During the morning of the next day, May 21, the streets of Washington filled with preparations for the great two-day victory parade, now only forty-eight hours away. Although many black wreaths mourning Lincoln remained in place throughout the city, both government buildings and private dwellings began to be decorated with red-white-and-blue streamers, banners, and bunting of every design and size. Along Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, scores of workmen erected grandstands. In front of the White House itself, a special covered pavilion with a capacity for two hundred of the most prominent spectators went up, a few yards from where the troops would pass. Hung with blue-and-white drapes that had big white stars on them, with baskets of flowers hanging from the pavilion’s supports, the decorations facing the avenue included signs that proclaimed, “Donelson,” “Shiloh,” “Vicksburg,” “Gettysburg,” and the names of other Union victories. In the pavilion would sit the president and cabinet, Grant and his staff, some of the leading officers not in the parade, the ambassadors of other nations, and the families of all these dignitaries. On the other side of the avenue, festooned with the state flags of the Union, was the grandstand in which would be the justices of the Supreme Court, senators and congressmen, and governors of several states. On either side of the presidential reviewing stand were stands, paid for by private contributions, that would each hold five hundred wounded or sick Union soldiers, including withered men recently released from Southern prison camps.
Tens of thousands of visitors poured into the city, many on special trains. Under the headline “THE GRAND REVIEW,” two subheadlines in The New York Times said, “Great Rush of Visitors to See the Boys in Blue” and “Washington Crowded Beyond All Precedent.” The hotels filled to the point that cots had to be placed in the hallways. Some enterprising people, finding no accommodations available anywhere, rented streetcars in which to spend the night. The newspapers joined in the enthusiasm, offering interesting examples of the size of the forces that would march down Pennsylvania Avenue: they told their readers that they would see more men marching than had been in the combined armies of Napoleon, Cromwell, and Augustus Caesar, and that the legions with which Caesar conquered his empire had fewer men than were in just one wing of the Army of the Potomac.
At the War Department, Grant kept sending out orders, balancing out the smaller number of troops that were still needed against those that were to be sent to their home states and mustered out as soon as possible. Also awaiting his attention were matters as varied as many men going out of service wanting to buy their muskets to keep—Grant ruled that they could—and the fact that, as Grant would soon write Halleck in Richmond, “I am informed that a great many bodies have been left unburyed [sic] at Appomattox C. H.”—a situation Grant solved by instructing Halleck to send cavalry units there and to Sayler’s Creek to bury the dead.
At his tent headquarters across the river, Sherman was pondering what to say the next day at the hearing of the Committee on the Conduct of the War. He had by now come to understand that the Radicals wanted to portray Lincoln, posthumously, as a man who would have extended to the South peace terms so soft that they would have undercut the war aims for which 360,000 Northern men died. Therein lay a defense for Sherman, if he wanted to use it. He could portray his first agreement with Joseph E. Johnston as having been an implementation of what Lincoln had told him to do during his meeting with Lincoln and Grant and Admiral Porter at City Point seven weeks before, and justify his actions: he had been a soldier, carrying out his commander in chief’s unwise instructions.
At least one man ready to strengthen that claim came to see Sherman at his headquarters. Colonel Absolom H. Markland had served under both Grant and Sherman, in an unusual capacity. As a military postmaster general, in the Western theater he had implemented Grant’s idea of sorting mail for the troops as it was being carried on special railroad cars. Grant thought so highly of his services to the army throughout the war that, two days before this, he had sent him the saddle that he had used in all the battles and campaigns from Fort Henry in February of 1862 through to the final day at Appomattox. “I present this saddle to you not for any intrinsic value it possesses,” Grant had written him, “but as a mark of friendship and esteem.”
Coming now to Sherman, Markland reminded him that, soon after Sherman’s conference with Lincoln and Grant at City Point, Sherman had told him about it in some detail. Markland now told Sherman that the moment he read of Sherman’s first truce terms with Johnston, he had recognized them as being what Sherman had said that Lincoln wanted. Markland urged Sherman to use that information and promised to make written statements or testify on Sherman’s behalf in any way that he could. To Markland’s surprise, “General Sherman was in no mood to take up the subject and very clearly intimated to me that I should be silent concerning it.”
