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Chapter 27 [417]

Sherman, in his correspondence, had intimated a desire to have a personal conference with his chief before the general movement of all the armies took place; and it was learned on March 27 that he had arrived at Fort Monroe, and was on his way up the James. Grant telegraphed to several prominent officers to meet Sherman that evening at headquarters. Late in the afternoon the Russia, a captured steamer, arrived with Sherman aboard, and General Grant and two or three of us who were with him at the time started down to the wharf to greet the Western commander. Before we reached the foot of the steps, Sherman had jumped ashore and was hurrying forward with long strides to meet his chief. As they approached Grant cried out, “How d'you do, Sherman!” “How are you, Grant!” exclaimed Sherman; and in a moment they stood upon the steps, with their hands locked in a cordial grasp, uttering earnest words of familiar greeting. Their encounter was more like that of two school-boys coming [418] together after a vacation than the meeting of the chief actors in a great war tragedy. Sherman walked up with the general-in-chief to headquarters, where Mrs. Grant extended to the illustrious visitor a cordial greeting. Sherman then seated himself with the others by the camp-fire, and gave a most graphic description of the stirring events of his march through Georgia. The story was the more charming from the fact that it was related without the manifestation of the slightest egotism. His field of operations had covered more than half of the entire theater of war; his orders always spoke with the true bluntness of the soldier; he had fought from valley depths to mountain heights, and marched from inland rivers to the sea. Never were listeners more enthusiastic; never was a speaker more eloquent. The story, told as he alone could tell it, was a grand epic related with Homeric power. At times he became humorous, and in a nervous, offhand, rattling manner recounted a number of amusing incidents of the famous march. He said, among other things: “My old veterans got on pretty familiar terms with me on the march, and often used to keep up a running conversation with me as I rode along by their side. One day a man in the ranks had pulled off his shoes and stockings, and rolled up his trousers as far as they would go, to wade across a creek we had struck. I could n't help admiring his magnificently developed limbs, which might have served as models for a sculptor, and I called out to him: ‘A good stout pair of legs you've got there, my man.’ ‘Yes, general; they're not bad underpinning,’ he replied, looking down at them with evident pride. ‘I would n't mind exchanging mine for them, if you don't object,’ I continued. He sized up my legs with his eye, and evidently considered them mere spindle-shanks compared with his, and then looked up at me and said: [419] ‘General, if it's all the same to you, I guess I'd rather not swap.’ ”

Sherman then went on to talk about his famous “bummers,” saying: “They are not stragglers or mere self-constituted foragers, as many have been led to suppose, but they are organized for a very useful purpose from the adventurous spirits who are always found in the ranks. They serve as ‘ feelers ’ who keep in advance and on the flanks of the main columns, spy out the land, and discover where the best supplies are to be found. They are indispensable in feeding troops when compelled, like my army, to live off the country, and in destroying the enemy's communications. The bummers are, in fact, a regular institution. I was amused at what one of Schofield's officers told me at Goldsboroa. He said Schofield's army was maintaining a telegraph-line to keep up communication with the sea-coast, and that one of my men, who was a little more “previous” than the rest, and was far in advance of my army, was seen up a telegraph-pole hacking away at the wires with a hatchet. The officer yelled out to him: “What are you doing there? You're destroying one of our own telegraph-lines.” The man cast an indignant look at his questioner, and said, as he continued his work of destruction: “I'm one oa Billy Sherman's bummers; and the last thing he said to us when we started out on this hunt was: “Be sure and cut all the telegraph-wires you come across, and don't go to foolin‘ away time askin‘ who they belong to.”””

After the interview had continued nearly an hour, Grant said to Sherman: “I'm sorry to break up this entertaining conversation, but the President is aboard the River Queen, and I know he will be anxious to see you. Suppose we go and pay him a visit before dinner.” “All right,” cried Sherman; and the generals started [420] down the steps, and were soon after seated in the cabin of the steamer with the President.

