The morning after his second meeting with Joseph E. Johnston, Sherman sent Major Henry Hitchcock of his staff to Washington, carrying two copies of the surrender terms he had devised. One copy was to go to Grant, who since Appomattox was commanding the United States Army from an office in the War Department. The other was addressed to General Halleck, who, unknown to Sherman, Grant had shifted from his chief of staff position in the War Department to take command of forces in Virginia. Probably thinking that Halleck still had quicker access to President Andrew Johnson that Grant did, in his covering letter to Halleck, Sherman asked him to urge Johnson “not to vary the terms at all, for I have considered every thing, and believe that, the Confederate armies once dispersed, we can adjust all else fairly and well.” In a second letter to both Grant and Halleck, he said that what he had worked out would, “if approved by the President of the United States, produce peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande.” To Ellen he wrote, “I can see no slip. The terms are all on our side … If I accomplish this I surely think I will be entitled to a month[’]s leave to come and See you … I now expect a week of Comparative leisure till my messenger returns from Washington, and I will try to write more at length.”
The terms that Major Hitchcock was carrying north, to a capital aflame with new vengeful feelings toward the Confederacy, included several conditions. Rather than surrendering their muskets and cannon directly to the federal forces in the field, as had been done at Appomattox, the enemy regiments, apparently still carrying their muskets, were “to be conducted to their several State capitals.” There they would put all their weapons and equipment in each state arsenal, where they would remain available “to maintain peace and order”—in whose hands was not specified. Sherman also set forth procedures by which enemy soldiers would “file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide the action of both State and Federal authority,” and guaranteed to the citizens of the Confederate states “their political rights and franchises … as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.”
All that language about the ongoing authority at this time of states, when they were the states that had seceded from the Union and started a war that cost 360,000 Northern lives, was bad enough, but Sherman reinforced this by the article in his agreement that pledged the president of the United States to leave the present Southern state governments in place, as soon as their “officers and Legislature” took an oath of allegiance. There was in addition a provision about restoring to Southerners “their rights of person and property” that could be construed as continuing the right to own slaves.
Whatever he thought he had written and signed, Sherman had in fact abandoned his statement to Grant and Stanton that he would “be careful not to complicate points of civil policy.” His terms greatly exceeded the purely military surrender agreement that Grant and Lee had signed. In the last paragraph of his own agreement, Sherman stated that neither he nor Johnston was “fully empowered by our respective principals [the governments of the United States and the Confederacy] to fulfill these terms,” but went right on to say that “we individually and officially pledge ourselves to promptly obtain the necessary authority and to carry out the above programme.” Sherman and Johnston also agreed to give each other forty-eight hours’ notice before resuming the fight, if either of their governments rejected the document they had signed, but they clearly thought they had brought the war in the South to an end.
At four o’clock on the afternoon of April 21, two days after Sherman sent Hitchcock north to Washington carrying the copies of the signed surrender document, the major delivered one copy to Grant in his office at the War Department. As soon as Grant read its terms, he saw that they were unacceptable and immediately wrote this note to Stanton.
I have rec’d, and just completed reading the dispatches brought by Special Messenger from Gen. Sherman. They are of such importance that I think immediate action should be taken on them, and that it should be done by the President, in council with his whole Cabinet.
I would respectfully suggest whether the President should not be notified, and all his Cabinet, and the meeting take place tonight?
At eight that evening, with Grant present, President Andrew Johnson sat down with his cabinet. The preceding days had been ones of immense drama and tension. Two days before, Lincoln’s funeral services had been held in the overflowing East Room of the White House, with Grant standing alone at the head of the coffin as its chief military guard, tears rolling down his cheeks during the ceremony. The following day, thousands of grieving ordinary citizens had filed past Lincoln’s body as it lay in state in the Capitol’s rotunda. Twelve hours before this cabinet meeting, crowds had silently lined Washington’s streets to watch the procession as the slain president’s body was taken to the Baltimore and Ohio railroad station and placed aboard the black-wreathed train that would carry him to Philadelphia, New York, and other cities that would honor him during a twelve-day trip through the grieving North, before he was buried in his home state of Illinois.
It was in this highly charged atmosphere that President Johnson and his cabinet heard Stanton announce that Grant would read them the terms written and signed by Sherman. As soon as Grant finished, everyone immediately agreed that the document must be disavowed and rejected, but that was only the beginning. Grant characterized the meeting as being in a state of “the greatest consternation.” Johnson, Stanton, and Attorney General James Speed denounced Sherman as a traitor. According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Stanton, who was still fearful that he might be assassinated himself, “seemed frantic,” and the attorney general voiced the fear that Sherman might march his “victorious legions” up to Washington and take over the government.
Certainly Stanton, who just a week before had walked through blood in Secretary of State Seward’s house and been at Lincoln’s side when he died, might in his present state have associated what he knew of Sherman’s racial views, and these lenient terms Sherman had now committed himself to in dealing with Joseph E. Johnston, with an effort to undermine the victory. Stanton, like the other cabinet members present, was determined that the fighting should come to an end on terms acceptable to them and lead to a peace in which the victor’s word was law. Some Radicals felt that even the terms Grant gave Lee at Appomattox had been too generous and that Lee should now be in prison, awaiting trial and a possible death sentence for treason.