No one could ever know all that was in Sherman’s mind, but as the hours passed on the day before the hearing, he wrote to Major General Stewart van Vliet, who had been one of his two closest friends at West Point. On April 27, when the news of Sherman’s dealings with Johnston were first in the newspapers, van Vliet had written him that he thought Sherman’s original set of terms were better suited to produce a just and lasting peace, and that he believed time would prove that true. “Dear Van,” Sherman wrote him now, “Stanton and Halleck … thought they had me down, and when I was far away on public business under their own orders, they sought the opportunity to ruin me by means of the excitement naturally arising from the assassination of the President, who stood in the way of fulfillment of their projects, and whose views and policy I was strictly, literally following.” He went right on to demonstrate just how far his thinking differed from that of the Radicals. “I prefer to give votes to rebel whites, now humbled, subdued and obedient, rather than to the ignorant blacks that are not yet capable of self-government.” This was a distillation of something he had recently written to Ellen, saying that “Stanton wants to kill me because I do not favor the scheme of declaring the negro of the South Now Free, to be loyal voters whereby Politicians may manufacture just so much more pliable Electionary material. The Negros dont want to vote. They want to work & enjoy property, and they are no friends of the negro who want to complicate him with new prejudices.”
Sherman’s place in history at that moment was ironic. If he had not captured Atlanta just when he did in the autumn of 1864, the Republicans, including the Radicals whom he would be facing at the hearing the following day, might well have lost the election and the political power they now wielded, including the power they were bringing to bear in pressing for immediate voting rights for blacks. It was Sherman’s bold and brilliant marches through the South that had freed hundreds of thousands of blacks, but he continued to view them as inferior beings. In an exchange of letters with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase after seeing him during Chase’s inspection trip of newly freed Southern areas the past January, he had written, “Of course I have nothing to do with the Status of the Negro after [the] war. That is for the law making power, but if my opinion were consulted I would say that the negro should be a free race, but not put on an equality with the whites.”
As night fell on Washington, no one, and seemingly not Sherman himself, could say just how he intended to handle himself at the hearing the next day. His letter to van Vliet, with its statement that in his first agreement with Joseph E. Johnston he was “strictly, literally following” Lincoln’s “views and policy,” implied that he had documents or knowledge in his possession that “not only justify but made imperative” his action in offering those terms. To van Vliet he said, “I am to go before the war investigating committee, when for the first time, I will be at liberty to tell my story in public,” adding that “thus far I have violated no rule of official secrecy, though severely tempted, but so much the worse for [Stanton and Halleck] when all is revealed.”
As the morning of May 22 dawned, Washington was far more focused on the next day’s parade than on what would happen in one governmental hearing room. Visitors continued to arrive by the thousands, and the soldiers of the encamped armies began appearing in the streets during their off-duty hours. Walt Whitman was out and about and taking it all in. An ardent Union patriot, he had seen terrible suffering among the men being brought from the battlefields and dying in the hospitals where he helped care for them, and was deeply relieved by the end of the fighting. His notes for that day included: “Have been taking a walk along Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh street north. The city is full of soldiers, running around loose. Officers everywhere, of all grades. All have the weather-beaten look of practical [active] service. It is a sight I never tire of. All the armies are now here (or portions of them,) for tomorrow’s review. You see them swarming like bees everywhere.”
In his office at the War Department, Grant may well have been thinking of what the day ahead might hold for Sherman, but nothing he put on paper that day referred to it. In a telegram to Meade, the commander of the Eastern troops who were to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue the next day, he said, “Please direct your Eng. [engineering] officer to place in the review a pontoon train say of four boats and two Chess wagons,” the wagons used to transport the planks that formed the bridge supported by the boats. Other than suggesting this touch, sure to interest the crowds along the parade route, his only other communications that day involved assignments of commanders in the West.
And so Major General William Tecumseh Sherman made his way to the hearing of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. This was to be its last day in existence. Every Union general knew of its activities. Formed in December of 1861 to investigate the Union military disaster at Bull Run and a lesser fiasco at Ball’s Bluff and given “the power to send for persons and papers,” its evolving Radical faction had pressed for more aggressive Union Army campaigns and had pushed Lincoln for an earlier emancipation of slaves than he had felt it politically wise to grant. The committee looked at everything, not only defeats and such matters as the Confederate treatment of Union prisoners, but also whether victories might have been better exploited, and the status of government contracts, naval shipbuilding, and matters such as the cotton trade in the occupied South. Some of its inquiries were legitimate and possibly helpful, but generals who appeared before the committee felt like defendants rather than witnesses.
