South should be allowed to vote, but he persisted in putting forward his philosophy of what was needed. He did not want trials of the Southern leaders, or hangings. His solution: “Frighten them out of the country,” he told his advisers, waving his hands as if shooing something away. “Let down the bars, scare them off.” He expressed his fears about the “feelings of hate and vindictiveness” among many in Congress.
Unanimity in the room was reestablished when Lincoln asked Grant to tell the cabinet about the surrender at Appomattox. Lincoln was clearly pleased when Grant said of the Confederates, “I told them to go back to their homes and families, and they would not be molested, if they did nothing more.” Some of Lincoln’s advisers then wanted to know about Sherman’s progress toward finishing things with Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina, and Grant responded that he was expecting to hear more about that at any hour.
The reference to Sherman prompted Lincoln to tell the meeting about a dream he had the previous night. He was aboard a ship moving with “great rapidity” toward a shore that he described as “vast” and “indefinite.” Lincoln said that it was the same dream he had before receiving the news of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and other victories. He felt certain that this time the good news was coming from North Carolina. “I think it must be from Sherman,” Lincoln said. “My thoughts are in that direction, as are most of yours.”
The cabinet meeting had finished in time for Grant to make good on his promise to Julia that he would accompany her to Burlington, New Jersey, that evening. As Grant, Julia, and their young son Jesse rode to the station with the wife of General Daniel Rucker, whose carriage they were in, Julia recalled, speaking of the strange person she had seen at lunch, “This same dark, pale man rode past us at a sweeping gallop on a dark horse—black, I think. He rode twenty yards ahead of us, wheeled and returned, and as he passed us both going and returning, he thrust his face quite near the General’s, and glared in a disagreeable manner.” When Mrs. Rucker said, “General, everyone wants to see you,” Grant replied, “Yes, but I do not care for such glances. They are not friendly.”
In Philadelphia, before taking a ferryboat across the Delaware to get the train for Burlington at Camden, New Jersey, the Grants stopped to dine at Bloodgood’s Hotel, near the ferry slip. Grant had not eaten since nine that morning and ordered some oysters. “Before they were ready for him,” Julia said, “a telegram was handed to him, and almost before he could open this, another was handed him, and then a third.” She described her husband’s reaction. “The General looked very pale. ‘Is there anything the matter?’ I inquired. ‘You look startled.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Something very serious has happened. Do not exclaim. Be quiet and I will tell you. The president has been assassinated at the theater. I must go back at once. I will take you to Burlington … see the children, order a special train, and return as soon as it is ready.’”
When Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was tracked down and killed while resisting capture, Julia thought from seeing pictures of him that he was the “dark, pale man” who had watched her so carefully at lunch and then ridden so close to the carriage taking them to the station. An unsolved element of mystery was added to the shock and horror of the night that Lincoln was shot, dying the next morning. In her memoirs, Julia recalled that the next morning an unsigned letter arrived, saying, “General Grant, thank God, as I do, that you still live. It was your life that fell to my lot, and I followed you on the [railroad] cars. Your car door was locked, and thus you escaped me, thank God.” (Years later, Grant confirmed that such a letter had come; soon after the assassination he said that he wished he had been in the presidential box at the theater when the attack occurred, because he might have been able to disarm Booth, or step in the way of the bullet intended for Lincoln.)
It had indeed been a wider plot, involving a total of nineteen conspirators. The first part was the attack on Lincoln. At about twenty minutes past ten on the evening of April 14, the famous actor John Wilkes Booth, who was not in the play Lincoln and his wife were watching, entered the presidential box and fired his small derringer pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head. Shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”—Thus always to tyrants—Booth leapt to the stage, brandishing a dagger. According to one shocked witness, he exclaimed, “The South shall be free!” before he ran through the wings of the stage and escaped.
