- My first meeting with General Grant -- a conference at Thomas's headquarters -- Grant's manner of writing despatches -- opening “the Cracker line” -- Grant saluted by the enemy -- Grant's personal appearance
While sitting in my quarters in the little town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, about an hour after nightfall, Friday, October 23, 1863, an orderly brought me a message from General George H. Thomas, Commander of the Army of the Cumberland, on whose staff I was serving, summoning me to headquarters. A storm had been raging for two days, and a chilling rain was still falling. A few minutes' walk brought me to the plain wooden, one-story dwelling occupied by the commander, which was situated on Walnut street, near Fourth, and upon my arrival I found him in the front room on the left side of the hall, with three members of his staff and several strange officers. In an arm-chair facing the fireplace was seated a general officer, slight in figure and of medium stature, whose face bore an expression of weariness. He was  carelessly dressed, and his uniform coat was unbuttoned and thrown back from his chest. He held a lighted cigar in his mouth, and sat in a stooping posture, with his head bent slightly forward. His clothes were wet, and his trousers and top-boots were spattered with mud. General Thomas approached this officer, and, turning to me and mentioning me by name, said, “I want to present you to General Grant.” Thereupon the officer seated in the chair, without changing his position, glanced up, extended his arm to its full length, shook hands, and said in a low voice, and speaking slowly, “How do you do?” This was my first meeting with the man with whom I was destined afterward to spend so many of the most interesting years of my life. The strange officers present were members of General Grant's staff. Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, who had been for some time with the Army of the Cumberland, had also entered the room. The next morning he sent a despatch to the War Department, beginning with the words, “Grant arrived last night, wet, dirty, and well.” On the 19th of October General Grant's command had been enlarged so as to cover the newly created military division of the Mississippi, embracing nearly the entire field of operations between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi River, and the Army of the Cumberland had thus been placed under his control. About a month before, that army, after having fought at Chickamauga one of the most gallantly contested and sanguinary battles in the annals of warfare, had fallen back and taken up a defensive position on the south side of the Tennessee River, inclosing within its lines the village of Chattanooga. The opposing forces, under General Bragg, had invested this position, and established such a close siege that the lines of supply had been virtually cut off, rations  and forage were about exhausted, and almost the last tree-stump had been used for fuel. Most of the men were without overcoats, and some without shoes; ten thousand animals had died of starvation, and the gloom and despondency had been increased by the approach of cold weather and the appearance of the autumn storms. General Grant, upon assuming the responsibilities of his new command, had fully realized the critical condition of the Army of the Cumberland, and had set out at once for its headquarters to take charge in person of its future operations. On his way to the front he had telegraphed General Thomas, from Louisville, to hold Chattanooga at all hazards, to which that intrepid soldier made the famous reply, “I will hold the town till we starve.” General Grant had started, the day before the incident I have described, from Bridgeport, a place thirty miles below Chattanooga, where the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad crosses the Tennessee River, and had ridden by way of Walden's Ridge, the only route left open by which communication could be had with the beleaguered town. We had been advised that he was on his way, but hardly expected that he would reach Chattanooga that night, considering the state of the weather, the wretched condition of the roads, or rather bridle-paths, over the mountain, and the severe injury to his leg which had been caused by a fall of his horse several weeks before, and from which he was still suffering. When he arrived he had to be lifted from his saddle, and was evidently experiencing much pain, as his horse had slipped in coming down the mountain, and had further injured the lame leg; but the general showed less signs of fatigue than might have been supposed after his hard ride of two days under such trying circumstances.  