As Sherman’s army marched north through Virginia, now only days away from Washington, at his office in the War Department Grant was trying to juggle a number of matters in the middle of a volatile atmosphere. The congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a powerful body formed to give the Senate and the House authority to investigate, and thus influence, war policies and the conduct of military affairs, was holding hearings concerning the end of the war and what might lie ahead in dealing with the South. With the sudden vacuum in power caused by Lincoln’s death, and the succession to office of the untried, little-known Andrew Johnson, both political parties were maneuvering vigorously to further their interests. As the Radicals saw it, the white South must be punished for seceding, and the freed blacks be given the vote, or else the war had been fought for nothing. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the former “Peace Democrats” (sometimes called “Copperheads”) believed in gentler treatment for the defeated Confederacy and no vote for the blacks for the time being. Millions of Northern voters found themselves between the two positions.
Grant had been summoned to appear at a session of the committee on May 18, and when Sherman arrived in the Washington area on May 19 he would discover that he had been similarly requested to testify within the next few days. The senior committee chairman, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, was a Radical Republican who was Stanton’s political colleague and friend. (In an interesting example of how political positions could harden, and perceptions change, earlier in the war, after Shiloh, Wade had teamed with his fellow senator from Ohio, John Sherman, to endorse Halleck’s recommendation that William Tecumseh Sherman be promoted to major general of Volunteers.) Lincoln’s death had further hardened some positions: more than before, some Radicals in Congress viewed more moderate Republicans, and the great majority of Democrats, as their enemies.
On one issue, Grant soon confronted the position of those who wanted revenge against the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis, captured in Georgia on May 10, was on his way to confinement at Fortress Monroe on the Virginia coast as a political prisoner, but the Radicals also wanted to arrest Robert E. Lee, now at his house in Richmond, and try him for treason, a crime punishable by death. This would lead to an angry exchange between Grant and President Andrew Johnson. When Grant pointed out that Lee, along with all his army, had left Appomattox with a valid parole that guaranteed he could not be arrested as long as he lived a law-abiding life, the new president demanded to know on what grounds “a military commander interferes to protect an arch-traitor from the laws.”
Grant had an answer to that. Referring to the document he and Lee signed at Appomattox, he said, “My terms of surrender were according to military law, and as long as General Lee observes his parole, I will never consent to his arrest. I will resign the command of the army rather than execute any order to arrest Lee or any of his commanders so long as they obey the law.” Johnson knew better than to precipitate the resignation of the victorious commanding general of the United States Army, and for the time being the matter was put aside.
The paperwork piling up on Grant’s desk also dealt with matters having important implications for the future: the continuing settlement of the Great Plains and the Indian wars. On May 17, Grant wrote to General John Pope, commander of army frontier outposts well to the northwest of any remaining Confederate holdouts. Responding to Pope’s request that he be allowed to keep the people of the Sioux tribe “placed in that relation to the military forces which ensures their protection both against white and red rascals and enemies,” Grant expressed an opinion seldom heard on this subject. After approving Pope’s request, Grant added, “It may be the Indians require as much protection from the whites as the whites do from the Indians. My own experience has been that but little trouble would ever have been had from them but for the encroachments & influence of bad whites.”
On the same day, Grant wrote lengthy instructions to his cavalry leader Philip Sheridan, “assigning you to command West of the Miss. [Mississippi River] … Your duty is to restore Texas, and that part of Louisiana held by the enemy, to the Union in the shortest practicable time, in a way most effectual for securing peace.” Having future trouble with Mexico also in mind, he added, “To be clear … I think the Rio Grande should be strongly held whether the forces in Texas surrender or not and that no time should be lost in getting them there.” This set in motion movements to deploy what would become a total of fifty thousand Union soldiers, including twenty thousand black troops, who would end Confederate resistance and begin the pressure that in time caused Maximilian’s downfall and the restoration of the Juarez government in Mexico. (Sheridan would quietly supply Juarez with sixty thousand rifles for his followers.)
Meanwhile, Grant still felt that Sherman had been badly treated, but to perform his varied duties as general in chief during this transition from war to an uneasy peace, Grant felt he needed to keep a clear and effective line of communication open to Secretary of War Stanton, whose office was near his in the War Department. This soon moved beyond simple courtesies. When Grant fell ill at just this time, with Julia finding it difficult to care for him while they both stayed at a hotel, Stanton suggested to Halleck by telegram that Halleck might offer Grant and Julia the house in the Georgetown section of Washington that he had occupied before Appomattox. Halleck invited them to do so, and the Grants promptly moved in, with Grant thanking Halleck for his “very kind” act.
There was no record made of private talks between Grant and Stanton at the War Department, but certain memoranda he wrote to Stanton suggest that previous discussions occurred. Considering the Radical animus against Confederate soldiers, it is unlikely that, without Stanton’s approval, Grant would have suggested a policy of making recently surrendered rebel soldiers eligible to be recruits for the United States Army. Grant’s wording was that he “would respectfully recommend” that, in addition to opening recruiting stations in the North to enlist men to replace some of the masses of soldiers about to be mustered out, “Citizens of the Southern States, as well as persons who have served in the rebel Armies, be accepted as recruits, but all persons who have been engaged in the rebellion against the U.S. before being received will be required to qualify as loyal Citizens, in addition to taking the prescribed enlistment oath.” Stanton agreed.