At the same time, six blocks away near Lafayette Park, another conspirator, a tall, strong, well-dressed man who was using the name John Powell, entered the house of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was bedridden from his recent carriage accident. Seward was lying in his sickbed on the third floor, with his broken arm in a cast and a metal brace immobilizing his head and neck as his fractured jaw healed. Powell claimed that he had some medicine that must be given to Seward; brushing past a servant, he had reached the second floor when Seward’s son Frederick confronted him. The mysterious intruder pulled out a revolver. When it failed to fire, Powell repeatedly struck Frederick on the skull with a pistol butt, causing five fractures and leaving him lying in his blood. Pulling out a big bowie knife, the assailant dashed up the next flight of stairs and into Seward’s bedroom, where he ran into Seward’s daughter Fanny and a male army nurse tending to Seward, who was lying helpless in his bed. Powell hit Fanny so hard that she fell to the floor unconscious, and then he slashed the male nurse across the forehead with his knife before hitting him so that he too fell unconscious to the floor. Finally coming to the bed where the defenseless Seward lay, Powell stabbed Seward deep in the cheek, nearly cutting his cheek from his face, and then knifed him several times more, including three stabs into his neck. At this moment Major Augustus Seward, another of the secretary of state’s sons, rushed into the room, and in the ensuing struggle, Powell stabbed him seven times. By this time the army nurse had recovered consciousness and came at Powell, who wrestled with him and stabbed him four more times. Then Powell fled down the stairs, stabbing in the chest a State Department messenger who happened to be entering the house. Having left blood splashed all over the stairs, walls, and front steps, Powell ran from the house, shouting, “I’m mad! I’m mad!” He leapt onto a horse and dashed into the darkness.
As the night passed, the city of Washington, so joyous and relieved about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox less than a week before, filled with chaotic horror. Lincoln was mortally wounded and was unconscious and sinking but not yet dead. It was believed that Seward could not live. At the Kirkwood House, the hotel where Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying, a detective searched the room of a man named George A. Atzerodt, who had checked in that morning and was no longer there, and found a concealed loaded pistol and a bowie knife. There was reason to think that other government figures were targets for assassination and might be killed at any time. Orders were given to army sentries surrounding the city to let no one pass through their lines, and soldiers were placed on guard at the houses of the nation’s leaders. Every train leaving the city for Baltimore had soldiers aboard, searching for suspects. Inside Ford’s Theatre, all the actors and employees were detained for questioning. In the streets, when the crowds saw police escorting individuals who were in fact witnesses who wished to tell what they had seen in the hope of helping the investigation, they thought they were seeing some of the plotters, and cries arose for them to be hanged on the spot.
At the boardinghouse near the theater where Lincoln had been taken, Mary Todd Lincoln, who had witnessed the attack as she sat beside her husband and had cradled him in her arms until he was carried away, screamed at Assistant Treasury Secretary Maunsell B. Field, “Why didn’t he shoot me! Why didn’t he shoot me! Why didn’t he shoot me!” In the confusion, Secretary of War Stanton first went to Seward’s house, where there was blood all the way from the front door to the third-floor bedroom where Seward had been attacked; he and the other victims were being treated by hastily summoned doctors. (All would survive.) Anyone would have been severely shaken by the nightmare scene of blood splashed everywhere; Stanton never commented on whether the shattering moment reminded him of the suicide of his brother, during which “the blood spouted up to the ceiling.” Stanton went next to the house where Lincoln lay. When he saw Lincoln, Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes whispered to him, “Mr. Lincoln cannot recover.” Stanton, a man who never displayed his emotions, began sobbing loudly, his shoulders convulsively shaking for several minutes. The other members of Lincoln’s cabinet joined Stanton there by midnight; Stanton soon composed himself and took control of the situation, using the little house as a command post for sending out communications about the governmental emergency. Standing beside Lincoln’s bed when the president died at 7:22 the next morning, April 15, 1865, Stanton said quietly, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
The news of the attack on Lincoln spread from Washington across the North like a thunderclap. The New York Times, appearing on the streets the morning of April 15 with a report sent from Washington before Lincoln died, had the headline, “AWFUL EVENT,” with the subheadlines, “President Lincoln Shot by an Assassin,” “The Act of a Desperate Rebel,” “No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery.” Word of his death followed swiftly, flashed across the nation’s telegraph lines. It was almost impossible to believe: in the hour of victory, with the restoration of the Union a step away, the man who had led the nation through its darkest hours had been torn from the people he loved and served.