As soon as General Grant had partaken of a light supper immediately after his arrival, General Thomas had sent for several general officers and most of the members of his staff to come to headquarters, and the room soon contained an exceedingly interesting group. A member of General Thomas's staff quietly called that officer's attention to the fact that the distinguished guest's clothes were pretty wet and his boots were thoroughly soaked with rain after his long ride through the storm, and intimated that colds were usually no respecters of persons. General Thomas's mind had been so intent upon receiving the commander, and arranging for a conference of officers, that he had entirely overlooked his guest's travel-stained condition; but as soon as his attention was called to it, all of his old-time Virginia hospitality was aroused, and he at once begged his newly arrived chief to step into a bedroom and change his clothes. His urgings, however, were in vain. The general thanked him politely, but positively declined to make any additions to his personal comfort, except to light a fresh cigar. Afterward, however, he consented to draw his chair nearer to the wood fire which was burning in the chimney-place, and to thrust his feet forward to give his top-boots a chance to dry. The extent of his indulgence in personal comfort in the field did not seem to be much greater than that of bluff old Marshal Suvaroff, who, when he wished to give himself over to an excess of luxury, used to go so far as to take off one spur before going to bed. At General Grant's request, General Thomas, General William F. Smith, his chief engineer, commonly known in the army as “Baldy” Smith, and others, pointed out on a large map the various positions of the troops, and described the general situation. General Grant sat for some time as immovable as a rock and as silent as the  sphinx, but listened attentively to all that was said. After a while he straightened himself up in his chair, his features assumed an air of animation, and in a tone of voice which manifested a deep interest in the discussion, he began to fire whole volleys of questions at the officers present. So intelligent were his inquiries, and so pertinent his suggestions, that he made a profound impression upon every one by the quickness of his perception and the knowledge which he had already acquired regarding important details of the army's condition. His questions showed from the outset that his mind was dwelling not only upon the prompt opening of a line of supplies, but upon taking the offensive against the enemy. In this he was only manifesting one of his chief military characteristics — an inborn dislike to be thrown upon the defensive. Even when he had to defend a position, his method of warfare was always that of the “offensive-defensive.” After talking over a plan for communicating with our base of supplies, or, as he called it in his conversation, “opening up the cracker line,” an operation which already had been projected and for which preliminary steps had been taken, he turned to me as chief of ordnance of the Army of the Cumberland, and asked, “How much ammunition is there on hand” I replied, “There is barely enough here to fight one day's battle, but an ample supply has been accumulated at Bridgeport to await the opening of communications.” At about half-past 9 o'clock he appeared to have finished his search after information for the time being, and turning to a table, began to write telegrams. Communication by wire had been kept open during all the siege. His first despatch was to General Halleck, the general-in-chief at Washington, and read: “Have just arrived; I will write to-morrow. Please approve  order placing Sherman in command of Department of the Tennessee, with headquarters in the field.” He had scarcely begun to exercise the authority conferred upon him by his new promotion when his mind turned to securing advancement for Sherman, who had been his second in command in the Army of the Tennessee. It was more than an hour later when he retired to bed in an adjoining room to get a much-needed rest. As he arose and walked across the floor his lameness was very perceptible. Before the company departed he had made an appointment with Generals Thomas and Smith and several staff-officers to accompany him the next day to make a personal inspection of the lines. Early on the morning of the 24th the party set out from headquarters, and most of the day was spent in examining our lines and obtaining a view of the enemy's position. At Brown's Ferry General Grant dismounted and went to the river's edge on foot, and made his reconnaissance of that important part of the line in full view of the enemy's pickets on the opposite bank, but, singularly enough, he was not fired upon. Being informed that the general wished to see me that evening, I went into the room he was occupying at headquarters, and found two of his staff-officers seated near him. As I entered he gave a slight nod of the head by way of recognition, and pointing to a chair, said rather bluntly, but politely, “Sit down.” In reply to a question which he asked, I gave him some information he desired in regard to the character and location of certain heavy guns which I had recently assisted in putting in position on the advanced portion of our lines, and the kind and amount of artillery ammunition. He soon after began to write despatches, and I arose to go, but resumed my seat as he said, “Sit still.” My attention  was soon attracted to the manner in which he went to work at his correspondence. At this time, as throughout his later career, he wrote nearly all his documents with his