There were no notes taken at this tempestuous meeting; one secondhand account said that in the midst of this uproar, Grant, who had been the first to see that the terms could not stand, defended Sherman’s motives, but others made no mention of that. For the moment, in the still-shocked atmosphere of these days after Lincoln’s death, Sherman’s enormous contribution to victory was forgotten amid this sudden suspicion that he might somehow be selling out the Union at the last hour, or undercutting the results of all that had been sacrificed and won.
The thrust of the meeting became to undo what Sherman had done, and to do it swiftly. Again, there is some question as to whether Grant volunteered to take the next step and was then given authorization to implement it, or whether the meeting simply turned to him to solve the problem, or whether he was ordered to act. In any event, before the evening was out, he received from Stanton instructions that read, referring to Sherman’s agreement with Johnston, “You will give notice of disapproval to Gen Sherman and direct him to resume hostilities at the earliest moment.” Stanton enclosed a copy of the message he had sent Grant after Lee’s earlier peace overture in March, stating on Lincoln’s instructions that, concerning a political settlement, “such questions the president holds in his own hands,” and added that this also expressed “the views of President Andrew Johnson, and will be observed by Genl Sherman.” Stanton’s instructions closed with, “The President desires that you proceed immediately to the Hd Qtrs of Gen Sherman and direct operations against the enemy.”
This was in its way an order as difficult to execute wisely as any Grant had ever received, and it had the possibility of cutting the oft-tested bond between Sherman and Grant. Stanton’s language was clearly bellicose, indicating a perfect willingness to start shooting at the Confederates again and keep it up until they agreed to anything put before them. The order that Grant should “direct operations against the enemy”—words used in referring to battlefield movements, not to negotiations for a surrender—reinforced the authority that Grant possessed as general in chief to supersede Sherman and take active field command of his army.
Grant made plans to leave for North Carolina at midnight. At that moment, a telegram might have reached Sherman a few hours before Grant could get to Raleigh himself, but evidently not wishing any telegraph operator to see his words, and perhaps worried that he himself might be struck down by an assassin en route, Grant chose to write a letter stating what he wanted Sherman to know. He told Sherman of the “disapproval” of his agreement and instructed him to inform Johnston that, as matters stood, the truce would come to an end. With characteristic clarity, Grant set forth what was expected of the Confederates: “The rebels know well the terms upon which they can have peace and just where negociations [sic] can commence, namely: when they lay down their Arms and submit to the laws of the United States.”
For whatever reasons, Grant did not use any means of communication to tell Sherman that he was on his way to join him in North Carolina. As events would show, he intended this to be a mission of peace, not of war; determined that the fighting should not resume, he also hoped to save his friend Sherman from the crisis he had created. He enclosed to Sherman the copy of Lincoln’s distinction between military surrender and political settlement—Sherman was to say that he had never heard of that letter or its contents, and that may well have been true—and then wearily wrote Julia. Tired as he was, near the end of his letter he wrote words that indicated his sense of the international destiny that awaited the nation whose future unity he had done so much to ensure. “It is now nearly 11 O’Clock at night and I have received instructions from the Sec. of War, and the President, to start at once for Raleigh North Carolina. I start in an hour … I find my duties, anxieties, and the necessity for having all my wits about me, increasing instead of diminishing. I have a Herculean task to perform and shall endeavor to do it, not to please any one, but for the interest of our great country which is now begining [sic] to loom far above all other countries, modern or ancient.”
Despite the hour and the pressures on him, Grant developed this thought concerning the country’s future international role: “That Nation, united, will have a strength which will enable it to dictate to all others, conform to justice and right.” Speaking of the limits of power, the good it could achieve if used wisely, and the dangers of using it in an immoral way, he added, “Power I think can go no further. The moment conscience leaves, physical strength will avail nothing, in the long run.” Then Grant reverted to the purpose of his letter.
I only sat down to write you that I was suddenly required to leave on important duty, and not feeling willing to say what that duty is, you must await my return to know more.
Love and kisses for you and the children.
U. S. GRANT
In speaking of the “Herculean task” that lay before him, Grant almost certainly was thinking of more than what awaited him in North Carolina, pressing and crucial though the need to solve that problem was. In the days since Lincoln’s death he had seen political polarization in Washington. Vice President Andrew Johnson, sworn in as president three and a half hours after Lincoln’s death, was an unknown quantity; minutes after learning of the attack on Lincoln, Grant had told Julia, “I dread the change.” The Radical faction of the Republicans had already wanted to enforce an iron peace in the Confederate states as soon as they surrendered, and Lincoln’s murder greatly strengthened their hand. Before his death, Lincoln had agreed to the arrangement that the conquered South would for a time at least be divided into military districts, administered by the army and other federal officials. With every hour in his office at the War Department, Grant could see that, whatever else lay ahead, he had three major tasks before him. He had to stop the fighting throughout the South and Texas, prepare the postwar United States Army for some type of military occupation of the former Confederate states, and plan and execute across the next seven months of 1865 the demobilization of more than eight hundred thousand of his soldiers, almost all of whom were wildly eager to go home.