Among the committee’s clear prejudices was that against West Pointers. Its members felt that even academy graduates from the North were likely to be Southern sympathizers at heart, men who had no interest in the issue of slavery and retained friendly feelings for their brother officers of the prewar army who had chosen to fight for the Confederacy. They also saw the career army men as having little interest in democratic institutions and as possessing little faith in the American tradition of civilian control over the military. Some of the committee’s targets were reasonable ones: their sometimes-devious investigation into George McClellan’s inertia had been part of what pushed Lincoln to relieve him of command of the Army of the Potomac.
On the other hand, the committee sometimes acted in the role of thought police. An example of the unprincipled ferocity of this committee that Sherman would now appear before was its shameful and groundless arrest and six-month imprisonment of General Charles Stone, who was both a West Pointer and a Democrat. Stone, although not actually present, was technically in command at the defeat of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, on October 21, 1861, a battle in which the federal losses of all categories totaled 921, compared with 149 Confederate casualties. This in itself justified an investigation, but the committee’s motives were political to the core. The inept general who was directly in charge at Ball’s Bluff and was killed there was Edward Baker, a major general of Volunteers who had been a Republican senator and a strong Radical. On the other hand, Stone’s wife had relatives in the South, and, prior to army orders not to do so, Stone had returned fugitive slaves to their owners in accordance with then-existing laws. There were also rumors that rebel couriers were able to cross the Potomac River in his area, and it was true that he was one of the favorite generals of McClellan, whose Democratic Party loyalties were well-known.
The committee, in good part because it saw a chance to discredit McClellan, decided that Stone was a traitor who had deliberately planned an action in which Baker and his men would be killed. A month after a committee hearing began in which Stone was in effect treated as a defendant in a criminal case who was never told the charges against him and given no chance to prepare an informed defense, he was, with Secretary of War Stanton’s tacit compliance, arrested at midnight and placed in solitary confinement at Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor. Released by an act of Congress after six months, he failed in his repeated attempts to have a formal military court of inquiry convened to hear his case. Finally, on February 27, 1863, seven months after his unjustified and illegal imprisonment ended, Stone had the chance to confront his original accusers in a committee hearing, during which he categorically disproved every charge that had been brought against him. Going on to serve bravely later in 1863 at the battle of Port Hudson and in the Red River campaign, he was nonetheless a marked man, never able to escape the personal tragedy of the unfair indictment against him. Returning east to the Army of the Potomac in which he had been serving at the time of Ball’s Bluff, he found that gossip pursued him and that his opportunities for advancement were closed. In April of 1864, Stanton arbitrarily mustered him out of his Volunteer commission as brigadier general, and as a Regular Army colonel this late in the war, Stone waited for orders that never came and resigned in September of 1864. (Ironically, nineteen years later, Stone, in his capacity as a civil engineer, was in charge of constructing the massive base for the Statue of Liberty.)
Stone was by no means the committee’s only victim. General George Gordon Meade, who was summoned to appear after the Fredericksburg defeat in May of 1863, two months before his great victory at Gettysburg, said in a letter that “I sometimes feel very nervous about my position, [the committee is] knocking over generals at such a rate.”
And here was Sherman, who had commanded Louisiana’s state military academy before the war, was known to have a low opinion of the black population’s abilities, and had extended such generous peace terms to his fellow West Point alumnus Joseph E. Johnston. He was indeed the witness, and one the committee saw as a questionable and possibly dangerous figure, but he was not the real target. Senator Benjamin Wade, the prominent Radical Republican and a former trial lawyer who was the committee chair, wanted to use Sherman to get at and discredit what he considered to be the misguided policies of Abraham Lincoln. Among other things, Wade had never forgotten what had happened to the Wade-Davis Bill, legislation that he had put forward in 1864 with Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. Motivated by the Radicals’ belief that only Congress had the right, through legislation, to determine the terms of Reconstruction, this had been a challenge to Lincoln’s assumption of wartime emergency powers to be enacted by executive orders. When Lincoln killed the bill with a pocket veto, it infuriated the legislation’s sponsors and further widened the gap between Lincoln and the more ardent Radicals.