Obviously, some backroom compromises were being reached, and Grant felt the need to keep the United States Army, which he commanded, above the partisan political fray. This became clear when he made his appearance before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. Grant might well have been a lawyer who had the army for his client. When the committee’s chairman, Stanton’s friend Benjamin Wade, questioned Grant about Stanton, whose treatment of Sherman Grant had described as “infamous,” the queries and responses went this way.
Question. I wish to place upon our record your answer to the following question. In what manner has Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, performed his duties in the supply of the armies and the support of the military operations under your charge?
Answer. Admirably, I think. There has been no complaint in that respect—that is, no general complaint. So far as he is concerned I do not think there has been any ground of complaint in that respect.
Question. Has there ever been any misunderstanding with respect to the conduct of the war, in any particular, between you and the Secretary of War since you have been in command?
Answer. Never any expressed to me. I never had any reason to suppose that any fault was found with anything I had done. So far as the Secretary of War and myself are concerned, he has never interfered with my duties, never thrown any obstacle in the way of any supplies I have called for. He has never dictated a course of campaign to me, and never inquired what I was going to do. He has always seemed satisfied with what I did, and has heartily cooperated with me.
So there it was. Ulysses S. Grant intended to get along with the men who represented the traditional American civilian control of the military. As occurrences within the next few days would prove, he was thinking about his friend Sherman, and would help him, but he had extraordinarily complicated tasks on his hands. In this moment of moving the army around, of garrisoning areas of the South, of preparing to demobilize more than eight hundred thousand men, and with problems ranging from the situations in Texas and Mexico to the question of how to handle the Sioux in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory, Grant was ready to protect Robert E. Lee from arrest as a matter of principle, but he wanted all his generals, including Sherman, to say and do nothing that would cause unnecessary political repercussions.
There were at this moment two military realities. In Washington, Grant was actively winding down the army’s wartime commitments, and the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac who had faced and defeated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were in comfortable encampments near the capital, still disciplined and equipped for battle but fully realizing that the war was over and that most of them would soon be going home. In Sherman’s army, the situation was different. Marching northward for hours every day, sleeping in makeshift conditions every night, his men still had the mentality of soldiers whose campaign has not ended. There were of course thoughts of home—an Irishman in the Twenty-first Wisconsin said that on his return he would hire a fifer and a drummer to come to his door in the morning to play reveille, and every day he would roll over and say, “To hell with your reveille”—but the troops continued to think as the highly professional soldiers they had become. As they passed the recently defended Confederate entrenchments between Richmond and Washington, they studied them and decided that they had faced far more difficult defensive positions at Vicksburg, at Missionary Ridge and Seminary Ridge, and at Kennesaw Mountain. When they encountered defeated Confederates, they treated them kindly, but when they saw Union troops of the Eastern army, their esprit de corps led them to make taunting remarks about the “white glove” soldiers, and this led to frequent fistfights.
Among the units of Sherman’s Western army were some from the East that, before being sent west, had begun the war on battlefields south of Washington such as Bull Run. Of Sherman’s 218 regiments, many of them literally decimated, thirty-three were from the East—sixteen from New York, ten from Pennsylvania, three from New Jersey, and two each from Connecticut and Massachusetts. A war correspondent had noted how these Easterners had changed, not only in switching from the forward-sloping visored caps of the Eastern army to the broad-brimmed slouch hats of the Western divisions, but also in the way they marched: they moved with the long, relaxed strides of men who had campaigned across not hundreds, but thousands, of miles.
At the head of all these men, Sherman also studied the battlefields they passed. At Chancellorsville, the scene of Lee’s greatest victory, Sherman’s soldiers saw him walking with his hands clasped behind him, deep in thought as he passed along the ridge near the key position of Chancellorsville House. When he came to Bull Run, Sherman was at the place where he had fought in his first battle of the war. For him, and some of the regiments now following him, that had begun an enormous, bloody, roughly circular route, 2,500 miles in all—out to the Mississippi River and down to Vicksburg, over to Chattanooga, down to Atlanta and east to Savannah and the sea, followed by the final marches north through the swamps of the Carolinas, with this last movement up through Virginia done only to the sound of feet and hooves and wagon wheels on the road, in the unfamiliar silence after the guns stopped firing.