In addition to that, there was a problem involving Mexico, the land in which Grant first experienced combat. In December of 1861, while Washington was preoccupied with the war, European troops had landed in Mexico in a punitive response to President Benito Juarez’s decision to suspend payments of foreign debt. There were forty thousand excellent French troops still there, including regiments of the Foreign Legion, serving the puppet regime of the Austrian Duke Maximilian, who had been installed by Emperor Napoleon III.
This situation was a dramatic affront to the Monroe Doctrine, but there was more to it than that. Although Maximilian had refused the Confederacy’s overtures to create an alliance, some thousands of Confederate soldiers, among them former guerrillas fearing federal punishment, were now crossing into Mexico, where Maximilian was willing to have them join his forces and was ready to condone ownership of slaves. Combined with the fact that organized Confederate units in Texas still had not surrendered, there was a need for a strong United States Army force to resolve the situation within Texas and on its borders. (A few days after Appomattox, Grant had said lightly to an aide that the new slogan would soon be, “On to Mexico.”) Ironically, considering that the Mexican War in which Grant, Lee, and other American soldiers fought resulted in the taking of a vast area of northern Mexico, there would now be both overt and secretive American efforts to help Juarez and his Mexican nationalists in their successful struggle to throw out Maximilian and these more recent foreign invaders.
To deal with all these matters, Grant brought to the challenge the prestige of a victorious general, the authority of his rank as lieutenant general and position as general in chief, a wealth of administrative as well as battlefield experience, and his legendary determination. At the same time, the famous soldier who wrote Julia at eleven that night, readying to leave Washington in an hour on a daunting mission, was a tired man who had for four years borne a steadily increasing load. A few days earlier, he had balanced these assets and liabilities in a letter to his old friend Charles W. Ford: “For myself I would enjoy a little respite from my cares and responsibilities more than you can concieve [sic]. But I have health, strength and endurance and as long as they are retained I am willing to devote all for the public good.”
The next day, April 22, as Grant traveled south along the Virginia coast aboard the “special steamer” Alhambra accompanied by three of his officers, a servant, and Major Hitchcock of Sherman’s staff, Secretary of War Stanton received a letter from General Halleck, writing from his headquarters in Virginia. “Old Brains,” who had received the same explosive report from Sherman to Grant that precipitated the tempestuous cabinet meeting, knew that Sherman and Johnston had resumed surrender talks but did not know their status. Halleck told the secretary of war he was receiving intelligence that Davis and his fleeing Confederate governmental colleagues were carrying a large amount of gold with them and added, “They hope, it is said, to make terms with General Sherman or some other Southern [Union] commander by which they will be permitted, with their effects, including this gold plunder, to go to Mexico or Europe. Johnston’s negotiations look to this end. Would it not be well to put Sherman and all other commanding generals on their guard in this respect?”
Stanton, who had “seemed frantic” the day before, was no more calm today. He added to Halleck’s just-arrived letter his own misunderstanding of a cavalry movement that Sherman had recently ordered: the troopers would actually be placed directly across the route along which Davis was thought to be moving, but Stanton thought that Sherman had deliberately sent them in the opposite direction, to aid Davis in his effort to elude capture.
At that point, Stanton decided on his own initiative to disavow publicly anything Sherman had recently done or might do, and in the process distance himself and Johnson’s cabinet from Sherman. Stanton prepared a signed statement for a number of newspapers, including The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Acidly referring to “a memorandum for what is called a basis for peace,” he released to the public his account of the previous night’s heretofore secret meeting of the cabinet. Stanton wrote that Sherman’s agreement with Johnston had been disapproved, and that Sherman had been “ordered to resume hostilities immediately.” After including the text of Lincoln’s earlier instructions to Grant that, regarding the political aspects of a peace settlement, “such questions the President holds in his own hands,” Stanton set forth the text of Sherman’s agreement with Johnston and then wrote that “this proceeding of Gen. Sherman was unapproved for the following among other reasons.” Putting the darkest construction upon every ambiguity, he said that “by the restoration of the rebel authority in their respective States, they would be enabled to reestablish slavery.”
Stanton went on to say that the agreement might require the federal government to pay the debts that had been incurred by the Confederacy—a possibility nowhere mentioned in Sherman’s terms—and indicated that the Confederates would be “relieved” of facing legal action for any kind of crimes they had committed. He included the idea that the captured Confederate weapons might be available to the men of the South “as soon as the armies of the United States were disbanded, and used to conquer and subdue the loyal States.” In his ninth and final objection, Stanton concluded that this agreement left the Confederates “in condition to overthrow the United States Government.” He also quoted selectively from Halleck’s letter to him and added some words in Sherman’s orders to his cavalry, leaving the impression that Sherman might have been bribed with Confederate gold to sign an easy peace and let Jefferson Davis escape the country.
As Grant continued his trip to Sherman’s headquarters, neither he nor Sherman knew of Stanton’s mixture of fact, speculation, and falsehood, nor did they know that Halleck, apparently on his own initiative, had told generals Meade and Horatio Wright “to disregard any truce or orders of General Sherman suspending hostilities” and had suggested to Stanton that General James H. Wilson, serving directly under Sherman, “obey no orders from Sherman.” Halleck’s letter about this would also make its way into The New York Times. (In a letter to his friend General George W. Cullum, Halleck said of Sherman that he feared “there is some screw loose again.”)