In about an hour the two commanders came back and entered the general-in-chiefs hut. I was there talking to Mrs. Grant at the time. She, with her usual thoughtfulness, had prepared some tea, and was awaiting the return of the generals. She at once inquired, in her womanly way: “Did you see Mrs. Lincoln?” “Oh,” replied her husband, “we went rather on a business errand, and I did not ask for Mrs. Lincoln.” “And I didn't even know she was aboard,” added Sherman. “Well, you are a pretty pair!” exclaimed Mrs. Grant. “I do not see how you could have been so neglectful.” “Well, Julia,” said her husband, “we are going to pay another visit in the morning, and we'll take good care then to make amends for our conduct to-day.” “And now, let us talk further about the immediate movements of my army,” said Sherman. “Perhaps you don't want me here listening to all your secrets,” remarked Mrs. Grant. “Do you think we can trust her, Grant?” exclaimed Sherman, casting a sly glance at Mrs. Grant. “I'm not so sure about that, Sherman,” said the commander, entering into the spirit of fun which had now taken possession of the trio. “Public documents, in disseminating items of information, are accustomed to say, ‘Know all men by these presents.’ I think it would be just as effective to say, ‘Know one woman,’ for then all men would be certain to hear of it.” Sherman laughed heartily at this way of putting it, and said: “Now, Mrs. Grant, let me examine you, and I can soon tell whether you are likely to understand our plans well enough to betray them to the enemy.” “Very well,” she answered; “I'm ready for all your questions.” Then Sherman turned his chair squarely toward her, folded his arms, assumed the tone and look of a first-class pedagogue, [421] and, in a manner which became more and more amusing as the conversation went on, proceeded to ask all sorts of geographical questions about the Carolinas and Virginia. Mrs. Grant caught the true essence of the humor, and gave replies which were the perfection of drollery. When asked where a particular river in the South was, she would locate it a thousand miles away, and describe it as running up stream instead of down; and when questioned about a Southern mountain she would place it somewhere in the region of the north pole. Railroads and canals were also mixed up in interminable confusion. She had studied the maps in camp very carefully, and had an excellent knowledge of the geography of the theater of war, and this information stood her in good stead in carrying on the little comedy which was being enacted. In a short time Sherman turned to his chief, who had been greatly amused by the by-play, and exclaimed: “Well, Grant, I think we can trust her” ; and then, speaking again to the general's wife, he said: “Never mind, Mrs. Grant; perhaps some day the women will vote and control affairs, and then they will take us men in hand and subject us to worse cross-examinations than that.” “Not if my plan of female suffrage is ever adopted,” remarked the chief. “Why, Ulyss, you never told me you had any plans regarding that subject,” said Mrs. Grant. “Oh, yes,” continued the general; “I would give each married woman two votes; then the wives would all be represented at the polls, without there being any divided families on the subject of politics.”

Dinner was now announced, and Sherman escorted Mrs. Grant to the mess-room, and occupied a seat beside her at the table.

In the evening several officers came to pay their respects to Sherman. Sheridan had been telegraphed to [422] come to headquarters, but he did not appear until nearly midnight, and after all the others had left. He had been delayed several hours by his train running off the track on the military railroad. Sherman had been told by Grant about the plans he had discussed with Sheridan for the operations of the cavalry, and Sherman urged that it should join him after destroying the railroads on the way. Sheridan became a good deal nettled at this, and argued earnestly against it; but General Grant soon cut short the discussion by saying that it had been definitely decided that Sheridan was to remain with our army, then in front of Petersburg. Sheridan's command was made separate from the Army of the Potomac, and was to be subject only to direct orders from the general-in-chief. The cavalry commander had cheerfully given up the command of the Middle Military Division to take the field at the head of the cavalry corps, and General Grant felt that he was entitled to every consideration which could be shown him, The next morning (March 28) Admiral Porter came to headquarters, and in the course of his conversation said to Sherman: “When you were in the region of those swamps and overflowed rivers, coming through the Carolinas, didn't you wish you had my gunboats with you?” “Yes,” answered Sherman; “for those swamps were very much like that Western fellow's Fourth of July oration, of which a newspaper said, ‘It was only knee-deep, but spread out over all creation.’ One day, on the march, while my men were wading a river which was surrounded for miles by swamps on each side, after they had been in the water for about an hour, with not much prospect of reaching the other side, one of them cried out to his chum: ‘Say, Tommy, I'm blowed if I don't believe we've struck this river lengthways!’ ”