own hand, and seldom dictated to any one even the most unimportant despatch. His work was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly, but without any marked display of nervous energy. His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for an expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction. He sat with his head bent low over the table, and when he had occasion to step to another table or desk to get a paper he wanted, he would glide rapidly across the room without straightening himself, and return to his seat with his body still bent over at about the same angle at which he had been sitting when he left his chair. Upon this occasion he tossed the sheets of paper across the table as he finished them, leaving them in the wildest disorder. When he had completed the despatch, he gathered up the scattered sheets, read them over rapidly, and arranged them in their proper order. Turning to me after a time, he said, “Perhaps you might like to read what I am sending.” I thanked him, and in looking over the despatches I found that he was ordering up Sherman's entire force from Corinth to within supporting distance, and was informing Halleck of the dispositions decided upon for the opening of a line of supplies, and assuring him that everything possible would be done for the relief of Burnside in east Tennessee. Directions were also given for the taking of vigorous and comprehensive steps in every direction throughout his new and extensive command. At a late hour, after having given further directions in regard to the contemplated movement for the opening of the route from Bridgeport to Chattanooga, and in the mean time sending back to be foraged all the animals  that could be spared, he bid those present a pleasant good night, and limped off to his bedroom. I cannot dwell too forcibly on the deep impression made upon those who had come in contact for the first time with the new commander, by the exhibition they witnessed of his singular mental powers and his rare military qualities. Coming to us crowned with the laurels he had gained in the brilliant campaign of Vicksburg, we naturally expected to meet a well-equipped soldier, but hardly anybody was prepared to find one who had the grasp, the promptness of decision, and the general administrative capacity which he displayed at the very start as commander of an extensive military division, in which many complicated problems were presented for immediate solution. After remaining three days as General Thomas's guest, General Grant established his headquarters in a modest-looking two-story frame-house on the bluff near the river, situated on what is now known as First street. In the evening of the 26th I spent some time in the front room on the left side of the hall, which he used as his office, and in which several members of his staff were seated with him. It was a memorable night in the history of the siege, for the troops were being put in motion for the hazardous attempt to open the river route to our base of supplies at Bridgeport. The general sat at a table, smoking, and writing despatches. After finishing several telegrams and giving some directions to his staff, he began to describe the probabilities of the chances of the expedition down the river, expressing a confident belief in its success. General W. F. Smith, who had been so closely identified with the project, was given command of the movement. At midnight he began his march down the north bank of the river with 2800 men. At three o'clock on the morning  of the 27th, Hazen started silently down the stream, with his pontoons carrying 1800 men; at five he made a landing at Brown's Ferry, completely surprising the guard at that point, and taking most of them prisoners; at seven o'clock Smith's force had been ferried across, and began to fortify a strong position; and at ten a bridge had been completed. Hooker's advance, coming up from Bridgeport, arrived the next afternoon, the 28th, at Brown's Ferry. The river was now open from Bridgeport to Kelley's Ferry, and the wagon road from that point to Chattanooga by way of Brown's Ferry, about eight miles in length, was in our possession. The success of the movement had been prompt and complete, and there was now established a good line of communication with our base. This changed condition of affairs had been accomplished within five days after General Grant's arrival at the front. As soon as the enemy recovered from his surprise, he woke up to the importance of the achievement; Longstreet was despatched to retrieve, if possible, the lost ground. His troops reached Wauhatchie in the night of the 28th, and made an attack upon Geary's division of Hooker's forces. The fight raged for about three hours, but Geary succeeded in holding his ground against greatly superior numbers. During the fight Geary's teamsters had become scared, and had deserted their teams, and the mules, stampeded by the sound of battle raging about them, had broken loose from their wagons and run away. Fortunately for their reputation and the safety of the command, they started toward the enemy, and with heads down and tails up, with trace-chains rattling and whiffletrees snapping