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Chapter 45:

Grant and Sickles.

the career of Sickles came in contact with that of Grant on several interesting occasions. They met for the first time when Grant visited Washington to receive his commission as Lieutenant-General. It was at a levee at the White House. Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant stood in a group at the south end of the great East Room; and Grant, all suffused, looked like a lion at bay, as the crowd pressed up and passed him, shaking his hand. The experience was new to him then, and it was his first visit to the capital. ‘Besieged by friends, even you must surrender, General,’ said Sickles, as he was presented by Stanton. ‘Yes,’ replied Grant, ‘I have been surrendering for two hours, until I have no arms left.’ He could be humorous in his way, though he did not often attempt a pun.

Prior to Grant's arrival at the East, the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac had been determined by Stanton, Halleck, and Meade, and among the changes which then occurred was the consolidation of the Third corps with the Second. It was a cruel and unnecessary act, wounding the pride of the members of the corps, and striking at the very basis of soldierly enthusiasm; for the Third corps had a brilliant record, and it was hard to lose its identity in that of another organization. Sickles, the commander of the corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, had lost a leg in the last-named battle, and was of course unfitted to return to the field; but he went at once to the new General-in-Chief to protest against the absorption of his old command. [383]

Grant, however, thought it wise not to interfere in the organization of the Eastern army, for he had determined to leave matters of administration to Meade. He was always careful to commit as much executive power as possible to his immediate subordinates; and to overrule both Halleck and Meade in this matter would have provoked ill-feeling at the moment of assuming his own new functions, besides being contrary to all his usual course. Sickles appreciated the situation, and though he would have been glad to procure a re-institution of his historic corps, he bore no malice to Grant because he was unsuccessful.

In September, 1865, Sickles was placed in command in South Carolina. He had been a Democratic Congressman before the Rebellion, and intimate with many Southern politicians, as well as conversant with important civil affairs. His appointment to supervise this portion of the conquered territory was therefore appropriate. When Grant visited the South by Johnson's orders in the first winter after the war, he found Sickles with his headquarters at Charleston, busily engaged in the endeavor to build up the prosperity of the State. Grant at this time hoped that pacification would proceed with rapid steps, and was in favor of manifesting the most lenient spirit toward the fallen enemy. He had long discussions with Sickles, that lasted late into the night, receiving the opinions of his lieutenant, and basing his own directions upon them, for the two were in complete accord. I accompanied Grant on this tour and remember well with what warm approval he spoke of Sickles's course.

Sickles gave General Grant a dinner during his stay and asked many important Southerners to his table to meet the Commander of the Union armies; among them ex-Governor Aiken; Orr, who had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, and an intimate friend of Sickles in other times; Trenholm, the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury; Magraw, the last of the rebel Governors of South Carolina, [384] and Trescot, the rebel diplomatist. All were animated by a grateful feeling toward the hero of Appomattox; all were submissive, and anxious to conform to the terms which he had proposed; and Grant himself was still in harmony with the President. There were stanch Union men also present and several prominent soldiers of the command, among whom I remember General Devens, afterward Attorney-General under President Hayes. Altogether it was a remarkable company.

One little circumstance connected with the dinner betrayed the straits to which the most important Southerners had been reduced by the war. When Aiken received his invitation he at once called on Sickles and said he should be happy to avail himself of the courtesy, but his wardrobe would not allow him to show proper respect to the General-in-Chief. He did not possess a coat such as gentlemen wear at dinner; he had nothing indeed but the homespun suit made in the Confederacy during the Rebellion; for all supplies from abroad had been intercepted by the blockade; and thus one of the greatest landholders at the South, the owner once of a thousand slaves, a man at the very head of the aristocracy of South Carolina, was unable to appear at dinner, without, as he feared, displaying disrespect to the illustrious guest, by his attire.

Sickles, however, assured the Governor that General Grant would be happy to meet him in his every-day suit; and the courtly gentleman came in gray and discussed with the Union Chief the affairs of the country, the prospects of the South, the amelioration of the condition of the blacks and whites. The table and the fare were both impromptu and smacked of the camp and the results of war almost as much as the garb of the company. Grant was never punctilious in dress, and at this time in his career even less so than afterward; he wore no epaulettes and his uniform coat was unbuttoned; but the interest and grace of the occasion and the importance of the conversation equaled any of the [385] later entertainments offered him abroad, surrounded by the elegance and glitter of a court.