After spending a quarter of an hour together, General [423] Grant said that the President was expecting them aboard his boat, and the two generals and the admiral started for the River Queen. No one accompanied them. There now occurred in the upper saloon of that vessel the celebrated conference between these four magnates, the scene of which has been so faithfully transferred to canvas by the artist Healy. It was in no sense a council of war, but only an informal interchange of views between the four men who, more than any others, held the destiny of the nation in their hands. Upon the return of the generals and the admiral to headquarters, they entered the general-in-chiefs hut, where Mrs. Grant and one or two of us were sitting. The chief said to his wife: “Well, Julia, as soon as we reached the boat this morning I was particular to inquire after Mrs. Lincoln, and to say that we desired to pay our respects to her. The President went to her state-room, and soon returned, saying that she was not well, and asking us to excuse her.” General Grant afterward told us the particulars of the interview. It began by his explaining to the President the military situation and prospects, saying that the crisis of the war was now at hand, as he expected to move at once around the enemy's left and cut him off from the Carolinas, and that his only apprehension was that Lee might move out before him and evacuate Petersburg and Richmond, but that if he did there would be a hot pursuit. Sherman assured the President that in such a contingency his army, by acting on the defensive, could resist both Johnston and Lee till Grant could reach him, and that then the enemy would be caught in a vise and have his life promptly crushed out. Mr. Lincoln asked if it would not be possible to end the matter without a pitched battle, with the attendant losses and suffering; but was informed that that was a matter not within the control [424] of our commanders, and must rest necessarily with the enemy, Lincoln spoke about the course which he thought had better be pursued after the war, and expressed an inclination to lean toward a generous policy. In speaking about the Confederate political leaders, he intimated, though he did not say so in express terms, that it would relieve the situation if they should escape to some foreign country. Sherman related many interesting incidents which occurred in his campaign. Grant talked less than any one present. The President twice expressed some apprehension about Sherman being away from his army; but Sherman assured him that he had left matters safe in Schofield's hands, and that he would start back himself that day.

That afternoon Sherman took leave of those at headquarters, and returned to his command in the Bat, as that vessel was faster than the one which had brought him up the coast.

The troops had been in motion the previous night, and the general had decided that headquarters should be moved on the morning of the 29th. The horses were to be put aboard the train which was to take the general and staff to the Petersburg front. About 8: 30 Mr. Lincoln came ashore to say good-by. We had the satisfaction of hearing one good story from him before parting. General Grant was telling him about the numerous ingenious and impracticable suggestions that were made to him almost daily as to the best way of destroying the enemy, and said: “The last plan proposed was to supply our men with bayonets just a foot longer than those of the enemy, and then charge them. When they met, our bayonets would go clear through the enemy, while theirs would not reach far enough to touch our men, and the war would be ended.”

Mr. Lincoln laughed, and remarked: “Well, there is [425] a good deal of terror in cold steel. I had a chance to test it once myself. When I was a young man, I was walking along a back street in Louisville one night about twelve o'clock, when a very tough-looking citizen sprang out of an alleyway, reached up to the back of his neck, pulled out a bowie-knife that seemed to my stimulated imagination about three feet long, and planted himself square across my path. For two or three minutes he flourished his weapon in front of my face, appearing to try to see just how near he could come to cutting my nose off without quite doing it. He could see in the moonlight that I was taking a good deal of interest in the proceeding, and finally he yelled out, as he steadied the knife close to my throat: ‘ Stranger, kin you lend me five dollars on that?’ I never reached in my pocket and got out money so fast in all my life. I handed him a bank-note, and said: ‘There's ten, neighbor; now put up your scythe.’ ”

The general soon after bade an affectionate good-by to Mrs. Grant, kissing her repeatedly as she stood at the front door of his quarters. She bore the parting bravely, although her pale face and sorrowful look told of the sadness that was in her heart. The party, accompanied by the President, then walked down to the railroad-station. Mr. Lincoln looked more serious than at any other time since he had visited headquarters. The lines in his face seemed deeper, and the rings under his eyes were of a darker hue. It was plain that the weight of responsibility was oppressing him. Could it have been a premonition that with the end of this last campaign would come the end of his life? Five minutes walk brought the party to the train. There the President gave the general and each member of the staff a cordial shake of the hand, and then stood near the rear end of the car while we mounted the platform. As the [426] train was about to start we all raised our hats respectfully. The salute was returned by the President, and he said in a voice broken by an emotion he could ill conceal: “Good-by, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.” The signal was given to start; the train moved off; Grant's last campaign had begun.

The general sat down near the end of the car, drew from his pocket the flint and slow-match that he always carried, struck a light, and was soon wreathed in the smoke of the inevitable cigar. I took a seat near him, with several other officers of the staff, and he at once began to talk over his plans. Referring to Mr. Lincoln, he said: “The President is one of the few visitors I have had who have not attempted to extract from me a knowledge of my movements, although he is the only one who has a right to know them. He intends to remain at City Point for the present, and he will be the most anxious man in the country to hear from us, his heart is so wrapped up in our success; but I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.” I never knew the general to be more sanguine of victory than in starting out on this campaign.

