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Chapter 15

On June 21 Butler had thrown a pontoon-bridge across the James, and seized a position on the north side known as Deep Bottom, ten miles below Richmond. General Grant had directed this with a view to divide the attention of the enemy's troops, and to confuse them as to whether to expect an attack upon Richmond or Petersburg, and because he had in contemplation some operations on the north side of the James, which he intended to carry out under certain contingencies, in which case the occupation of Deep Bottom might become important.

On Tuesday, June 21, a white river-steamer arrived at the wharf, bringing President Lincoln, who had embraced this opportunity to visit for the first time the armies under General Grant's immediate command. As the boat neared the shore, the general and several of us who were with him at the time walked down to the wharf, in order that the general-in-chief might meet his distinguished visitor and extend a greeting to him as soon as the boat made the landing. As our party [217] stepped aboard, the President came down from the upper deck, where he had been standing, to the after-gangway, and reaching out his long, angular arm, he wrung General Grant's hand vigorously, and held it in his for some time, while he uttered in rapid words his congratulations and expressions of appreciation of the great task which had been accomplished since he and the general had parted in Washington. The group then went into the after-cabin. General Grant said: “I hope you are very well, Mr. President.” “Yes, I am in very good health,” Mr. Lincoln replied; “but I don't feel very comfortable after my trip last night on the bay. It was rough, and I was considerably shaken up. My stomach has not yet entirely recovered from the effects.” An officer of the party now saw that an opportunity had arisen to make this scene the supreme moment of his life, in giving him a chance to soothe the digestive organs of the Chief Magistrate of the nation. He said: “Try a glass of champagne, Mr. President. That is always a certain cure for sea-sickness.” Mr. Lincoln looked at him for a moment, his face lighting up with a smile, and then remarked: “No, my friend; I have seen too many fellows sea-sick ashore from drinking that very stuff.” This was a knockdown for the officer, and in the laugh at his expense Mr. Lincoln and the general both joined heartily.

General Grant now said: “I know it would be a great satisfaction for the troops to have an opportunity of seeing you, Mr. President; and I am sure your presence among them would have a very gratifying effect. I can furnish you a good horse, and will be most happy to escort you to points of interest along the line.” Mr. Lincoln replied: “Why, yes; I had fully intended to go out and take a look at the brave fellows who have fought their way down to Petersburg in this wonderful campaign, and I am ready to start at any time.” [218]

General Grant presented to Mr. Lincoln the officers of the staff who were present, and he had for each one a cordial greeting and a pleasant word. There was a kindliness in his tone and a hearty manner of expression which went far to captivate all who met him. The President soon stepped ashore, and after sitting awhile at headquarters mounted the large bay horse “Cincinnati,” while the general rode with him on “Jeff Davis.” Three of us of the staff accompanied them, and the scenes encountered in visiting both Butler's and Meade's commands were most interesting. Mr. Lincoln wore a very high black silk hat and black trousers and frockcoat. Like most men who had been brought up in the West, he had good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged that in appearance he was not a very dashing rider. On this occasion, by the time he had reached the troops he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. As he had no straps, his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes. A citizen on horseback is always an odd sight in the midst of a uniformed army, and the picture presented by the President bordered upon the grotesque. However, the troops were so lost in admiration of the man that the humorous aspect did not seem to strike them. The soldiers rapidly passed the word along the line that “Uncle Abe” had joined them, and cheers broke forth from all the commands, and enthusiastic shouts and even words of familiar greeting met him on all sides. After a while General Grant said: “Mr. President, let us ride on and see the colored troops, who behaved so handsomely in Smith's attack on the works in front of Petersburg last week.” “Oh, yes,” replied Mr. Lincoln; “I want to take a look at [219] those boys. I read with the greatest delight the account given in Mr. Dana's despatch to the Secretary of War of how gallantly they behaved. He said they took six out of the sixteen guns captured that day. I was opposed on nearly every side when I first favored the raising of colored regiments; but they have proved their efficiency, and I am glad they have kept pace with the white troops in the recent assaults. When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind. I think, general, we can say of the black boys what a country fellow who was an old-time abolitionist in Illinois said when he went to a theater in Chicago and saw Forrest playing Othello. He was not very well up in Shakespeare, and didn't know that the tragedian was a white man who had blacked up for the purpose. After the play was over the folks who had invited him to go to the show wanted to know what he thought of the actors, and he said: ‘Waal, layin‘ aside all sectional prejudices and any partiality I may have for the race, derned ef I don't think the nigger held his own with any on 'em.’ ” The Western dialect employed in this story was perfect.