Sickles carried out his instructions faithfully. He was, as I have said, fully inspired with Grant's own desire to treat the conquered with magnanimity; but as time wore on, and the policy of Johnson was developed, with all its unfortunate results upon the temper and ambition of the South, he, like every other Union soldier of importance on the ground, determined to do what he could to enforce the measures enacted by Congress. He shared the sentiment of Grant and Sheridan and Pope and Meade and Halleck and Canby, all of whom believed that the law was to be obeyed. Efforts were made by the Administration to obtain his support. It was remembered that he had been a Democrat before the Rebellion, and when it was perceived that he seemed inclined to follow Congress rather than the President, he was offered first the collectorship of New York, and then various diplomatic positions, which would of course take him from South Carolina and leave his place to be filled by an adherent of the Administration. The mission to the Netherlands was proposed to him with the suggestion that after a while he should be sent to France. But Sickles before replying to the proposition wrote to Grant, and declared that unless the General-in-Chief desired a change he would prefer to remain in his military command. Grant had no wish to supersede Sickles by any successor, and so informed him, and Sickles declined the diplomatic appointment.

As the difference between Grant and Johnson ripened, he became a still more active coadjutor of Grant in carrying out the Congressional policy. Though not offensive in conduct or language, he made it apparent that he considered the declared will of Congress the law of the land, and when Congress had definitely pronounced and been endorsed by the people, there was no one more resolute or efficient than he in his obedience both to the law and to Grant to whom the enforcement [386] of the law was especially committed by the Legislature. In consequence the President became as hostile to Sickles as to Sheridan or Pope. Sickles had been appointed a Colonel in the regular army by Johnson on the recommendation of Stanton and Grant, after the visit of the General-in-Chief to his command; and he was one of the District Commanders under the Reconstruction system; but he was also one of those removed by the President during the period when Sheridan and Stanton became the objects of Johnson's hostility.

But Grant stood by Sickles as he did by Sheridan. When the two generals arrived in Washington from their commands, the General-in-Chief held a reception at his house to mark his approval of their course. The party was largely attended by officers of the army and navy and the diplomatic corps, and was almost the first public expression of Grant's antagonism to President Johnson. But he did not confine his demonstrations to social courtesies. One of the first executive acts of Grant as President was to offer to re-instate both Sheridan and Sickles in the positions from which his predecessor had removed them. In the meantime, however, the situation had changed. The Congressional policy was triumphant, and there was no need for Sickles's return, while Canby, his successor, had proved as faithful as he, and a reinstatement might seem a reflection on one who rather deserved reward. Sickles, therefore, did not desire to be restored. Grant did not insist and the ex-Congressman was made a full Major-General on the retired list of the regular army,—one of the highest honors paid to any soldier after the war, whether a graduate of West Point or from the Volunteers.

The relations of the United States with Mexico, I have already shown, were always a matter of keen interest to Grant; and when he entered upon his Presidential functions he hoped to negotiate a cession of territory from the sister Republic. With a view to accomplishing this design, the [387] mission to Mexico was tendered to Sickles through the State Department in the first month of Grant's Administration. It is within my personal knowledge that Grant particularly desired that Sickles should accept the post, for he had a high idea of his intelligence and of his dexterity in dealing with political problems; but, after deliberate consultation, in which Sickles was included, it was decided that no effort should be made at that time for an extension of territory in the direction of Mexico. The independence of Cuba and Porto Rico and the emancipation of the slaves in the Antilles, both Sickles and Rawlins held, were worthier objects of Grant's foreign policy.

Rawlins, indeed, not only advocated intervention in the dispute between Cuba and the Mother Country, but was anxious to acquire the Island, and Grant himself was by no means averse to the idea. With these views, Rawlins suggested to Sickles the position of Minister to Spain, and the Secretary of War even went in person to New York to urge the proposition, which, according to etiquette, should have proceeded from the State Department. Sickles, however, was unwilling to give up his rank in the army; and it was arranged that he should be retired for the purpose of receiving the diplomatic appointment. Officers on the active list were at that time prohibited from holding diplomatic positions, but the law did not apply to retired officers. This point was very fully discussed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of War; and finally Sickles consented to be retired and to accept a leave of absence from the War Department, which would enable him to serve under the Department of State as Minister to Spain. In all this arrangement Grant took the liveliest interest.

