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Chapter 25

  • Grant plans the spring campaigns
  • -- the President's son Joins Grant's staff -- Lee Asks a personal interview -- a visionary peace program -- high Prices in Richmond -- Grant Receives a medal from Congress -- Shaving under difficulties -- arrival of Sheridan's scouts

General Grant was at this time employing all his energies in maturing his plans for a comprehensive campaign on the part of all the armies, with a view to ending the war in the early spring. Sheridan was to move down the valley of Virginia for the purpose of destroying the railroads, the James River Canal, and the factories in that section of country used for the production of munitions of war. Stoneman was to start upon a raid from east Tennessee with 4000 men, with a view to breaking up the enemy's communications in that direction. Canby, who was in command at New Orleans, was to advance against Mobile, Montgomery, and Selma. In the movement on Mobile, Canby had at least 45,000 men. Thomas was to send a large body of cavalry under Wilson into Alabama. The movements of our forces in the West were intended not only to destroy communications, but to keep the Confederate troops there from being sent East to operate against Sherman. Sherman was to march to Columbia, South Carolina, thence to Fayetteville, North Carolina, and afterward in the [386] [387] direction of Goldsborough. Schofield was to be transferred from Tennessee to Annapolis, Maryland, and thence by steamer to the Cape Fear River, for the purpose of moving inland from there and joining Sherman in North Carolina. Schofield's orders were afterward changed, and he rendezvoused at Alexandria, Virginia, instead of Annapolis. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were to watch Lee, and at the proper time strike his army a crushing blow, or, if he should suddenly retreat, to pursue him and inflict upon him all damage possible, and to endeavor to head off and prevent any portion of his army from reaching North Carolina as an organized force capable of forming a junction with Johnston and opposing Sherman. Some of these operations were delayed longer than was expected, and a few changes were made in the original plan; but they were all carried into effect with entire success, and the military ability of the general-in-chief never appeared to better advantage than in directing these masterly movements, which covered a theater of war greater than that of any campaigns in modern history, and which required a grasp and comprehension which have rarely been possessed even by the greatest commanders. He was at this period indefatigable in his labors, and he once wrote in a single day forty-two important despatches with his own hand.

In the latter part of January, General Grant went with Schofield down the coast, and remained there a short time to give personal directions on the ground. Sherman entered Columbia February 17, and the garrison of Charleston evacuated that place on the 18th without waiting to be attacked. When this news was received, Dr. Craven, a medical officer who was in the habit of drawing all his similes from his own profession, commended the movement by saying: “General Sherman [388] applied a remedial agency which is in entire accord with the best medical practice. Charleston was suffering from the disease known as secession, and he got control of it by means of counter-irritation.” Wilmington was captured on the 22d of February.

An addition was now made to our staff in the person of Captain Robert T. Lincoln, the President's eldest son. He had been graduated at Harvard University in 1864, and had at once urged his father to let him enter the army and go to the front; but Mr. Lincoln felt that this would only add to his own personal anxieties, and Robert was persuaded to remain at Harvard and take a course of study in the law-school. The fact is not generally known that Mr. Lincoln already had a personal representative in the army. He had procured a man to enlist early in the war, whom he always referred to as his “substitute.” This soldier served in the field to the end with a good record, and the President watched his course with great interest, and took no little pride in him.

In the spring of 1865 Robert renewed his request to his father, who mentioned the subject to General Grant. The general said to the President that if he would let Robert join the staff at headquarters, he would be glad to give him a chance to see some active service in the field. The President replied that he would consent to this upon one condition: that his son should serve as a volunteer aide without pay or emoluments; but Grant dissuaded him from adhering to that determination, saying that it was due to the young man that he should be regularly commissioned, and put on an equal footing with other officers of the same grade. So it was finally settled that Robert should receive the rank of captain and assistant adjutant-general; and on February 23 he was attached to the staff of the general-in-chief. The [389] new acquisition to the company at headquarters soon became exceedingly popular. He had inherited many of the genial traits of his father, and entered heartily into all the social pastimes at headquarters. He was always ready to perform his share of hard work, and never expected to be treated differently from any other officer on account of his being the son of the Chief Executive of the nation. The experience acquired by him in the field did much to fit him for the position of Secretary of War, which he afterward held. This month had brought me another promotion. I received a commission as brevet colonel of volunteers, dated February 24, for “faithful and meritorious services.”