The camp of the colored troops of the Eighteenth Corps was soon reached, and a scene now occurred which defies description. They beheld for the first time the liberator of their race — the man who by a stroke of his pen had struck the shackles from the limbs of their fellow-bondmen and proclaimed liberty to the enslaved. Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits. They cheered, laughed, cried, sang hymns of praise, and shouted in their negro dialect, “God bress Massa Linkum!” “De Lord save Fader Abraham!” “De day ob jubilee am come, shuah.” [220] They crowded about him and fondled his horse; some of them kissed his hands, while others ran off crying in triumph to their comrades that they had touched his clothes. The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.

In the evening Mr. Lincoln gathered with General Grant and the staff in front of the general's tent, and then we had an opportunity of appreciating his charm as a talker, and hearing some of the stories for which he had become celebrated. He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact. So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President's remarks was heard to say, “Well, that man's got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.”

He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln's jokes than own the negative of any other man's. In the course of the conversation [221] that evening he spoke of the improvement in arms and ammunition, and of the new powder prepared for the fifteen-inch guns. He said he had never seen the latter article, but he understood it differed very much from any other powder that had ever been used. I told him that I happened to have in my tent a specimen which had been sent to headquarters as a curiosity, and that I would bring it to him. When I returned with a grain of the powder about the size of a walnut, he took it, turned it over in his hand, and after examining it carefully, said: “Well, it's rather larger than the powder we used to buy in my shooting days. It reminds me of what occurred once in a country meeting-house in Sangamon County. You see, there were very few newspapers then, and the country storekeepers had to resort to some other means of advertising their wares. If, for instance, the preacher happened to be late in coming to a prayer-meeting of an evening, the shopkeepers would often put in the time while the people were waiting by notifying them of any new arrival of an attractive line of goods. One evening a man rose up and said: ‘Brethren, let me take occasion to say, while we're a-waitin‘, that I have jest received a new invoice of sportin‘ powder. The grains are so small you kin sca'cely see 'em with the naked eye, and polished up so fine you kin stand up and comb yer ha'r in front of one o‘ them grains jest like it was a lookin‘--glass. Hope you'll come down to my store at the cross-roads and examine that powder for yourselves.’ When he had got about this far a rival powder-merchant in the meeting, who had been boiling over with indignation at the amount of advertising the opposition powder was getting, jumped up and cried out: ‘Brethren, I hope you'll not believe a single word Brother Jones has been sayin‘ about that powder. I've been down thar and [222] seen it for myself, and I pledge you my word that the grains is bigger than the lumps in a coal-pile; and any one of you, brethren, ef you was in your future state, could put a bar'l oa that powder on your shoulder and march squar‘ through the sulphurious flames surroundin‘ you without the least danger of an explosion.’ ” We thought that grain of powder had served even a better purpose in drawing out this story than it could ever serve in being fired from a fifteen-inch gun.

As the party broke up for the night I walked into my quarters to put back the grain of powder, and upon turning round to come out, I found that the President had followed me and was looking into my tent, from curiosity, doubtless, to see how the officers were quartered. Of course I made haste to invite him in. He stepped inside for a moment, and his eye fell upon a specimen artillery trace, a patented article which some inventor had left the day before in order to have it examined at headquarters. The President exclaimed, “Why, what's that?” I replied, “That is a trace.” “Oh,” remarked Mr. Lincoln, “that recalls what the poet wrote: ‘sorrow had fled, but left her traces there.’ What became of the rest of the harness he didn't mention.”