When we reached the end of the railroad, we mounted our horses, started down the Vaughan road, and went into camp for the night in an old corn-field just south of that road, close to Gravelly Run. That night (March 29) the army was disposed in the following order from right to left: Weitzel in front of Richmond, with a portion of the Army of the James; Parke and Wright holding our works in front of Petersburg; Ord extending to the intersection of Hatcher's Run and the Vaughan road; Humphreys stretching beyond Dabney's Mill; Warren on the extreme left, reaching as far as the junction of the Vaughan road and the Boydton plank-road; [427] and Sheridan still farther west at Dinwiddie Courthouse. The weather had been fair for several days, and the roads were getting in as good condition for the movement of troops as could be expected; for in that section of country in summer the dust was usually so thick that the army could not see where to move, and in winter the mud was so deep that it could not move anywhere. The weather had now become cloudy, and toward evening rain began to fall. It descended in torrents all night, and continued with but little interruption during the next day. The country was densely wooded, and the ground swampy, and by the evening of the 30th whole fields had become beds of quicksand, in which the troops waded in mud above their ankles, horses sank to their bellies, and wagons threatened to disappear altogether. The men began to feel that if any one in after years should ask them whether they had been through Virginia, they could say, “Yes; in a number of places.” The roads soon became sheets of water, and it looked as if the saving of that army would require the services, not of a Grant, but of a Noah. Soldiers would call out to officers as they rode by: “I say, fetch along the pontoons.” “When are the gunboats coming up?” The buoyancy of the day before was giving place to gloom; men lost their tempers, and those who employed profanity on such occasions as a means of mental relaxation wanted to set up a mark and go to swearing at it. Some began to be apprehensive that the whole movement was premature. This led to an animated debate at headquarters. General Rawlins expressed the opinion around the camp-fire, on the morning of the 30th, that no forage could be hauled out to our cavalry; that Joe Johnston might come up in our rear if we remained long in our present position; that the success of turning Lee's right depended on our celerity; [428] that now he had been given time to make his dispositions to thwart us; and that it might be better to fall back, and make a fresh start later on. General Grant replied by saying that if Johnston could move rapidly enough in such weather to reach us, he (Grant) would turn upon him with his whole command, crush him, and then go after Lee; and that as soon as the weather cleared up the roads would dry rapidly, and the men's spirits would recover all their former buoyancy. The general then entered his tent, and Rawlins followed him.

Just then we saw Sheridan turning in from the Vaughan road, with a staff-officer and an escort of about a dozen cavalrymen, and coming toward our headquarters camp. He was riding his white-pacer named “Breckinridge,” a horse which had been captured from General Breckinridge in the valley of Virginia. But instead of striking a pacing gait now, it was at every step driving its legs knee-deep into the quicksand with the regularity of a pile-driver. As soon as Sheridan dismounted he was asked with much eagerness about the situation on the extreme left. He took a decidedly cheerful view of matters, and entered upon an animated discussion of the coming movements. He said: “I can drive in the whole cavalry force of the enemy with ease, and if an infantry force is added to my command, I can strike out for Lee's right, and either crush it or force him to so weaken his intrenched lines that our troops in front of them can break through and march into Petersburg.” He warmed up with the subject as he proceeded, threw the whole energy of his nature into the discussion, and his cheery voice, beaming countenance, and impassioned language showed the earnestness of his convictions.

“ How do you expect to supply your command with [429] forage if this weather lasts?” he was asked by one of the group. “Forage!” said Sheridan. “I'll get up all the forage I want. I'll haul it out, if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads, and corduroy every mile of them from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you, I'm ready to strike out to-morrow and go to smashing things” ; and, pacing up and down, he chafed like a hound in the leash. We told him that this was the kind of talk we liked to hear, and that while General Grant felt no apprehension, it would do his heart good to listen to such words as had just been spoken. Sheridan, however, objected to obtruding his views unbidden upon the general-in-chief. Then we resorted to a stratagem. One of us went into the general's tent, and told him Sheridan had just come in from the left and had been telling us some matters of much interest, and suggested that he be invited in and asked to state them. This was assented to, and Sheridan was told that the general wanted to hear what he had to say. Sheridan then went in, and found Grant and Rawlins still discussing the situation. Several persons soon after came into the tent, and Sheridan, saying he was cold and wet, stepped out to the camp-fire. The general-in-chief remarked that he wanted to have some words with Sheridan in private before parting, and followed him out. Ingalls said his tent was vacant, and Grant and Sheridan entered it and had a talk there, in which a definite understanding was reached as to Sheridan's immediate movements. In about twenty minutes they came out, and Sheridan mounted his horse, waved us a good-by with his hand, and rode off to Dinwiddie.