On the evening of March 3, just as the general was starting to the mess-hut for dinner, a communication was handed to him from General Lee, which had come through our lines, and was dated the day before. After referring to a recent meeting under a flag of truce between Ord and Longstreet, from which the impression was derived that General Grant would not refuse to see him if he had authority to act for the purpose of attempting to bring about an adjustment of the present difficulties by means of a military convention, the letter went on to say: “Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that, upon an interchange of views, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned. In such event, I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable.” There came inclosed with this letter another stating that General Lee feared there was some misunderstanding about the exchange of political prisoners, and saying [390] that he hoped that at the interview proposed some satisfactory solution of that matter might be arrived at. General Grant, not being vested with any authority whatever to treat for peace, at once telegraphed the contents of the communication to the Secretary of War, and asked for instructions. The despatch was submitted to Mr. Lincoln at the Capitol, where he had gone, according to the usual custom at the closing hours of the session of Congress, in order to act promptly upon bills presented to him. He consulted with the Secretaries of State and War, and then wrote with his own hand a reply, dated midnight, which was signed by Stanton, and forwarded to General Grant. It was received the morning of the 4th, and read as follows: “The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee, unless it be for the capitulation of General Lee's army, or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds III his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.” The general thought that the President was unduly anxious about the manner in which the affair would be treated, and replied at once: “. . . I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me from pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability; neither will I, under any circumstances, exceed my authority or in any way embarrass the government. It was because I had no right to meet General Lee on the subject proposed by him that I referred the matter for instructions.” He then replied to Lee: “In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. [391] Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges, which has been intrusted to me.”

It was learned afterward that an interesting but rather fanciful program had been laid out by the enemy as a means to be used in restoring peace, and that this contemplated interview between Grant and Lee was to be the opening feature. Jefferson Davis had lost the confidence of his people to such an extent as a director of military movements that Lee had been made generalissimo, and given almost dictatorial powers as to war measures. As the civilians had failed to bring about peace, it was resolved to put Lee forward in an effort to secure it upon some terms which the South could accept without too great a sacrifice of its dignity, by means of negotiations, which were to begin by a personal interview with General Grant. One proposition discussed was that after the meeting of Grant and Lee, at which peace should be urged upon terms of granting amnesty, making some compensation for the emancipated slaves, etc., by the national government, it should be arranged to have Mrs. Longstreet, who had been an old friend of Mrs. Grant, visit her at City Point, and after that to try and induce Mrs. Grant to visit Richmond. It was taken for granted that the natural chivalry of the soldiers would assure such cordial and enthusiastic greetings to these ladies that it would arouse a general sentiment of good will, which would everywhere lead to demonstrations in favor of peace between the two sections of the country. General Longstreet says that the project went so far that Mrs. Longstreet, who was at Lynchburg, was telegraphed to come on to Richmond. The plan outlined [392] in this order of procedure was so visionary that it seems strange that it could ever have been seriously discussed by any one; but it must be remembered that the condition of the Confederacy was then desperate, and that drowning men catch at straws.

It was seen that Grant, by his operations, was rapidly forcing the fight to a finish. The last white man in the South had been put into the ranks, the communications were broken, the supplies were irregular, Confederate money was at a fabulous discount, and hope had given place to despair. The next evening one of our scouts returned from a trip to Richmond, and was brought to headquarters in order that the general-in-chief might question him in person. The man said: “The depreciation in the purchasing power of ‘graybacks,’ as we call the rebel treasury notes, is so rapid that every time I go into the enemy's lines I have to increase my supply of them. On my last trip I had to stuff my clothes full of their currency to keep myself going for even a couple of days. A barrel of flour in Richmond now costs over a thousand dollars, and a suit of clothes about twelve hundred. A dollar in gold is equal in value to a hundred dollars in graybacks. Then so much counterfeit Confederate money has been shoved in through our lines that in the country places they don't pretend to make any difference between good and bad money. A fellow that had come in from the western part of the State told me a pretty tough yarn about matters out there. He said: ‘Everything that has a picture on it goes for money. If you stop at a hotel, and the bill of fare happens to have an engraving of the house printed at the top, you can just tear off the picture and pay for your dinner with it.’ ”