over the stumps of trees, they rushed pell-mell upon Longstreet's bewildered men. Believing it to be an impetuous charge of cavalry, his line broke and fled. The quartermaster  in charge of the animals, not willing to see such distinguished services go unrewarded, sent in the following communication: “I respectfully request that the mules, for their gallantry in this action, may have conferred upon them the brevet rank of horses.” Brevets in the army were being bestowed pretty freely at the time, and when this recommendation was reported to General Grant he laughed heartily at the humor of the suggestion. Our loss in the battle, including killed, wounded, and missing, was only 422 men. The enemy never made a further attempt to interrupt our communications. The much-needed supplies, which had been hurried forward to Bridgeport in anticipation of this movement, soon reached the army, and the rejoicing among the troops manifested itself in lively demonstrations of delight. Every man now felt that he was no longer to remain on the defensive, but was being supplied and equipped for a forward movement against his old foe, whom he had driven from the Ohio to the Cumberland, and from the Cumberland to the Tennessee. As soon as communication had been opened with our base of supplies, General Grant manifested an eagerness to acquaint himself minutely with the position of the enemy, with a view to taking the offensive. One morning he started toward our right, with several staff-officers, to make a personal examination of that portion of the line. When he came in sight of Chattanooga Creek, which separated our pickets from those of the enemy, he directed those who had accompanied him to halt and remain out of sight while he advanced alone, which he supposed he could do without attracting much attention. The pickets were within hailing distance of one another on opposite banks of the creek. They had established a temporary truce on their own responsibility, and the men of each army were allowed to get water from the same stream without being fired upon by those on the  other side. A sentinel of our picket-guard recognized General Grant as he approached, and gave the customary cry, “Turn out the guard — commanding general!” The enemy on the opposite side of the creek evidently heard the words, and one of his sentinels cried out, “Turn out the guard--General Grant!” The confederate guard took up the joke, and promptly formed, facing our line, and presented arms. The general returned the salute by lifting his hat, the guard was then dismissed, and he continued his ride toward our left. We knew that we were engaged in a civil war, but such civility largely exceeded our expectations. In company with General Thomas and other members of his staff, I was brought into almost daily contact with General Grant, and became intensely interested in the progress of the plans he was maturing for dealing with the enemy at all points of the theater of war lying within his command. Early in November instructions came from the Secretary of War calling me to Washington, and in accordance therewith General Thomas issued an order relieving me from duty with his army.1 I had heard through personal letters that the Secretary wished to reorganize the Ordnance Bureau at Washington, and wished my services in that connection on account of my long experience in that department  in the field. The order was interpreted as a compliment, but was distasteful to me for many reasons, although I understood that the assignment was to be only temporary, and it was at a season when active operations in the field were usually suspended. It was a subject of much regret to leave General Thomas, for I had become greatly attached to him, and had acquired that respect and admiration for the character of this distinguished soldier which was felt by all who had ever come in contact with him. “Old Pap Thomas,” as we all loved to call him, was more of a father than a commander to the younger officers who served under his immediate command, and he possessed their warmest affections. He and his corps commanders now made a written appeal to General Grant, requesting him to intercede and endeavor to retain me in the command. In the evening of the 5th of November I was sent for by General Grant to come to his headquarters. On my arrival, he requested me to be seated at the opposite side of the table at which he sat smoking, offered me a cigar, and said: “I was sorry to see the order of the Secretary of War calling you to Washington. I have had some other views in mind regarding your services, and I still hope that I may be able to secure the recall of the order, and to have you assigned to duty with me, if that would be agreeable to you.” I replied eagerly, “Nothing could possibly be more agreeable, and I should feel most highly honored by such an assignment.” He went on to say, “With this step in view, I have just written a letter to the general-in-chief,” which he then handed me to read.2  Hardly allowing me to finish my expressions of surprise and gratification, he continued: “Of course, you will have to obey your present orders and proceed to Washington. I want you to take this