The next morning (March 31) Sheridan reported that the enemy had been hard at work intrenching at Five Forks and to a point about a mile west of that place. [430] Lee had been as prompt as Grant to recognize Five Forks, the junction of five roads, as a strategic point of great importance, and to protect his right had sent there a large force of infantry and nearly all his cavalry. The rain had continued during the night of March 30, and on the morning of the 31st the weather was cloudy and dismal.

General Grant had anticipated that Warren would be attacked that morning, and had warned him to be on the alert. Warren advanced his corps to develop with what force the enemy held the White Oak road, and to try and drive him from it; but before he had gone far he was met by a vigorous assault. When news came of the attack, General Grant directed me to go to the spot and look to the situation of affairs there. I found that Warren's troops were falling back, but he was reinforced by Humphreys, and by noon the enemy was checked. As soon as Grant was advised of the situation he directed Meade to take the offensive vigorously, and the enemy was soon driven back. General Grant had now ridden out to the front, and hearing that he was at Mrs. Butler's house near the Boydton plank-road, I joined him there. It was then a little after one o'clock. He had in the mean time ordered the headquarters camp to be moved to Dabney's Mill. about two miles from Meade's camp.

Warren's corps was now ordered to move forward again for the purpose of deterring the enemy from detaching infantry from that portion of the line to send against Sheridan. The advance was made later in the afternoon, and with decided success.

When this movement had been decided upon, General Grant directed me to go to Sheridan and explain what was taking place on Warren's and Humphreys's [431] front, and have a full understanding with him as to future operations in his vicinity. I rode rapidly down the Boydton plank-road, and soon came to Gravelly Run. The bridge was destroyed, but my horse was able to ford the stream, notwithstanding the high water caused by the recent rains. Hearing heavy firing in the direction of the Five Forks road, I hurried on in that direction by way of the Brooks road, and soon saw a portion of our cavalry moving eastward, pressed by a superior force of the enemy, while another portion was compelled to fall back southward toward Dinwiddie. I turned the corner of the Brooks cross-road and the Five Forks road just as the rear of the latter body of cavalry was passing it, and found one of Sheridan's bands with his rear-guard playing “Nellie Bly” as cheerfully as if furnishing music for a country picnic. Sheridan always made an effective use of his bands. They were usually mounted on gray horses, and instead of being relegated to the usual duty of carrying off the wounded and assisting the surgeons, they were brought out to the front and made to play the liveliest airs in their repertory, which produced excellent results in buoying up the spirits of the men. After having several of their instruments pierced by bullets, however, and the drums crushed by shells, as often happened, it must be admitted that the music, viewed purely in the light of an artistic performance, was open to adverse criticism.

I found Sheridan a little north of Dinwiddie Courthouse, and gave him an account of matters on the left of the Army of the Potomac. He said he had had one of the liveliest days in his experience, fighting infantry and cavalry with only cavalry, but that he would hold his position at Dinwiddie at all hazards. He did not stop there, but declared his belief that with the corps [432] of infantry which he expected to be put under his command, he could take the initiative the next morning, and cut off the whole of the force which Lee had detached. He said: “This force is in more danger than I am. If I am cut off from the Army of the Potomac, it is cut off from Lee's army, and not a man in it ought ever be allowed to get back to Lee. We at last have drawn the enemy's infantry out of its fortifications, and this is our chance to attack it.” He begged me to go to General Grant at once, and urge him to send him Wright's corps, because it had been under his command in the valley of Virginia, and was familiar with his way of fighting. I told him, as had been stated to him before, that Wright's corps was next to our extreme right, and that the only corps which could reach him by daylight was Warren's. I returned soon after to headquarters at Dabney's Mill, a distance of about eight miles, reaching there at 7 P. M., and gave the general a full description of Sheridan's operations. He took in the situation in an instant, and at once telegraphed the substance of my report to Meade, and preparations soon began looking to the sending of Warren's corps and Mackenzie's small division of cavalry to report to Sheridan. It was expected that the infantry would reach its destination in ample time to take the offensive about daybreak; but one delay after another was met with, and Grant, Meade, and Sheridan spent a painfully anxious night in hurrying forward the movement. Ayres's division of Warren's corps had to rebuild the bridge over Gravelly Run, which took till 2 A. M. Warren, with his other two divisions, did not get started from their position on the White Oak road till 5 A. M., and the hope of crushing the enemy was hourly growing less. This proved to be one of the busiest nights of the whole campaign. Generals were writing despatches and telegraphing [433] from dark to daylight. Staff-officers were rushing from one headquarters to another, wading through swamps, penetrating forests, and galloping over corduroy roads, carrying instructions, getting information, and making extraordinary efforts to hurry up the movement of the troops.

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