On that Saturday morning, the bells began tolling. Stores shut their doors; in New York City an art gallery closed, leaving in its big glass window only one empty picture frame. Broad ribbons of black crepe began appearing on houses, churches, and public buildings. In the camps of the Army of the Potomac, there was anger at the South, but the main reaction was one of stunned grief. One officer said his men “seemed stupefied by the terrible news.” A young soldier of the 148th Pennsylvania burst into tears, sobbing, “He was our best friend. God bless him,” and a private wrote home, “What a hold Old Abe had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.” When Admiral David Dixon Porter heard the news upon landing at Baltimore aboard the USS Tristram Shandy, he wrote his mother, “The United States has lost the greatest man she ever produced.”
During the next days, the headlines were followed by editorials and tributes; speeches and sermons were given everywhere. On April 19, the voice of intellectual New England was heard at the Unitarian Church in Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson told the assembled mourners, “The President stood before us as a man of the people … His occupying of the chair of state was a triumph of the good sense of mankind, and of the public conscience … His powers were superior. This man grew according to the need.” Speaking of Lincoln’s wartime leadership, he said, “There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper, his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the centre of a heroic epic. He is the true history of the American people in this time.”
At the time Emerson was speaking, Walt Whitman, who so greatly admired Lincoln, had already begun pouring out his grief in a poem, “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day.” He would later publish two other heartfelt tributes—“O Captain! My Captain!” and the sublime “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the latter with its line, “O powerful western fallen star!”—but having cared for so many wounded Union soldiers, in his first shock Whitman clung to something of which he was certain. The average soldier believed, rightly, that Lincoln cared about him and admired him, and using the word “celebrate” to mean commemorate, honor, and solemnize, Whitman wrote of the bond that he knew existed between them and their murdered leader:
Hush’d be the camps to-day,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander’s death.
No more for him life’s stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat—no more time’s dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.
But sing poet in our name,
Sing of the love we bore him—because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.
As they invault the coffin there,
Sing—as they close the doors of earth upon him—one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.
Once again, while all in the North learned of Lincoln’s death swiftly, because of the need for communications sent to Sherman’s army to go part of the way by ship, news traveled slowly from Washington to Sherman’s headquarters in North Carolina. At eight o’clock on the morning of April 17, forty-eight hours after Lincoln’s death, Sherman and several of his staff were boarding the special train of one locomotive and two passenger cars taking him north from Raleigh to meet Joseph E. Johnston near Durham to discuss the terms of surrender of Johnston’s army. At that moment, Sherman said, “The telegraph operator, whose office was up-stairs in the depot-building, ran down to me and said that he was at that instant of time receiving a most important dispatch in cipher from Morehead City, which I ought to see. I held the train for nearly half an hour, when he returned with the message translated [decoded] and written out.”
The telegram was from Stanton: it gave the facts of Lincoln’s assassination and said there was reason to think that Grant, newly sworn-in President Andrew Johnson, and other political and military leaders might be targets themselves. (Sherman would also receive a warning from Stanton of a report that he was a specific target, but nothing came of that.)
Reading this telegram as the train waited for his order to pull out, Sherman immediately found himself “dreading the effects of such a message at that critical time.” He knew that “Mr. Lincoln was particularly endeared to the soldiers, and I feared that some foolish woman or man in Raleigh might say something or do something that would madden our men, and that a fate worse than that of Columbia would befall the place.” Telling the telegraph operator to let no one learn of Lincoln’s death, Sherman said nothing of this to his staff officers and simply let it be known that he would return to Raleigh that afternoon.
About two and a half hours later, Sherman was greeted politely by Johnston, whom he had never met, at a place in the countryside a few miles from Durham, and the two of them went into a small frame house that belonged to a local farmer and his wife, James and Nancy Bennett. “As soon as we were alone together I showed him the dispatch announcing Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, and watched him closely. The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead, and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee, or the officers of the Confederate army, could possibly be privy to acts of assassination; but I would not say as much for Jeff. Davis.”