On April 23, Sherman, who had billeted himself in the recently vacated (and much run-down, despite the name) Governor’s Palace in Raleigh, received a telegram from his aide Major Hitchcock. Sent from Morehead City, on the coast, the major informed him of his arrival the next day but, on Grant’s orders, did not mention that the general in chief was with him. Shortly after six the next morning, Sherman was up but not dressed when Grant walked in. Quietly taking Sherman aside, he told him that his surrender terms had not been approved but gave no indication of the “consternation” they had caused at the cabinet meeting. Grant left Sherman in no doubt as to what he was to do: get in touch with Joseph E. Johnston, tell him that the shooting would start again within forty-eight hours if he did not sign a new agreement based on the terms of the Appomattox surrender, and then go to Johnston and get such a document signed. Sherman accepted this—Grant later said, “like the true and loyal soldier that he was, he carried out the instructions I had given him”—but at that moment, when Grant realized that Sherman was expecting him to come along to the new parley, he told him that quite the opposite was true. He was going to stay quietly in Raleigh and evidently did not want Johnston to know that he was not still in Washington. Sherman’s mission was to get this done as fast as he could, and give the papers to Grant, who would speedily take them back to Washington. With all that had been going on—Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, victory celebrations, the North suddenly plunged into grief by Lincoln’s assassination, and the massively attended funeral ceremonies as Lincoln’s body proceeded home to Illinois—Grant hoped that a distracted public might not realize there was a delay in bringing to a close the long struggle between the forces of Sherman and Johnston.
Sherman promptly wrote two messages to Johnston, the first telling him that their truce would end within forty-eight hours, and the second saying that, pursuant to instructions he had just received, “I therefore demand the surrender of your army on the same terms as were given General Lee at Appomattox … purely and simply.” (Some of Sherman’s generals soon learned that Grant had slipped into Raleigh. Major General Henry Slocum noted that “Grant is here. He has come to save his friend Sherman from himself.”)
On this same morning that Grant arrived and Sherman wrote Johnston that he was rescinding his previous terms—Sunday, April 24—The New York Times came out with Stanton’s statement plastered all over the front page. Among a third of a column of subheadlines were: “Sherman’s Action Promptly Repudiated,” “The President and All His Cabinet Rebuke Him,” “Gen. Grant Gone to North Carolina to Direct Our Armies,” and “Possible Escape of Jeff. Davis with His Gold.” In an editorial titled “An Extraordinary Operation,” the Times said that “it looks very much as if this negotiation was a blind to cover the escape of Jeff. Davis and a few of his officials, with the millions of gold they have stolen from the Richmond banks.” On the same day, the Chicago Tribune had this to say: “Sherman has been completely over-reached and outwitted by Joe Johnston … We cannot account for Sherman’s signature on this astounding memorandum, except on the thesis of stark insanity …”—an eerie echo of the CincinnatiCommercial‘s “General William T. Sherman Insane” headline of 1862, when Sherman had been so nervously overestimating the forces opposed to him in Kentucky. The Tribune added that it had information that Sherman intended to lead a proslavery political party composed of unrepentant Confederates and Northern conservatives.
No word of this sensational release of garbled information reached either Grant or Sherman in Raleigh, but, from talking to Grant, Sherman realized he needed to mend some fences. The next day, knowing only that Johnston had received his messages but still awaiting a response to the changed terms, and unaware of Stanton’s disclosure to the press, Sherman wrote Stanton that “I admit my folly in embracing in a military convention any civil matters, but, unfortunately, such is the nature of our situation that they seem inextricably united.” He added that he would carry out President Johnson’s and the cabinet’s wishes, as conveyed to him by Grant, but that was about as conciliatory as Sherman could bring himself to be: referring to Stanton’s instructions that Grant should “proceed immediately to the headquarters of Major-General Sherman, and direct operations against the enemy,” he said in closing that “I had flattered myself that, by four years of patient, unremitting, and successful labor, I deserved no such … [censure].”
At about the same time Sherman was writing this, Grant, probably sitting a few yards from Sherman in the mansion of the departed governor of North Carolina, penned a letter to Julia. He told her that Raleigh was virtually untouched by the war, but added, “The suffering that must exist in the South the next year, even with the war ending now, will be beyond conception. People who talk now of further retaliation and punishment, except of the political leaders, either do not conceive of the suffering endured already or they are heartless and unfeeling and wish to stay at home, out of danger, whilst the punishment is being inflicted.”
The next day, Sherman and Johnston met again, in the same place. Johnston began trying for somewhat easier terms but quickly sensed that he could either sign or hear the Union cannon fire resume. He signed terms virtually identical to those Grant had offered Lee. As soon as he did, Sherman began a humane policy similar to the one Grant had begun at Appomattox: there would be ten days’ rations for every surrendered Confederate soldier, and his army would even lend them enough horses and mules “to insure a crop.” Sherman would go farther than that, having his quartermasters issue thousands of bushels of corn and tons of meal and flour to hungry civilians throughout the South. This would soon bring from Johnston a letter praising Sherman’s “enlightened and humane policy,” and stating, “The enlarged patriotism exhibited in your orders reconciles me to what I had previously regarded as the misfortune of my life, that of having to encounter you in the field.”