Sherman had some definite ideas of what might lie ahead of his army, if not for himself, when they got to Washington. As far back as his time in Raleigh, he had written Ellen that his final destination, as told to him by Grant during Grant’s visit there to revise Johnston’s surrender terms, would be Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington, “where I will move my Head Qrs. in anticipation of mustering out the Army.” He told her then that “if I could take all the family to Alexandria to witness the final success attending ‘Shermans’ army it would be a prize in the memory to our children,” and on May 16 he had wired Ellen to come on to Washington. Now, reaching Alexandria on Saturday, May 19, he wrote John Rawlins a letter that announced his arrival and said, “All my army should be in camp near by to-day.” In a slightly offended tone, he indicated that he knew that a great two-day final parade of the Union Army was now planned for May 23 and May 24, but said that “I have seen the orders for the review in the papers, but … it is not here in official form. I am old-fashioned, and prefer to see orders through some other channels, but if that be the new fashion, so be it. I will be all ready … though in the rough. Troops have not been paid for eight or ten months, and clothing may be bad, but a better set of arms and legs cannot be displayed on this continent.” In a mixture of defiance and a desire for acceptance, Sherman closed with, “Send me all orders and letters you may have for me, and let some one newspaper know that the vandal Sherman is encamped near the canal bridge, halfway between Long Bridge and Alexandria, to the west of the road, where his friends, if any, can find him. Though in disgrace, he is untamed and unconquered.” He signed it, “As ever, your friend.”
This brought an almost instant reply, not from Rawlins but from Grant, who tried to soothe Sherman’s feelings about having to learn of his army’s part in the forthcoming “Grand Review” by reading the newspapers. “I am just in receipt of yours of this date,” Grant began. “The orders for review was only published yesterday, or rather was only ready for circulation at that time, and was sent to you this morning.”
Then Grant got down to more serious business.
I will be glad to see you as soon as you can come to the City, can you not come in this evening or in the morning? I want to talk to you upon matters about which you feel sore, I think justly so, but which bear some explanation in behalf of those who you feel have inflicted the injury.
U.S. Grant Lt. Gen.
By the next morning, Sherman had not yet gone to see Grant, and members of Sherman’s family, across the river from the huge encampment of Sherman’s army at and around Alexandria, started worrying about him. Washington was abuzz with talk that Sherman and his men wanted to cross the Potomac and physically punish and perhaps remove Stanton and other officials. In his diary entry for that day, Ellen’s brother Major General Hugh Ewing—three of her four brothers had become generals—said that “the threats of Gen. Sherman against the authorities, that we heard on the streets this morning, made it necessary that he be counseled, and I found John Sherman in Willard’s barbershop in the chair, took him to Charles Sherman’s room, where the Shermans and Gen. Tom [Ewing] and myself held a consultation over his condition, and had John go to his camp and quiet him.”
Clearly, the Sherman-Ewing family feared that they might be hearing more than just rumors based on vindictive talk coming out of Sherman’s encampment. The reference to Sherman’s “condition” may have indicated a concern that they might be seeing another form of the breakdown he had suffered in Kentucky in 1861, this episode brought on by a different form of pressure and anxiety. His brother John made no mention of what happened when he visited the general at his headquarters near Alexandria, but later in the day Sherman came in to see Grant at the War Department. Apparently Grant enabled Sherman to understand to some degree just how terrified and bewildered so many people, in and out of government, had been after Lincoln was killed in the middle of their city and how easy it had been to read a traitorous intent into a flawed, lenient truce agreement.
Talking to Sherman in a government building that had until recently been hung with long black streamers in mourning for the slain president, Grant assured him that, whatever might have happened in North Carolina a month before, Sherman now had the grateful support of virtually all the government leaders. To prove his point, Grant led Sherman from the War Department, which was at Seventeenth and F Street, to a house at the corner of Fifteenth and H occupied by Johnson, who had not yet moved into the White House. Sherman found the president and his cabinet, with the exception of Stanton, waiting to greet him. In a marvelous example of political hypocrisy, President Johnson, who had joined Stanton and others of his cabinet in calling Sherman a traitor when Grant had read them Sherman’s first agreement with Joseph E. Johnston, stretched out his arms and said, “General Sherman, I am very glad to see you-very glad to see you—and I mean what I say.” He then told Sherman that he had known nothing about Stanton’s letters to the newspapers until they were published, and that Stanton had shown them to no one before sending them out on his own initiative. Almost all the other cabinet members told Sherman the same thing, which was evidently true.
As Grant and Sherman parted at the end of the afternoon, they were coming to the end of a remarkable time in their lives and in the life of their nation. On this evening in May, Sherman was forty-five and Grant was forty-three. Much lay ahead for both of them—the presidency for Grant, succession in peacetime to Grant’s position as general in chief for Sherman—but it was as wartime soldiers that they had made their mark in history. Forty-seven months before, the men of the Twenty-first Illinois had hooted at Grant, this shabby figure of a colonel who had come to command them, and on this date in 1861, Sherman, who had held four jobs in the four years before that, was just reentering the army.
As they went their separate ways that evening, there was one thing they had to do, something that was equally important to these two West Pointers. They had to say good-bye to the Union Army, and do it in a way that made the troops take justified pride in themselves and gave the public the chance to show its feelings for those who had served and sacrificed. The Grand Review, a two-day parade through Washington, would begin in three days. Between now and then, Sherman had to appear before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Grant had to deal with the continuous flow of paperwork involved in the shift from war to peace, and each of them had to prepare for his part in a tremendous spectacle. When they saw each other again, it would be as two immensely famous figures appearing in front of enormous crowds, but as they parted now in the hour before sunset, it was two men shaking hands on a quiet street.