Turning to the immediate military situation, Johnston readily agreed that “any further fighting would be ‘murder;’ but he thought that, instead of surrendering piecemeal, we might arrange terms that would embrace all the Confederate armies.” When Sherman asked Johnston if he had the authority to surrender all the Confederate forces still spread out in places like Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and parts of Georgia, Johnston said that he did not but indicated that he thought that, “during the night,” he could get Davis’s agreement for what Sherman termed “a universal surrender.” They agreed to meet at the same place the next day and ended what Sherman called an “extremely cordial” conversation, “satisfying me that it could have but one result … to end the war as quickly as possible.”
Back in Raleigh, Sherman issued a Special Field Order to his army, informing the troops of Lincoln’s assassination, denouncing the crime and at the same time saying he knew that “the great mass of the Confederate army would scorn to sanction such acts.” He cautioned his officers “to watch the soldiers closely, to prevent any violent retaliation by them,” and it was well that he did. A major wrote in his diary, “The army is crazy for vengeance.” Most of the troops contented themselves with storming around their bivouacs, shouting angrily and bellowing out the song, “We’ll Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree,” but about two thousand men from one encampment headed toward Raleigh, and only the threat of being blasted by their own artillery—a battery was placed right in the road, the cannon aimed at them—stopped the potential violence. Sherman spent the night riding from one of his divisions to another, keeping the peace, and later said, “Had it not been for me Raleigh would have been destroyed.” The next day, a large meeting of citizens of Raleigh convened at the Wake County Court House. In an action that helped calm the situation to some degree, the meeting quickly drafted, approved, and circulated a resolution “to express our utmost abhorrence of the atrocious deed.” (When a Southern lady expressed to Sherman her pleasure that Lincoln had been killed, he replied, “Madam, the South has lost the best friend it had.”)
Conferring with his generals about the overall situation, Sherman found that their greatest concern was that he sign something that would guarantee an end to the fighting. They had chased Johnston and his hardened troops all over the South. Johnston still had forty-five thousand men in the area, and Sherman said that his generals now told him that if these negotiations failed “they all dreaded the long and harassing march in pursuit of a dissolving and fleeing enemy—a march that might carry us back again over the thousand miles that we had just accomplished. We all knew that if we could bring Johnston’s army to bay, we could destroy it in an hour, but that was simply impossible in the country in which we found ourselves.” Sherman, remembering his conversation with Lincoln at City Point, asked his generals if he should let Jefferson Davis and his fleeing cabinet “escape from the country” if they fell into his army’s hands. One of them, mentioning the capital of the British island chain of the Bahamas off the Florida coast, replied that, “If asked for, we should even provide a vessel to carry them to Nassau from Charleston.”
On his way to meet Johnston again that afternoon, Sherman felt mounting pressure to get the entire situation settled. Today he found Johnston, while making statements that proved to be entirely honest, also to be as adroit in negotiations as he had been in his long series of retreats. Johnston had prepared himself for this second meeting as fully as a lawyer prepares for a negotiation or a trial. Sherman said that he “assured me that he had the authority to surrender all the Confederate armies, so that they would obey his orders to surrender on the same terms with his own, but he argued that, to obtain so cheaply this desirable result, I ought to give his men and officers some assurance of their political rights after the surrender.”
This was taking Sherman right into the area of “civil policy” that Stanton and Grant insisted he avoid. Sherman pointed out that an 1863 proclamation of amnesty by Lincoln, still in force, enabled every Confederate soldier below the rank of colonel to regain citizenship “by simply laying down his arms, and taking the common oath of allegiance”; he added that Grant’s terms to Lee had embodied the same principle, extending it, as Sherman told Johnston, “to all the officers, General Lee included.” The procedure for regaining full citizenship, Sherman reassured Johnston, was established; this meeting, however, was not to determine everyone’s postwar civil status, but to stop the fighting.
Johnston conceded that “the officers and men of the Confederate army were unnecessarily alarmed about this matter, as a sort of bugbear,” but he insisted that there needed to be some guarantees about their postwar status committed to paper. He then told Sherman that John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was nearby and available to join their discussion.