When Sherman returned to Raleigh on the evening of April 26, Grant immediately read and approved the new document he brought with him. (Throughout the meeting with Sherman earlier in the day, Johnston had no idea that Grant was in North Carolina and was startled when his copy was quickly returned to him with Grant’s written endorsement on it.) At ten that night, Grant sent Stanton a telegram saying that the surrender had been signed, “on the basis agreed upon between Lee and myself for the Army of Northern Virginia.”
From a standing start five days before in Washington, Grant had called for a cabinet meeting, traveled 380 miles by combinations of ship and train, caused the resumption of disastrously conducted surrender arrangements, brought about a successful conclusion to the matter, and done it in a manner that, thus far, left his and Sherman’s friendship intact. As Grant boarded the train for the coast on the morning of April 27, both men had reason to feel they had put a most unfortunate episode behind them. Back in Washington on the 29th, he wrote Julia that “I have just returned after a pleasant trip to Raleigh N.C. where Gn. Sherman succeeded in bringing Johnston to terms that are perfectly satisfactory to me and I hope will be well received by the country. I have not yet been able to look over the [news]papers and see what has transpired in my absence.”
When Grant did “look over the papers,” he saw that The New York Times, after its first criticism of Sherman, was now characterizing the original surrender agreement as “Sherman’s surrender to Johnston.” The New York Herald told its readers that “Sherman’s splendid military career is ended, he will retire under a cloud … Sherman has fatally blundered.” The Washington Star characterized his dealings with Johnston as “calamitous mischief.” In New York, when Lincoln’s body was halted there to receive the city’s homage, the historian George Bancroft said in a funeral oration that Sherman had “unsurped more than the power of the executive, and has revived slavery and given security and political power to traitors from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande.” Radical Republicans, who had long worried that the sacrifices of war might be undercut by too generous a peace, leapt into the situation: Senator William Sprague of Rhode Island telegraphed Stanton that “loyal men deplore and are outraged by Sherman’s action. He should be promptly removed.” Two days before Grant read the newspapers from the week while he was gone and out of touch, the New Haven Journal carried a story suggesting that Sherman had played a part in the plot to kill Lincoln. (One historian concluded that, apart from major Union victories and Lincoln’s assassination, Sherman’s supposed treason received more newspaper attention throughout the North than any other event of the war.)
Grant described his reaction to the uproar. “I knew that Sherman must see these papers, and I fully realized what great indignation they would cause him, though I do not think his feelings could have been more excited than were my own.” In this last, Grant was mistaken. As he had prepared to leave Washington for North Carolina, Grant burst out to Sherman’s aide Hitchcock with this indictment of what he had heard said of Sherman’s suspected treason: “It is infamous—infamous! After four years of such service as Sherman has done—that he should be used like this!” Indignant as Grant was, his anger did not match the fury of his friend. On the day after Grant left Raleigh, Sherman saw The New York Times of April 24 that carried Stanton’s de facto indictment of him. An officer came upon Sherman in his headquarters, surrounded by a dozen generals, acting “like a caged lion, talking to the whole room with a furious invective which made us all stare. He lashed Stanton as a mean, scheming, vindictive politician who made it his business to rob military men of their credit earned by exposing their lives.” As for his old enemy, the press, “the fellows that wielded too loose a pen” should be put in prison. (Sherman’s rank and file had a similar view of what the press was doing to their “Uncle Billy”; when General Henry Slocum saw a crowd of soldiers standing around a blazing cart on a street in Raleigh and sent a staff officer to investigate, the man returned with the message, “Tell General Slocum that cart is loaded with New York papers for sale to the soldiers … We have followed Sherman through a score of battles and nearly two thousand miles of the enemy’s country, and we don’t intend to allow these slanders against him to be circulated among his men.”)
That same day, April 28, Sherman wrote Grant an anguished letter. He began by saying that “I do think that my Rank, if not past services, entitled me at least to the respect of Keeping secret what was known to none but the Cabinet, until further inquiry could have been made,” and went on to say, accurately, that Stanton was “in deep error” in his portrayal of Sherman’s orders to his cavalry as aiding Jefferson Davis’s continuing flight. He told Grant that the idea that he was insubordinate and “have brought discredit on our Government” would cause “pain and amazement” to his generals. He put it to Grant that he had “brought an army of seventy thousand men in magnificent condition across a country deemed impossible, and placed it just where it was wanted almost on the day appointed,” and said he felt that alone “entitled me to the courtesy of being consulted before publishing to the world a proposition [Sherman’s first agreement with Johnston] rightfully submitted to higher authority for proper adjudication.” He inveighed against Stanton’s “other statements which invited the Press to be let loose upon me,” and in his postscript added, “As Mr. Stanton’s singular paper has been published, I demand that this also be made public.”