As the committee’s session opened, Wade went to work, questioning Sherman himself. He soon found that Sherman, who had aggressively torn apart the South, was employing a defensive strategy. Sherman loved his Army of the West, to which he would say good-bye the day after tomorrow after leading it down Pennsylvania Avenue on the second day of the Grand Review; he loved the United States Army and wanted to continue serving in it; he hated Stanton. He wanted Wade’s jaws to snap shut on thin air, and he wanted to clear his name.
In his testimony—the transcript ran to thirty-two printed pages—Sherman kept faith with the officers and men who trusted him and did not hide behind Lincoln, in whom he had seen more goodness and greatness than in any other man he had met. He rebutted any effort to smear him in such a way that there could be grounds for his dismissal from the army, and he caused no new trouble for Grant and the postwar United States Army. And Sherman had his day in court, where Stanton was concerned.
Senator Wade tried and tried. Thinking that Sherman would, for his own defense, agree with the suggestion that in his first dealings with Johnston he was carrying out explicit orders from Lincoln, he gave Sherman the chance to clear himself and portray Lincoln just as the Radicals wanted him to be seen: a man who wanted a soft peace for the South. “Did you have,” Wade asked him, “near Fortress Monroe, a conference with President Lincoln, and if so, about what time?”
Sherman said that he had, and gave the dates of his stay at Grant’s headquarters at City Point. Wade moved in. “In those conferences was any arrangement made with you and General Grant, or either of you, in regard to the manner of arranging business with the Confederacy in regard to the terms of peace?”
“Nothing definite. It was simply a matter of general conversation, nothing specific and definite.”
Here was the mystery. Either Sherman did not possess any proof of Lincoln’s instructions to him, or he had it and chose not to produce it, or, more likely in the light of his family’s worries about him, he had indulged in feverish wishful thinking the day before and was now facing the reality of this hearing. Thwarted, the best Wade could get out of Sherman was the statement, “Had President Lincoln lived, I know he would have sustained me.”
Turning to Sherman’s first agreement with Johnston, Wade asked why he had not dealt with the subject of slavery in that document and had left open an interpretation that slavery could continue in the former Confederate states. Sherman answered that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had settled that subject once and for all, long before his meeting with Johnston, and that “for me to have renewed the question when that decision was [already] made would have involved the absurdity of an inferior undertaking to qualify the work of his superior.” He went on to point out that the agreement he had reached with Johnston specifically stated that it had to be approved in Washington, and that he had immediately sent the document there by special messenger. In what was clearly a misrepresentation of what had happened—Sherman had never expected his terms to be rejected by his superiors—he now portrayed his initial terms as being “glittering generalities,” hastily penned to stop the fighting and to have something to send to Washington for improvement. On this last point, that of stopping the fighting, Sherman stressed to the committee that both his own generals and Johnston had wanted an immediate end to the war, and that he in particular had feared that if there were not a general surrender, Johnston’s experienced men would slip away and continue fighting throughout the South indefinitely as guerrilla bands.
Finally, Wade gave Sherman his opportunity to talk about Halleck and Stanton. Sherman told the committee, with no letters or documents to prove it, about a conversation that he had with Stanton, when the secretary had come to Savannah in January of that year. Sherman said that Stanton had encouraged him to include civil matters in any opportunity to end the war. For Stanton to turn on him after that, Sherman said, as he had of Halleck, was “an act of perfidy.” This description of his conversation with Stanton in Savannah was the only new piece of information that Sherman had to offer, but for a moment the committee saw the man who had slashed apart the South. “I did feel indignant—I do feel indignant. As to my own honor, I can protect it.”
When Sherman left the hearing room, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had taken testimony from its last, and most controversial, witness. It would still receive final written reports from the generals of all the major commands, including Sherman, but the war and the work of the committee had ended. Sherman had held his own and, like everyone else in Washington, was looking ahead to the next day’s beginning of the Grand Review, but in this hour after he was excused by the committee he was in for an experience that balanced out the Radicals’ view of him. An Associated Press dispatch reported: “Gen. Sherman and his brother Senator Sherman passed down Pennsylvania-avenue this evening. His appearance caused the gathering of crowds, who repeatedly cheered him, while ladies waved their handkerchiefs. A large number of persons followed him, and the press soon became so general that he was compelled to call a carriage to escape the labor of a severe hand-shaking, which had already commenced.”