On the 10th of March the Hon. Elihu B. Washburne, who had paid one or two visits before to headquarters, [393] arrived at City Point, and brought with him the medal which had been struck, in accordance with an act of Congress, in recognition of General Grant's services, and which Mr. Washburne had been commissioned to present. A dozen prominent ladies and gentlemen from Washington came at the same time. On the afternoon of the next day General Grant went with them to the lines of the Army of the Potomac, and gave orders for a review of some of the troops. That evening some simple arrangements were made for the presentation of the medal, which took place at 8 P. M. in the main cabin of the steamer which had brought the visitors, and which was lying at the City Point wharf. General Meade suggested that he and the corps commanders would like to witness the ceremony, and in response to an invitation they came to City Point for the purpose, accompanied by a large number of their staff-officers. Mr. Washburne arose at the appointed hour, and after delivering an exceedingly graceful speech eulogistic of the illustrious services for which Congress had awarded this testimonial of the nation's gratitude and appreciation, he took the medal from the handsome morocco case in which it was inclosed, and handed it to the general-in-chief. The general, who had remained standing during the presentation speech, with his right hand clasping the lapel of his coat, received the medal, and expressed his appreciation of the gift in a few well-chosen words, but uttered with such modesty of manner, and in so low a tone of voice, that they were scarcely audible. A military band was in attendance, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Grant a dance was now improvised. The officers soon selected their partners from among the ladies present, and the evening's entertainment was continued to a late hour. The general was urged to indulge in a waltz, but from this he begged off. However, he finally [394] agreed to compromise the matter by dancing a square dance. He went through the cotillion, not as gracefully as some of the beaux among the younger officers present, but did his part exceedingly well, barring the impossibility of his being able to keep exact time with the music. He did not consider dancing his forte, and in after life seldom indulged in that form of amusement, unless upon some occasion when he attended a ball given in his honor. In such case he felt that he had to take part in the opening dance to avoid appearing impolite or unappreciative.

Mr. Washburne was assigned quarters in camp next to General Grant. The next day was Sunday. The congressman was the first one up, and when he went to shave he found there was no looking-glass in his quarters; so he stepped across to the general's office in his shirt-sleeves, and finding a glass there, proceeded to lather his face and prepare for the delicate operation of removing his beard. Just as he had taken hold of his nose with his left thumb and forefinger, which he had converted into a sort of clothes-pin for the occasion, and had scraped a wide swath down his right cheek with the razor, the front door of the hut was suddenly burst open, and a young woman rushed in, fell on her knees at his feet, and cried: “Save him! Oh, save him! He's my husband.” The distinguished member of Congress was so startled by the sudden apparition that it was with difficulty that he avoided disfiguring his face with a large gash. He turned to the intruder, and said: “What's all this about your husband T Come, get up, get up! I don't understand you.” “Oh, general, for God's sake, do save my husband!” continued the woman. “Why, my good woman, I'm not General Grant,” the congressman insisted. “Yes, you are; they told me this was your room. Oh, save him, general; they're to [395] shoot him this very day for desertion if you don't stop them.” Mr. Washburne now began to take in the situation, and led the woman to a seat, and tried to comfort her, while she began to tell how her young husband had been led, through his fondness for her, to desert in order to go home and see her, and how he had been captured and court-martialed, and was to be executed that day, and how she had heard of it only in time to reach headquarters that morning to plead for his life. By this time the general was up, and hearing from his sleeping-apartment an excited conversation in the front room, dressed hurriedly, and stepped upon the scene in time to hear the burden of the woman's story. The spectacle presented partook decidedly of the serio-comic. The dignified member of Congress was standing in his shirt-sleeves in front of the pleading woman, his face covered with lather, except the swath which had been made down his right cheek; the razor was uplifted in his hand, and the tears were starting out of his eyes as his sympathies began to be worked upon. The woman was screaming and gesticulating frantically, and was almost hysterical with grief. I appeared at the front door about the same time that the general entered from the rear, and it was hard to tell whether one ought to laugh or cry at the sight presented. The general now took a hand in the matter, convinced the woman that he was the commanding general, assured her that he would take steps at once to have her husband reprieved and pardoned, and sent her away rejoicing. His interposition saved the man's life just in the nick of time. He cracked many a joke with Mr. Washburne afterward about the figure he cut on the morning of the occurrence.