letter with you, and see that it is put into the hands of General Halleck; perhaps you will soon be able to rejoin me here. My requests are not always complied with at headquarters, but I have written pretty strongly in this case, and I hope favorable action may be taken.” I replied that I would make my preparations at once to start East, and then withdrew. The next day I called to bid the general good-by, and, after taking leave of General Thomas and my comrades on the staff, set out for the capital by way of the new line of communication which had just been opened. A description of General Grant's personal appearance at this important period of his career may not be out of place here, particularly as up to that time the public had received such erroneous impressions of him. There were then few correct portraits of him in circulation. Some of the earliest pictures purporting to be photographs of him had been manufactured when he was at the distant front, never stopping in one place long enough to be “focused.” Nothing daunted, the practisers of that art which is the chief solace of the vain had photographed a burly beef-contractor, and spread the pictures broadcast as representing the determined, but rather robust, features of the coming hero, and it was some time before the real photographs which followed  were believed to be genuine. False impressions of him were derived, too, from the fact that he had come forth from a country leather store, and was famous chiefly for striking sledge-hammer blows in the field, and conducting relentless pursuits of his foes through the swamps of the Southwest. He was pictured in the popular mind as striding about in the most approved swash-buckler style of melodrama. Many of us were not a little surprised to find in him a man of slim figure, slightly stooped, five feet eight inches in height, weighing only a hundred and thirty-five pounds, and of a modesty of mien and gentleness of manner which seemed to fit him more for the court than for the camp. His eyes were dark-gray, and were the most expressive of his features. Like nearly all men who speak little, he was a good listener; but his face gave little indication of his thoughts, and it was the expression of his eyes which furnished about the only response to the speaker who conversed with him. When he was about to say anything amusing, there was always a perceptible twinkle in his eyes before he began to speak, and he often laughed heartily at a witty remark or a humorous incident. His — mouth, like Washington's, was of the letter-box shape, the contact of the lips forming a nearly horizontal line. This feature was of a pattern in striking contrast with that of Napoleon, who had a bow mouth, which looked as if it had been modeled after a front view of his cocked hat. The firmness with which the general's square-shaped jaws were set when his features were in repose was highly expressive of his force of character and the strength of his will-power. His hair and beard were of a chestnut-brown color. The beard was worn full, no part of the face being shaved, but, like the hair, was always kept closely and neatly trimmed. Like Cromwell,  Lincoln, and several other great men in history, he had a wart on his cheek. In his case it was small, and located on the right side just above the line of the beard. His face was not perfectly symmetrical, the left eye being a very little lower than the right. His brow was high, broad, and rather square, and was creased with several horizontal wrinkles, which helped to emphasize the serious and somewhat careworn look which was never absent from his countenance. This expression, however, was in no wise an indication of his nature, which was always buoyant, cheerful, and hopeful. His voice was exceedingly musical, and one of the clearest in sound and most distinct in utterance that I have ever heard. It had a singular power of penetration, and sentences spoken by him in an ordinary tone in camp could be heard at a distance which was surprising. His gait in walking might have been called decidedly unmilitary. He never carried his body erect, and having no ear for music or rhythm, he never kept step to the airs played by the bands, no matter how vigorously the bass drums emphasized the accent. When walking in company there was no attempt to keep step with others. In conversing he usually employed only two gestures; one was the stroking of his chin beard with his left hand; the other was the raising and lowering of his right hand, and resting it at intervals upon his knee or a table, the hand being held with the fingers close together and the knuckles bent, so that the back of the hand and fingers formed a right angle. When not pressed by any matter of importance he was often slow in his movements, but when roused to activity he was quick in every motion, and worked with marvelous rapidity. He was civil to all who came in contact with him, and never attempted to snub any one, or treat  anybody with less consideration on account of his inferiority in rank. With him there was none of the puppyism so often bred by power, and none of the dogmatism which Samuel Johnson characterized as puppyism grown to maturity.