The following day, in Goldsboro on his way to Charleston to reposition his forces in the South for the postwar duty that would soon be theirs, Sherman wrote Grant’s chief of staff Rawlins at some length, enclosing a copy of his previous day’s letter to Grant and asking him to “send a copy to Mr. Stanton, and say to him I want it published.” He characterized Stanton’s criticism of him as “untrue, unfair, and unkind to me, and I will say undeserved.” Sherman went on to point out, correctly, that “there has been at no time any trouble about Joe Johnston’s army,” and told Rawlins that “the South is broken and ruined, and deserves our pity. To ride the people down with persecutions and exactions would be like slashing away at the crew of a sinking ship.” On another point, he commented that “the idea of Jeff. Davis running around the country with tons of gold is ridiculous.” (Sherman calculated that if the fleeing Davis had with him as much as six million dollars in bars of gold bullion—Stanton and Halleck were now saying he might be trying to escape with more than twice that—it would take fifteen slow-moving teams of six mules apiece to move it through the South. When Davis was captured, disguised as a woman while wearing his wife’s raincoat and shawl, the figure was found to be half a million, all of which was speedily confiscated.)
In something of an undertone running through this letter to Rawlins, Sherman revealed what else was on his mind, in addition to justifying himself to the world. He had not seen Grant since they parted at Raleigh two days before, and he was worried about him, about their friendship, and about Grant’s overall reaction to this avalanche of criticism.
I doubt not efforts will be made to sow dissension between Grant and myself, on a false supposition that we have political aspirations, or, after Killing me off by libels, he will next be assailed. I can keep away from Washington, and I confide in his good sense to save him from the influences that will surround him there …
If, however, Gen. Grant thinks that I have been outwitted by Joe Johnston, or that I have made undue concession to the rebels to save them from anarchy and us the needless expense of military occupation, I will take good care not to embarrass him.
In short, Sherman wanted Grant to know that he had learned his lesson, but that, while moving right along with the duties of commanding his army, he still had unfinished business with Stanton: using the word “resent” in its meaning of an aggressive reaction to an affront, he told Rawlins that “I have no hesitation in pronouncing Mr. Stanton’s compilation of April 22 a gross outrage upon me, which I will resent in time.”
By mistake, this letter to Rawlins, asking him to forward on to Stanton a copy of his relatively restrained letter to Grant, was sent on to Stanton. The letter to Grant had said nothing about repaying Stanton for “a gross outrage,” or linking Stanton with an effort to drive a wedge between Grant and Sherman; now it was all there, in Sherman’s handwriting, for Secretary of War Stanton to see.
Angry as Sherman was at Stanton, a different mixture of emotions swept over him a few days later. Stopping at Hilton Head, South Carolina, as he headed north after inspecting forces at Savannah, on May 2 he read in The New York Times the text of Halleck’s letter to Stanton, stating that Halleck had recently ordered Union generals not to obey Sherman’s orders. As would remain true for another two weeks, there would be delays and crossed communications between Grant and Sherman. Back in Washington, Grant had already made these orders “not to obey” Sherman inoperative, but Sherman did not know that, and the fact that Halleck had countermanded his orders struck Sherman as a betrayal that he would soon publicly characterize as “an act of Perfidy.” Despite Ellen Sherman’s warnings to him earlier in the war about Halleck’s “lawyerly ambiguities,” Sherman saw him as the man who had saved his career at a time when many judged him to be insane. That had been in good part true, although Halleck, aware of Sherman’s political connections in Washington, had wished to curry favor with men like Sherman’s father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, and his brother Senator John Sherman, while at the same time writing cautionary internal reports that would protect him from any consequences of Sherman’s actions. Again, after Shiloh, Sherman had seen Halleck sideline Grant to the point that only Sherman’s intervention persuaded Grant not to leave the army and go home, but his own gratitude to Halleck, who to this moment he had thought of as a friend, had led him for a time to see Halleck as being a better commander than Grant.
Sherman went on the offensive. On May 6, sitting aboard the steamer Russia while she rode out a storm in the harbor at Beaufort, North Carolina, during his trip north to rejoin his main army, he issued his blistering Special Field Orders 69, an astonishing military document. It began: “The General commanding announces to the Armies under his command that a most foul attempt has been made on his fair fame.” Suggesting that there were some mysterious figures behind “this base attempt,” who “used the Press[,] the common resort of libellers,” he promised his soldiers that they “will be discovered and properly punished.” Then, after saying that these shadowy people “made use of the gossiping official Bulletins of our secretary of war, with their garbled statements and false contexts,” he stopped using the image of nebulous conspirators and took aim at the man he had thought was his friend. It was bold language to describe a man who through date of rank was still nominally senior to him. “Maj. Gen. Halleck, who as long as our Enemy stood in bold & armed array sat in full security in his Easy chair at Washington, was suddenly seized with a Newborn Zeal & Energy, when that Enemy has become (by no agency of his,) defeated, disheartened & submissive. He publicly disregarded [a] Truce of which he was properly advised.” Sherman criticized the countermanding of orders, saying that the instruction to his generals to do that had been withheld from him “but paraded before the Northern Public in direct violation of the Army regulations, of the orders of the War Department … as well as Common decency itself.”
As Sherman portrayed it, in contrast to the villains Stanton and Halleck, there was a hero. “But thanks to our noble and honest commanding officer, Lt. Genl. Grant, [who] after coming in person to Raleigh, and seeing and hearing for himself was enabled to return to the North” with, as Sherman assured his troops, the proper resolution to confound these calumnies against “one of the most successful results of the war.”