That night Mr. Lincoln slept aboard the boat which had brought him to City Point. He had expressed to General Grant a desire to go up the James the next day, to see that portion of our lines and visit the flagship of Admiral Lee, who commanded the gunboats. All arrangements were made for the trip, and the President's boat started up the river about eight o'clock the next morning, stopping at Bermuda Hundred to take on General Butler. Admiral Lee came aboard from his flag-ship, and the party proceeded up the river as far as it was safe to ascend. Mr. Lincoln was in excellent [223] spirits, and listened with great eagerness to the descriptions of the works, which could be seen from the river, and the objects for which they had been constructed. When his attention was called to some particularly strong positions which had been seized and fortified, he remarked to Butler: “When Grant once gets possession of a place, he holds on to it as if he had inherited it.” Orders had been sent to have the pontoon-bridge at Deep Bottom opened for the passage of the President's boat, so that he could proceed some distance beyond that point. His whole conversation during his visit showed the deep anxiety he felt and the weight of responsibility which was resting upon him. His face would light up for a time while telling an anecdote illustrating a subject under discussion, and afterward his features would relax and show the deep lines which had been graven upon them by the mental strain to which he had been subjected for nearly four years. The National Republican Convention had renominated him for the Presidency just two weeks before, and some reference was made to it and to the number of men who composed the Electoral College. He remarked: “Among all our colleges, the Electoral College is the only one where they choose their own masters.” He did not show any disposition to dwell upon the subject, or upon the approaching political campaign. His mind seemed completely absorbed in the operations of the armies. Several times, when contemplated battles were spoken of, he said: “I cannot pretend to advise, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.”

Soon after his return to City Point the President started back to Washington. His visit to the army had been a memorable event. General Grant and he had had so much delightful intercourse that they parted [224] from each other with unfeigned regret, and both felt that their acquaintance had already ripened into a genuine friendship.

General Grant, having decided that it would be inexpedient to attempt to carry the works at Petersburg by assault, now began to take measures looking to the investment of that place by leaving a portion of his forces to defend our works, while he moved out with the other portion against the railroads, with the design of cutting off Lee's communications in that direction. Wright's entire corps had been sent back from Butler's front to the Army of the Potomac, and Martindale's command had been returned to Butler, so that Meade's and Butler's armies were again complete. Meade's corps were disposed as follows, from right to left of the line: Burnside, Warren, Birney (Hancock's), Wright.

On the morning of June 22, Wright's and Birney's corps moved westward with a view to crossing the Weldon Railroad and swinging around to the left; but they were vigorously attacked and forced back some distance. They advanced again in the evening, but nothing important was gained.

On June 23, Birney and Wright again moved out. There was great difficulty in preserving the alinement of the troops, as they had to pass through dense woods and almost impenetrable thickets, which made the movement a slow and difficult process. About four o'clock in the afternoon, while a portion of Wright's troops were at work destroying the Weldon Railroad, a large force of the enemy struck his left and drove it back. Darkness soon came on, and nothing of importance was accomplished. Wright was now given authority to withdraw his corps to the position occupied the night before, which was more advantageous. Meade had sent frequent messages to Grant, who was this day at Bermuda [225] Hundred, keeping him advised of the movements in his front; and that night he telegraphed: “I think you had better come up here to-morrow if convenient.” General Grant felt considerably annoyed about the operations that day at Petersburg, and regarded the position of the Army of the Potomac as somewhat vulnerable. In extending to the left the center had been depleted, while the left flank was out in the air, and would consequently be weak if a heavy and determined attack should be made upon it. The enemy had made his intrenchments so strong that he could afford to move a large portion of his force to his right for the purpose of such an attack. Hancock was much missed from the command of the Second Corps. It was quite natural that Meade should ask Grant to come in person to the lines in front of Petersburg, and it was another indication of the confidence which his subordinate commanders reposed in him.