I have explained in earlier chapters the difference of opinion between Secretary Fish and General Rawlins in regard to the policy that Grant should pursue toward Spain. While Rawlins was for recognition of the independence of Cuba and the speedy acquisition of the Island by the United States, Fish thought the difficulties with England should [388] have precedence. Nevertheless, a negotiation was begun under Sickles at Madrid that promised to accomplish the peaceful purchase of Cuba while Prim was Prime Minister of Spain. A document was forwarded by Sickles to the State Department—not as a part of the public archives, but for the confidential knowledge of the Government, in which Prim declared himself ready to treat for the sale of the Island to the Cubans, the United States to become security for the purchase bonds, and to take a mortgage on the Island in return. This, it was supposed by all concerned, would result in the transfer of Cuba to this country. Prim especially stipulated with Sickles that his part in the agreement should not be made known during his lifetime; the proposition must seem to proceed from other sources; for he declared that not only his political position and influence, but his very life, would be endangered if the jealous Spaniards discovered prematurely that he was arranging for the cession of Cuba under any circumstances. He saw, however, that Cuba was a drag upon Spain, that both the Island and the Mother Country would be benefited by the arrangement, and that it was only the stupid pride of Andalusia and Castile that stood in the way. But his assassination put an end to all these schemes. Rawlins also died in the first year of Grant's Administration, and the loss of his influence and advocacy was fatal to the policy he had so much at heart. There was no one in the Cabinet to uphold his views with equal energy, and Grant conformed to those of the Secretary of State. Cuba was not acquired; and when Sickles perceived that the object proposed for his mission was not to be attained, he resigned. But General Grant told me during the last months of his life that if Rawlins had lived, he believed Cuba would have been acquired by the United States during his Administration.

While Grant was in Europe circumstances again brought Sickles into peculiar relations with his former chief in war and politics. The ex-Minister was living in Paris after his departure from Spain, and had become interested in French [389] affairs and intimate with Thiers, the famous ex-President of the re-established Republic. Thiers, however, had fallen before Grant went abroad, and McMahon was President, with a strong leaning toward legitimacy. In June, 1877, the situation in France was complicated. The real Republicans were out of power, and an election was approaching which might overthrow McMahon's allies. Upon General Grant's arrival in London it was at once seen that his presence in Paris might be used by the McMahon party as an opportunity to pose as friends of the great republican general of America, and the more radical Frenchmen became very anxious that his visit should be postponed until after the elections.

Washburne, once the intimate friend of Grant, was then Minister to France, and he wrote to the ex-President advising that he should not make his visit at this juncture. But the counsel made little impression, and was not, indeed, very urgent. The relations of the two had not of late been close, and whether the French politicians had learned this fact or no, Thiers addressed Sickles and asked him to proceed in person to London and explain the situation to Grant. For Thiers took it as certain that Grant's sympathies would be with the Republicans, and that he would conform to their wish and delay his visit to Paris if he understood the circumstances.

Sickles at once undertook the mission. He traveled to London, and explained to Grant the belief of the French republicans that his presence might be made a weapon in favor of the re-actionists. Mrs. Grant was present at the interview. It was she who had hitherto been anxious to visit Paris at this time, but she at once consented to defer her shopping and her sight-seeing, so as to spend the summer in Switzerland and Germany. General Grant accordingly changed his plans, and in a day or two left London for Belgium. His visit to Paris took place some months later. The elections had occurred in the meantime, and the Liberal [390] party had triumphed. If McMahon cherished any of those intentions which afterward brought about his downfall, they were postponed; and it is possible that General Grant's action contributed to the stability of the Republic in France. At least, the greatest of French statesmen at that epoch thought it worth while to commit the mission to Sickles which I have described.

Sickles returned to Paris, arriving late in the day, and as soon as possible made his way to the residence of Thiers to communicate the result of his embassy. The exPresi-dent was living at the mansion rebuilt for him by the Government after the destruction of his house by the Commune. He dined early, and later in the evening was accustomed to receive the world in a stately salon of this building in the Rue George. But there was always an interval after his simple dinner before the crowd arrived, and often the old statesman seized this moment to snatch a little sleep. Thus, when Sickles was announced, Thiers was lying on a sofa behind a screen at the further end of the salon, sleeping; but Madame Thiers received the envoy. She wished at once to waken the ex-President, but this Sickles would not allow, and he remained in conversation with the old lady, until Madame Doche, her famous sister-in-law, entered. Of course, he paid his compliments to this lady, and while they were talking, Madame Thiers also dozed. Then came in Barthelemy Saint Hilaire, once the private secretary of Thiers, and afterward a member of his cabinet. He also wished to waken Thiers; but still Sickles said, ‘Let him sleep’; and during this discussion Madame Doche fell into a doze. The three old people were used to this little refreshment before the entrance of the general company; and thus the American plenipotentiary, entrusted with a political errand that was thought important to the peace of France, found the exPresi-dent and his venerable family all asleep when he went to communicate the result of his journey.

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