Sheridan had started out from Winchester on the 27th of February with nearly 10,000 cavalry. On March 5 [396] news was received that he had struck Early's forces between Staunton and Charlottesville, and crushed his entire command, compelling Early and other officers to take refuge in houses and in the woods. For some time thereafter only contradictory reports were heard from Sheridan, through the Richmond papers which came into our hands; and as he was in the heart of the enemy's country, and direct communication was cut off, it was difficult to ascertain the facts. General Grant felt no apprehension as to the result of Sheridan's movements, but was anxious to get definite reports. On Sunday evening, March 12, the members of the mess sat down to dinner about dark. Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Rawlins, who was also visiting headquarters, were at the table. Toward the end of the meal the conversation turned upon Sheridan, and all present expressed the hope that we might soon hear something from him in regard to the progress of his movements. Just then a colored waiter stepped rapidly into the mess-room, and said to the general: “Thah's a man outside dat say he want to see you right away, and he don't ‘pear to want to see nobody else.” “What kind of looking man is he?” asked the general. “Why,” said the servant, “he's de mos' dreffie-lookin‘ bein‘ I ebber laid eyes on; he ‘pears to me like he was a‘ outcast.” With the general's consent, I left the table and went to see who the person was. I found a man outside who was about to sink to the ground from exhaustion, and who had scarcely strength enough to reply to my questions. He had on a pair of soldier's trousers three or four inches too short, and a blouse three sizes too large; he was without a hat, and his appearance was grotesque in the extreme. With him was another man in about the same condition. After giving them some whisky they gathered strength enough to state that they were scouts sent by Sheridan [397] from Columbia on the James River, had passed through the enemy's lines, bringing with them a long and important despatch from their commander, had ridden hard for two days, and had had a particularly rough experience in getting through to our lines. Their names were J. A. Campbell and A. H. Rowand, Jr. As Campbell had the despatch in his possession, I told him to step into the mess-room with me, and hand it to the general in person, so as to comply literally with his instructions, knowing the general's anxiety to have the news at once. The message was written on tissue-paper and inclosed in a ball of tin-foil, which the scout had carried in his mouth. The general glanced over it, and then read it aloud to the party at the dinner-table. It consisted of about three pages, and gave a vivid account of Sheridan's successful march, and the irreparable damage he had inflicted upon the enemy's communications, saying that he had captured twenty-eight pieces of artillery, destroyed many mills and factories, the James River Canal for a distance of fifteen miles, and the bridges on the Rivanna River, and stating that he was going to destroy the canal still further the next day, and then move on the Central and the Fredericksburg railroads, tear them up, and afterward march to White House, where he would like to have forage and rations sent him; and notifying the general that his purpose, unless otherwise ordered, was then to join the Army of the Potomac. The general proceeded to interrogate Campbell, but the ladies, who had now become intensely interested in the scout, also began to ply him with questions, which were directed at him so thick and fast that he soon found himself in the situation of the outstretched human figure in the almanac, fired at with arrows from every sign of the zodiac. The general soon rose from his seat, and said good-naturedly: “Well, I will never [398] get the information I want from this scout as long as you ladies have him under cross-examination, and I think I had better take him over to my quarters, and see if I cannot have him to myself for a little while.” By this time the dinner-party was pretty well broken up, and by direction of the general several members of the staff accompanied him and the scouts to the general's quarters. It was learned from them that Sheridan, deeming it very important to get a despatch through to headquarters, selected two parties, consisting each of two scouts. To each party was given a copy of the despatch, and each was left to select its own route. Campbell and Rowand started on horseback from Columbia on the evening of the 10th, following the roads on the north side of Richmond. They were twice overhauled by parties of the enemy, but they represented themselves as belonging to Imboden's cavalry, and being in Confederate uniforms and skilled in the Southern dialect, they escaped without detection. When they approached the Chickahominy they were met by two men and a boy, with whom they fell into conversation, and were told by them that they had better not cross the river, as there were Yankee troops on the other side. Before the scouts were out of earshot they heard one of the men say to the other, “I believe those fellows are d-d Yankees,” and soon they found that the alarm had been given, and the Confederate cavalry were pursuing them. They rode forward to the Chickahominy as rapidly as they could proceed in the jaded condition of their horses, and when they reached the stream they took off everything except their undershirts, tied their clothes on the pommels of their saddles, and swam their horses across the river. Campbell had taken the roll of tin-foil which contained the despatch from the lining of his boot, and put it in his mouth. On the other side of [399] the stream they found a steep, muddy bank and a row of piles. As the horses could not struggle out, the men abandoned them, and got into a canoe which providentially happened to be floating past, and by this means got ashore. The Confederates by this time had opened fire on them from the opposite bank. The scouts made their way on foot for eleven miles, in their almost naked condition, to Harrison's Landing on the James River, where they met a detachment of our troops. The soldiers supplied them with trousers and blouses such as they could spare, and took them by boat to City Point. They had ridden one hundred and forty-five miles without sleep and with but little food. The second pair of scouts sent by Sheridan made their way by canal and on foot to the south of Richmond. After six unsuccessful attempts to get across the lines, one of them reached headquarters several days later. The scouts were given a meal of the best food of which the headquarters mess could boast, and put into a comfortable hut, where they lost no time in making up for lost sleep. The next day General Grant made all preparation for sending supplies and troops to meet Sheridan at White House. The general complimented the scouts warmly upon their success, directed that they be supplied with two good horses and an outfit of clothing, and sent them around to White House on a steamer to await Sheridan there; but on their arrival they could not restrain their spirit of adventure, and rode out through the enemy's country in the direction of the South Anna River until they met their commander.

Campbell was only nineteen years of age. Sheridan always addressed him as “Boy,” and the history of his many hair-breadth escapes that year would fill a volume. Campbell has always remained a scout and is still in the employ of the government in that capacity at Fort [400] Custer; Rowand is now a prominent lawyer in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

This day (March 13) possesses a peculiar personal interest for me, for the reason that it is the date borne by two brevet appointments I received-one of colonel and the other of brigadier-general in the regular army --for “gallant and meritorious services in the field during the rebellion.”

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