At eight o'clock on the morning of June 24 the general rode to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, accompanied by Rawlins, myself, and two others of the staff. In discussing with Meade and some of the corps commanders the events of the two previous days, he gave particular instructions for operations on that part of the line. The guns of the siege-train which he had ordered now began to arrive from Washington. Meade was told that they would be sent to him immediately, and it was decided to spend the next few days in putting the guns and mortars into commanding positions, in the meanwhile permitting the troops to desist from active operations. The heat was now intense, and the men were in much need of rest. Meade gave Grant and his staff a comfortable lunch, and late in the afternoon our party started for City Point.

Owing to the heat and dust, the long ride was exceedingly [226] uncomfortable. My best horse had been hurt, and I was mounted on a bay cob that had a trot which necessitated no end of “saddle-pounding” on the part of the rider; and if distances are to be measured by the amount of fatigue endured, this exertion added many miles to the trip. The general was riding his black pony “Jeff Davis.” This smooth little pacer shuffled along at a gait which was too fast for a walk and not fast enough for a gallop, so that all the other horses had to move at a brisk trot to keep up with him. When we were about five miles from headquarters the general said to me in a joking way: “You don't look comfortable on that horse. Now I feel about as fresh as when we started out.” I replied: “It makes all the difference in the world, general, what kind of horse one rides.” He remarked: “Oh, all horses are pretty much alike, as far as the comfort of their gait is concerned.” “In the present instance,” I answered, “I don't think you would like to swap with me, general.” He said at once, “Why, yes; I'd just as lief swap with you as not” ; and threw himself off his pony and mounted my uncomfortable beast, while I put myself astride of “Jeff.” The general had always been a famous rider, even when a cadet at West Point. When he rode or drove a strange horse, not many minutes elapsed before he and the animal seemed to understand each other perfectly. In my experience I have never seen a better rider, or one who had a more steady seat, no matter what sort of horse he rode; but on this occasion it soon became evident that his body and that of the animal were not always in touch, and he saw that all the party were considerably amused at the jogging to which he was subjected. In the mean time “Jeff Davis” was pacing along with a smoothness which made me feel as if I were seated in a rocking-chair. When we reached [227] headquarters the general dismounted in a manner which showed that he was pretty stiff from the ride. As he touched the ground he turned and said with a quizzical look, “Well, I must acknowledge that animal is pretty rough.”

Sheridan had arrived on June 20 at White House, on his return from the expedition to the north side of the North Anna River, upon which he had been sent on the 7th. As soon as Lee learned of Hunter's success he sent Breckinridge's troops to oppose him; and hearing that Sheridan had started, he ordered Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry commands to move against our cavalry. They were to attack Sheridan during the night of the 10th and surprise him; but that officer was not to be caught napping. He advanced promptly toward Trevilian's Station, and in a well-conceived and brilliantly executed battle defeated the Confederate cavalry, and then effectually destroyed several miles of the Virginia Central Railroad. He now obtained information from the prisoners he had captured that Hunter was in the vicinity of .Lynchburg and not likely to reach Charlottesville; and as the enemy had thrown a large force of infantry and cavalry between Hunter and him, and as he was encumbered with a large number of prisoners and wounded, and his supply of ammunition was nearly exhausted, he felt that it would be useless to try to make a junction with Hunter, and decided to return to the Army of the Potomac by way of White House, where ample and much-needed supplies were awaiting him. On his arrival, orders were given that this depot should be broken up on the 22d, and the train of nine hundred wagons which had been left there was crossed to the south side of the James River, having been gallantly and successfully defended on its way by Sheridan's cavalry. [228]

On the 26th Sheridan came in person to Grant's headquarters, and had an interview with him in regard to the results of his expedition and the further operations which he was expected to undertake at once on the south side of Petersburg. Sheridan was cordially greeted on his arrival by the general-in-chief. He was at all times a welcome visitor at headquarters, as his boundless enthusiasm, buoyant spirits, and cheery conversation were always refreshing.