This was, of course, a selective picture, absolving Sherman of any blame for his own actions, but Halleck immediately ran up the white flag. On May 9, when Sherman, reunited with his northward-moving army, was nearing Richmond, he received an obsequious letter from Halleck, who as the post-Appomattox commander of the Army of the James [River] had his headquarters in the former Confederate capital. “You have not had during this war nor have you now a warmer admirer than myself,” Halleck told Sherman. “If in carrying out what I knew to be the wishes of the War Department in regard to your armistice I used language which has given you offense it was unintentional, and I deeply regret it. If fully aware of the circumstances under which I acted I am certain you would not attribute to me any improper motives. It is my wish to continue to regard and receive you as a personal friend.” Knowing that Sherman was marching his army north to be demobilized and would be passing through Richmond, Halleck invited Sherman to stay at his headquarters and apparently expected to review Sherman’s army as it passed through, standing in a place of honor and receiving the salutes of his regiments as they marched by.
Sherman answered this the next day. Contrasting these professions of friendship with the published letter in The New York Times in which Halleck had assured Stanton that he was countermanding Sherman’s orders, he told Halleck that “I cannot possibly reconcile the friendly expressions of the former with the deadly malignity of the latter, and cannot consent to the renewal of a friendship I had prized so highly.” As for the idea that Halleck would be receiving the salutes of his men at a review, Sherman had this to say: “I will march my Army through Richmond quietly and in good order without attracting attention, and I beg you to keep slightly perdu [lost], for if noticed by some of my old command I cannot undertake to maintain a model behavior, for their feelings have become aroused by what the world adjudges an insult at least to an honest commander. If loss of life or violence result from this you must attribute it to the true cause, a public insult to a Brother officer when he was far away on public service, perfectly innocent of the malignant purpose and design.”
On the same day, May 10, Sherman wrote a letter to Grant, marked “Private & Confidential,” that showed him not only to be still enraged against Halleck and Stanton but also puzzled and troubled about the state of their own relationship. Until a brief telegram had come that morning ordering him to march his army to Washington and encamp at Alexandria, Virginia, about three miles down the Potomac from the capital, he had not heard from Grant since they had parted at Raleigh thirteen days before. There had been no answer to his letters to both Grant and Rawlins attacking Stanton and asking that his sentiments be passed on to Stanton and published. At midnight two days before, Sherman had penned a plaintive note to Grant, saying that he had immediate reason to issue some orders to General James H. Wilson, one of the officers who had been told “not to obey” him, and asked, “Does the Secretary of War’s news-paper order take General Wilson from my command, or shall I continue to order him—If I have proven incompetent to manage my own command, let me know it.” The following day, still not hearing from Grant, he communicated with him again, saying that Wilson, needed some instructions, but that because of “secretary Stanton’s newspaper order taking Wilson substantially from my command I wish you would give the orders necessary.”
Although Sherman had not yet received it, these messages had produced a brief, businesslike telegram from Grant sent on May 9, saying, “I know of no order which changed your command in any particular.” Referring to the fact that Sherman had been all over the South since they parted, Grant added, “Gen. Wilson is in telegraphic communication with Washington whilst you have not been[,] consequently instructions have been sent to him direct.” The unspoken message: you have been wronged, but I consider you to be in full command, just as you were before you got yourself into trouble and I did my best to get you out of it, and we need to get on with our duties, and you need to spend less time feuding.
Now, still having heard nothing from Grant except a brief order to bring his army on to encamp across the river opposite Washington, Sherman poured out his emotions to Grant in his letter. “I do think a great outrage has been enacted against me,” he wrote. “Your orders and wishes shall be to me the Law, but I ask you to vindicate my name … If you do not I will … No man shall insult me with impunity … No amount of retraction or pusillanimous excusing will do. Mr. Stanton must publicly confess himself a Common libeller or—but I won[’]t threaten. I will not enter Washington except on yours or the Presidents emphatic orders, but I do wish to stay with my army, till it ceases to exist, or till it is broken up and scattered to other duty.”
Having expressed his own feelings, he told Grant that Stanton “seeks your life and reputation as well as mine … Whoever stands in his way must die.” About Halleck, a copy of whose recent sycophantic letter he enclosed, Sherman said, “Read Halleck’s letter and see how pitiful he has become. Keep above such influences, or you also will be a victim—See in my case how soon all past services are ignored & forgotten. Excuse this letter. Burn it, but heed my friendly counsel. The lust for Power in political minds is the strongest passion of Life, and impels Ambitious Men (Richard III) to deeds of Infamy.”
With that, Sherman subsided for the moment. In fact, not only had Grant written Sherman the recent telegram saying “I know of no order which changed your command,” with its implicit signal that Grant considered him to still have all the authority he held prior to the political explosion, but Grant had sent him a longer letter on May 6 that in effect dealt with much of what Sherman now expressed. In his earlier letter, Grant had explained that Sherman’s long letters to Rawlins and himself about Halleck and Stanton had been delayed and had only just arrived, but what he went on to say about the controversy was much less than what Sherman wanted to hear. Grant wrote that he did “not know how to answer” Sherman’s concerns about what he agreed was an “insult”—Halleck’s countermanding of Sherman’s orders and publishing the fact he had done that. Evidently trying to deflect some of Sherman’s anger against Halleck, Grant had written, “I question whether it was not an answer, in Halleck[’]s style, to directions from the Sec. of War giving him instructions to do as he did.” Then, as if keeping the targets difficult to hit, he added, “I do not know this to be the case although I have spoken to Mr. Stanton on the subject.” Without comment on Sherman’s wisdom in doing so, Grant stated that, having received Sherman’s denunciation of Stanton and his request to have it published, “I requested its publication. It is promised for tomorrow.”