This gave Sherman pause. Breckinridge, the prewar vice president of the United States under Democratic president James Buchanan, had run for president against Lincoln under the Southern Democrat banner in the four-way 1860 presidential race, losing to Lincoln but winning more electoral votes than the other two contestants. Named by Kentucky to serve in the United States Senate, late in 1861 he had resigned to go with the South, serving for three years in the Confederate Army and rising to the rank of major general. Ten weeks before this meeting between Sherman and Johnston, Breckinridge had been appointed by Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s secretary of war. “I objected,” Sherman said of this proposal that Breckinridge sit in with them, “on the score that he was then in Davis’s cabinet, and our negotiations should be confined strictly to [military] belligerents.” Johnston countered with the thought that “Breckinridge was a major-general in the Confederate army, and might sink his character of [not act as] Secretary of War.”
Sherman thought about all this. He had an army that had already shown it could explode with wrath about Lincoln’s assassination, and he could understand that now, more than ever, the soldiers of the South might want to know what lay ahead for them if they surrendered. He had his generals urging him to get it all settled; they did not want another long march to hunt down an elusive foe. The night before, Sherman had written to one of his generals who was stationed at New Bern, “There is great danger that the Confederate armies will dissolve and fill the whole land with robbers and assassins,” and added that he needed to restore order: “I don’t want Johnston[’]s army to break up in fragments.”
Sherman also remembered his meeting with Lincoln and Grant aboard the River Queen, during which, as Admiral Porter remembered it, Lincoln expressed the thought that “he wanted peace on almost any terms.” Perhaps Sherman thought that to have Breckinridge—a man who was both a Confederate general and the Confederate secretary of war—enter the discussions now might add further weight to this parlay’s authority to create a widespread cease-fire. He agreed to have Breckinridge join them; as soon as he arrived, Breckinridge “confirmed what he [Johnston] had said as to the uneasiness of the Southern officers and soldiers about their political rights in case of surrender.” At this point, a Confederate courier brought in a sheaf of papers for Johnston, who explained that they were from John Reagan, the South’s postmaster general, who was traveling with Davis as the Confederate president moved through the South to avoid federal capture. After Johnston and Breckinridge looked over these papers and had “some side conversation,” as Sherman put it, Johnston handed one of the documents to Sherman. It was the Confederate government’s proposal for peace, apparently ready to sign if Sherman would just do that. Sherman looked at the document: “It was in Reagan’s handwriting, and began with a long preamble and terms, so general and verbose, that I said they were inadmissible.”
There the three men sat, Sherman perhaps a bit nettled that the Confederate government, its armies defeated on the battlefield, would try to set the terms for peace. He was not going to sign what had been put before him, but he felt he must do something.
Then recalling the conversation of Mr. Lincoln, at City Point, I sat down at the table, and wrote off the terms, and explained that I was willing to submit these terms to the new President, Mr. Johnson, provided that both armies should remain in statu quo until the truce declared therein should expire. I had full faith that General Johnston would religiously respect the truce, which he did; and that I would be the gainer, for in the few days it would take to send the papers to Washington, and receive an answer, I could finish [repairing] the railroad up to Raleigh, and be the better prepared for a long chase.
With that, there was some conversation while the papers were copied and then signed by Sherman and Johnston. During this, Sherman, perhaps acting on his memory that Lincoln had observed at City Point that Jefferson Davis should for everyone’s sake “escape the country” if he could, advised Breckinridge to do that himself. Breckinridge replied that he would “speedily leave,” and Sherman soon took his special train back to Raleigh. At that moment, despite the acclaim Grant had received in Washington during the days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Sherman’s reputation throughout the North was nearly as great as Grant’s: a grateful Union saw him as the remarkable leader who had served prominently in one successful battle or campaign after another, all the way from Shiloh and Vicksburg to planning and riding at the head of his epic marches through Georgia and the Carolinas. No one, including Sherman, would have imagined that he would soon be in a predicament from which he could be saved only by Grant.