The general, after learning all the details of Sheridan's expedition, told him that he fully approved his judgment in not attempting, under the contingencies which had arisen, to reach Hunter; but, as usual, the general did not dwell at length upon the past, and promptly began the discussion of tie plans he had in view for the cavalry in the future.

A day or two afterward, Grant paid a visit to Butler's lines; and while he and the staff were riding out to the front they came to the place where, according to tradition, Pocahontas had saved the life of Captain John Smith. Whether it was the exact spot or not, it was regarded in that locality as historic ground; and Virginians, who take a particular pride in well-known family names, seemed to honor Pocahontas especially, no doubt because she was largely instrumental in preserving the Smith family to posterity. In the efforts to account for the attempted execution of the prisoner, there is a story told, about the truth of which there is a lingering uncertainty. It is to the effect that, when the captain fell into the hands of the Indian chief, he was rash enough to state, in reply to questions as to his identity, that his name was “John Smith” ; and that the noble red man thought he was trying to perpetrate a practical joke on him, and was roused to swift vengeance by such an ill-timed pleasantry. [229]

In climbing a rather steep hill at this point, the party had to move along a narrow bridle-path. The general was riding in the lead, followed by the staff in single file, with Badeau bringing up the rear. The trees were soon found to be so near together that a horse and rider could not pass between them when keeping in the path, and we turned out to tile left, where the woods were more open. Badeau's near-sightedness prevented him from seeing very far ahead, and he was not paying much attention to his horse, but simply letting him go along as he pleased. Suddenly we heard a cry from him: “I'm going off! I say, I'm going off!” On looking round, we found his horse climbing up the path with a tree on each side, between which he could scarcely squeeze. When Badeau's knees reached the trees his saddle was forced back, and as the horse struggled on his rider finally slid off over the animal's tail. Then came the cry, “See here, I'm off!” and Badeau and the saddle were seen lying on the ground. The horse stepped out of the girth and quietly continued his march up the hill as if nothing had happened. General Grant stopped, and looking back at the ludicrous sight presented, fairly screamed with laughter, and did not recover his equanimity during the remainder of the ride. Nothing could have been more amusing to him than such an accident; for, as he was an exceptionally expert horseman, awkwardness on the part of a rider was more laughable to him than to most people. Badeau, with the assistance of an orderly, had his horse resaddled, and, mounting again, soon joined the cavalcade. General Grant cracked jokes at his expense all the rest of the ride; and for two or three days afterward, when he would be sitting quietly in front of his tent, he would suddenly begin to shake with laughter, and say: “I can't help thinking how that horse succeeded in [230] sneaking out from under Badeau at Bermuda Hundred.”

While the enemy's cavalry was north of the James, and the probabilities were that it would be detained there by Sheridan for some days, it was decided to send Wilson's division of cavalry, which had remained with the Army of the Potomac, and four regiments of the cavalry of the Army of the James under Kautz, to the south of Petersburg, with a view to striking both the South Side and the Danville railroads. This cavalry command started out on the morning of June 22. It was composed of nearly 6000 men and several batteries of horse-artillery. It first struck the Weldon, then the South Side Railroad, and afterward advanced as far as Roanoke Station on the Danville road, inflicting much damage. On the 29th, after severe fighting, it found itself confronted and partly surrounded by such a heavy force of the enemy that there was no means of cutting a way through with success; and it was decided to issue all the remaining ammunition, destroy the wagons and caissons, and fall back to the Union lines. The troops were hard pressed by greatly superior numbers, and suffered severely upon their march, but by untiring energy and great gallantry succeeded in reaching the Army of the Potomac on July 1. The expedition had been absent ten days. It had marched three hundred miles, and destroyed a large quantity of rolling-stock and about fifty miles of railroad. The loss in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to about 1500 men. All the guns and wagons were destroyed or abandoned. The cavalry supposed that the infantry of the Army of the Potomac would be in possession of Reams's Station at the time of their return, but that station was still in the hands of the enemy.