Tentative as his language on political matters seemed to be in this response to Sherman, on another subject—Sherman as a soldier—Grant spoke with his usual directness. Telling him that there was room for disagreement between Sherman and himself concerning Sherman’s original negotiations with Johnston, he said that what had happened then “made no change in my estimate of the services you have rendered or of the services you can still render, and will, on all proper occasions.”
Sherman made no immediate answer to this. The next day, as he marched his main army through Richmond on its way north, Halleck stood for a time on the portico of the house he was using as his headquarters, apparently believing that Sherman’s divisions would feel compelled to salute him as they passed by a few yards away. Every officer and man of the leading column of Sherman’s army—fifty-three thousand of his sixty-five thousand soldiers—marched past that headquarters with eyes straight ahead as if Halleck were not in Richmond. Not a single officer’s sword lifted in salute, and one of Sherman’s ragged riflemen stepped out of the passing column and spat a stream of tobacco juice all over the polished boots of the “very spick and span” sentry standing guard there. (As soon as Ellen learned of this monumental snub, she wrote Sherman that the Ewing clan was “truly charmed” that he had “so good an opportunity of returning the insult of that base man Halleck … I would rather have seen that defiant parade through Richmond than anything else since the war began.”)
As Sherman’s men, many of them barefoot, left Richmond behind and began the last marches and bivouacs on their way to Washington, throughout the North other voices began to be heard. The Cincinnati Commercial, which four years before had carried the headline, “General William T. Sherman Insane,” now said, “As to the charge of insanity being made … We wish there were a few more such insane men in the Army.” The Louisville Journal, published in the Kentucky city where Sherman had made panicky claims of an impending advance by overwhelming Confederate forces, deplored “the most cruel attacks … upon the integrity and patriotism of the illustrious soldier.”
Among the Shermans and Ewings, there had been some dismay about Sherman’s first agreement with Johnston. On reading the earliest newspaper accounts, Ellen immediately wrote him that “I think you have made a great mistake” in giving such lenient terms to what she called “perjured traitors [and] deserters,” but added, “I know your motives are pure … I honor and respect you for the heart that could prompt such terms.” Then the family closed ranks and began one more of their campaigns to help him in Washington. Sherman’s brother John told him candidly that “for a time you lost all popularity gained by your achievements” but added that public opinion was turning against Stanton and Halleck for their “gross and damnable perversions” of what Sherman had done, and his brother Charles advised him that if Sherman would “act prudently,” it might all turn out well for him.
By no means placated, Sherman sent ahead a letter to a friend in Washington that said, “It is amusing how brave and firm some men become when all danger is past,” and made an unmistakable comparison between Halleck and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. At Sherman’s request, that letter too would soon be published in the Washington papers and, in a demonstration that Sherman was not the only member of the family who knew how to strike fear into the enemy’s heart, his brother the senator wrote anonymously in the Washington Chronicle of May 15 that Stanton “must expect open defiance and insult, and neither his person nor his rank can shield him.” What the public did not hear, fortunately, was the sentiment expressed in a letter from Sherman to Ellen in which he told her that the men against him in Washington were “a set of sneaks who were hid away as long as danger was rampant” and that he would “take a regiment of my old Division & clear them out.”
As it was, there were those in Washington who really believed that Sherman was going to march his army straight into the capital. (Their opinion of Sherman was not improved by the fact that Ellen’s brother Tom, a lawyer who had risen to brigadier general before resigning from the army in 1864, had since May 12 been the attorney defending three men accused as lesser conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.) Sherman had not the remotest idea of participating in or permitting some sort of coup—he had already written Grant that he would enter Washington only upon his express wish, or that of the president, and in addition he would soon go out of his way to reject any suggestions that he would make a good future presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, his army was still angry about what they considered to be the slurs upon him: Theodore Upson, the combat-hardened sergeant of the 100th Indiana who had described the celebrations among Sherman’s men when they heard of Appomattox, complete with a general marching through camp banging on a bass drum in the midst of drunken revelry, wrote in his diary that newspapermen had better “look out … or they would have General Sherman’s army to reckon with the first thing they know.”
So there matters stood. Since Grant and Sherman had mapped out their grand strategy in a hotel room in Cincinnati fourteen months before when Grant was taking command of the entire Union Army, they had met twice, both times within the last seven weeks. On the first occasion, they had conferred with President Lincoln at City Point. Since then, Lee had surrendered, Lincoln had been assassinated, and Grant had rushed to North Carolina to correct Sherman’s dealings with Johnston, his worst mistake of the war. Grant was deeply involved with the myriad issues and details of moving the army from a wartime footing to a peacetime status in a politically tense postwar situation. Sherman was coming to Washington, angry and determined to clear his name. How all this would affect their friendship remained to be seen.