That evening presented an interesting contrast between life in the encampments of Meade’s Eastern army, both north and south of the Potomac, and Sherman’s Western army, bivouacked to the south of the river in and around Alexandria. Meade’s Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac was in a comfortable permanent camp on Arlington Heights above the southern bank of the river, near Arlington House, the Custis mansion occupied by Robert E. Lee up to the moment of secession. On this last night of that army’s existence, there were many parties, and the officers of the First Division of the Fifth Corps, a hard-fighting unit whose flag displayed a red Maltese cross against a white background, were gathering to honor the corps commander, Major General Charles Griffin. Four enormous hospital tents had been put together to accommodate the officers and their guests.
A special gift for General Griffin had been arranged for the occasion, paid for by a collection taken up among the officers. Made by Tiffany’s in New York, it was a gold pin whose enameled white surface bore the division’s red Maltese cross, with the cross outlined in diamonds, and with a center diamond that cost a thousand dollars. The man who designed it, and pinned it on Griffin’s uniform during the party to great applause, was the commander of the First Division, Major General Joshua Chamberlain, one of the war’s most interesting figures. When the war started, he had been a professor of religion and Romance languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. Given a leave of absence to study in Europe during 1862 and 1863, he had instead entered the army and first risen to be colonel of the legendary Twentieth Maine, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Wounded several times—he had been hit twice at Hatcher’s Run during the final Appomattox campaign, seven weeks before, and during the war the horse that he would ride in the next day’s parade had been shot from under him three times and had healed well enough to go into action again—Chamberlain had been assigned to a special duty at Appomattox Court House. After Grant, Lee, and other commanders had left the area, Chamberlain was designated to be the senior officer present when the surrendered remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up to lay down their arms. On his own initiative, he had ordered the Union regiments lined up guarding the area to come to “present arms” in salute to their gallant foes—a gesture that, climaxed by a spontaneous three cheers given by Chamberlain’s men as the last Confederates marched up to surrender, caused one of Lee’s soldiers to write, “Many grizzled veterans wept like women, and my own eyes were as blind as my voice was dumb.”
No one in the Fifth Corps went to bed that night. At two in the morning they began lining up to come marching down from Arlington Heights. The Long Bridge could handle normal traffic, but it took two hours for all these men and horses and cannon to cross the river and get to their assembly place near the Capitol, where they would have to wait until the Eastern army’s cavalry and many other units preceded them in the parade.
In Sherman’s camps around Alexandria that evening, columns of quartermaster wagons had arrived, filled with new uniforms and boots for Sherman’s men to wear when their turn came to parade, two days hence. To the surprise of the well-meaning Eastern supply officers who brought them, most of the men refused to take a single item of clothing. Let them see us the way they are, they said. Clean weapons and bare feet. Let them look at us in our rags. They’ll know who we are. We’re Uncle Billy’s men. They don’t have to cheer. It’s our last march, and we’re going to do it our way.
Most of the men of the Western army had no idea of the intense curiosity about them felt by the crowds gathering in Washington. Among the visitors who had come to see the Grand Review was a small group of young ladies, friends who were members of prominent Boston families. The only place they had found to stay was in an attic room of a house near the Willard Hotel. On the day before the parade, they hired a carriage and drove out to Georgetown, finding themselves on a street where companies of Sherman’s men were passing. Letting their friendly curiosity get the better of their New England reserve, they called out, “What regiment are you?” Back came the shouted answer, a regiment’s number, and “Michigan!” As if on an expedition into unknown territory, the delighted girls asked the next unit where they were from and heard, “Wisconsin!,” and another exchange produced what was to them the undoubtedly exotic, “Iowa!”
What the girls from Boston could not be expected to see, what few Americans of the day really understood, was the significance of those fine soldiers, farm boys from Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa, being on the streets of Washington. It was the old Northwest, the West as it was then called, the Midwest as it later came to be known, that had given the nation such men as Lincoln and Grant from Illinois, and Sherman from Ohio. The soldiers of the Eastern states had done their full share in winning the war, but it was this new dimension, the political and military power of the West, that had welded itself to the older Eastern states in the great national crisis, and together these regions and their forces had won the war. The next two days would be a dramatic demonstration of that reality.