The destruction of communications by Hunter, Sheridan, [231] and Wilson gave the enemy serious alarm; but by dint of great effort he in time made the necessary repairs, and was again able to bring supplies to Richmond by rail. In the mean time the siege of Petersburg had begun, and it was now Grant's intention to make the investment as complete as possible, and to take advantage of every opportunity to inflict damage on the enemy, and give him battle whenever he could do so under circumstances that would be justifiable.

On June 29, Grant felt anxious about the fate of the cavalry and the progress of Wright's corps, which had been sent to Reams's Station to Wilson's relief, but did not reach there in time. He rode out to the Petersburg front with his staff, held interviews with Meade, Burnside, and Smith, and visited the lines to make a personal inspection of the principal batteries. He became impressed with the idea that more field-artillery could be used to advantage at several points, and when we returned to headquarters that evening he telegraphed to Washington for five or six additional batteries.

From the 4th of May until the end of June there had not been a day in which there was not a battle or a skirmish. The record of continuous and desperate fighting had far surpassed any campaign in modern or ancient military history.

In view of the important operations which were to be conducted from City Point, General Grant made some changes in the organization of the staff. General Rufus Ingalls, who had distinguished himself by the exhibition of signal ability as chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, was assigned to duty as chief quartermaster upon the staff of the general-in-chief. Grant and he had been classmates at West Point, and were on terms of extreme intimacy. Ingalls was exceedingly popular in the army, and both officially and personally [232] was regarded as an important acquisition to the staff. Lieutenant-colonel M. R. Morgan, an efficient and experienced officer of the commissary department, was added to the staff of the general-in-chief as chief commissary; thirty years after he became commissary-general of the army. Soon after General M. R. Patrick was made provost-marshal-general, and General George H. Sharpe was assigned to duty as his assistant. The latter officer rendered invaluable service in obtaining information regarding the enemy by his employment of scouts and his skill in examining prisoners and refugees. Captain Amos Webster was placed on duty as assistant quartermaster. Assistant Surgeon E. D. W. Breneman, U. S. A., was assigned to look after the health of those at headquarters; but the particularly robust condition of nearly all the officers he was prepared to attend made his work exceedingly light.

In discussing at this time the large amount of rations which had to be supplied by the subsistence department, and the system required in its management, General Grant said: “When I first had an independent command there were so few experienced men about me that I had to sit down at night and teach officers of the staff departments how to make requisitions for supplies, and fill out the blank forms furnished by the government when such blanks could be procured. I had acted at times as quartermaster and commissary in the old army, and was of course familiar with all the forms used in preparing papers. Word was brought to me one day that a new regimental commissary had gone aboard a commissary boat on the Mississippi and presented a requisition for rations for his men. The officer in charge looked at it in amazement, and exclaimed: ‘Why, there are not half enough rations aboard this entire steamer to fill that requisition.’ The commissary, who [233] thought he had made only an ordinary demand, said: ‘Why, you're filling requisitions for all the other regiments in our brigade! ’ ‘regiment! ’ cried the commissary. ‘You mean a corps.’ The regimental commissary then discovered that he had made out his requisition on a corps blank.”

A hospital had been established at City Point large enough to accommodate 6000 patients, and served a very useful purpose. The general manifested a deep interest in this hospital, frequently visited it, and constantly received verbal reports from the surgeons in charge as to the care and comfort of the wounded.

A telegraph-line had been established on the south side of the James which connected by cable across Hampton Roads with Fort Monroe. From that place there was direct telegraphic communication with Washington. This line was occasionally broken, but by dint of great effort it was generally well maintained and made to perform excellent service.

The general headquarters had become an intensely interesting spot. Direct communication was kept open as far as possible with the various armies throughout the country, all of which the general-in-chief was directing, and information of an exciting nature was constantly received and important orders were issued. The officers on duty had an opportunity to watch the great war drama from behind the scenes, from which point they witnessed not only the performance of the actors, but the workings of the master mind that gave the directions and guided all the preparations.

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