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Chapter 2

  • A higher grade created for Grant
  • -- Grant's first meeting with Lincoln -- in command of all the armies -- interview with Stanton -- Grant in a communicative mood -- at General Meade's headquarters -- Grant's narrow escape from capture -- Grant's enormous responsibility -- Grant's personal staff

When I reached Washington I went at once to headquarters, and endeavored to see the commander-in-chief for the purpose of presenting General Grant's letter, but found, after two or three attempts, that it would be impossible to secure an interview. I therefore gave the letter to Colonel Kelton, his adjutant-general, who placed it in General Halleck's hands. Not only was there no action taken in regard to the request which the letter contained, but its receipt was not even acknowledged. This circumstance, with others of its kind, made it plain that General Grant would never be free to make his selection of officers, and organize his forces as he desired, until he should be made general-in-chief. Elihu B. Washburne, the member of Congress from the Galena district in Illinois, General Grant's old home, soon introduced a bill creating the grade of lieutenant-general, and it was passed by both houses of Congress, with the implied understanding that General Grant was to fill the position. The highest grade in the [18] army theretofore created during the war had been that of major-general. The act became a law on February 26, 1864, and the nomination of General Grant was sent to the Senate by Mr. Lincoln on the 1st of March, and confirmed on the 2d. On the 3d the general was ordered to Washington. I had set to work upon my duties in the Ordnance Bureau, and in the mean time had received several very kind messages from the general regarding the chances of my returning to the field.

On the evening of March 8 the President and Mrs. Lincoln gave a public reception at the White House, which I attended. The President stood in the usual reception-room, known as the “Blue room,” with several cabinet officers near him, and shook hands cordially with everybody, as the vast procession of men and women passed in front of him. He was in evening dress, and wore a turned-down collar a size too large. The necktie was rather broad and awkwardly tied. He was more of a Hercules than an Adonis. His height of six feet four inches enabled him to look over the heads of most of his visitors. His form was ungainly, and the movements of his long, angular arms and legs bordered at times upon the grotesque. His eyes were gray and disproportionately small. His face wore a general expression of sadness, the deep lines indicating the sense of responsibility which weighed upon him; but at times his features lighted up with a broad smile, and there was a merry twinkle in his eyes as he greeted an old acquaintance and exchanged a few words with him in a tone of familiarity. He had sprung from the common people to become one of the most uncommon of men. Mrs. Lincoln occupied a position on his right. For a time she stood on a line with him and took part in the reception, but afterward stepped back and conversed with some of the wives of the cabinet officers [19] and other personal acquaintances who were in the room. At about half-past 9 o'clock a sudden commotion near the entrance to the room attracted general attention, and, upon looking in that direction, I was surprised to see General Grant walking along modestly with the rest of the crowd toward Mr. Lincoln. He had arrived from the West that evening, and had come to the White House to pay his respects to the President. He had been in Washington but once before, when he visited it for a day soon after he had left West Point. Although these two historical characters had never met before, Mr. Lincoln recognized the general at once from the pictures he had seen of him. With a face radiant with delight, he advanced rapidly two or three steps toward his distinguished visitor, and cried out: “Why, here is General Grant! Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you,” at the same time seizing him by the hand, and shaking it for several minutes with a vigor which showed the extreme cordiality of the welcome.

The scene now presented was deeply impressive. Standing face to face for the first time were the two illustrious men whose names will always be inseparably associated in connection with the war of the rebellion. Grant's right hand grasped the lapel of his coat; his head was bent slightly forward, and his eyes upturned toward Lincoln's face. The President, who was eight inches taller, looked down with beaming countenance upon his guest. Although their appearance, their training, and their characteristics were in striking contrast, yet the two men had many traits in common, and there were numerous points of resemblance in their remarkable careers. Each was of humble origin, and had been compelled to learn the first lessons of life in the severe school of adversity. Each had risen from the people, [20] possessed an abiding confidence in them, and always retained a deep hold upon their affections. Each might have said to those who were inclined to sneer at his plain origin what a marshal of France, who had risen from the ranks to a dukedom, said to the hereditary nobles who attempted to snub him in Vienna: “I am an ancestor; you are only descendants.” In a great crisis of their country's history both had entered the public service from the same State. Both were conspicuous for the possession of that most uncommon of all virtues, common sense. Both despised the arts of the demagogue, and shrank from posing for effect, or indulging in mock heroics. Even when their characteristics differed, they only served to supplement each other, and to add a still greater strength to the cause for which they strove. With hearts too great for rivalry, with souls untouched by jealousy, they lived to teach the world that it is time to abandon the path of ambition when it becomes so narrow that two cannot walk it abreast.

The statesman and the soldier conversed for a few minutes, and then the President presented his distinguished guest to Mr. Seward. The Secretary of State was very demonstrative in his welcome, and after exchanging a few words, led the general to where Mrs. Lincoln was standing, and presented him to her. Mrs. Lincoln expressed much surprise and pleasure at the meeting, and she and the general chatted together very pleasantly for some minutes. The visitors had by this time become so curious to catch a sight of the general that their eagerness knew no bounds, and they became altogether unmanageable. Mr. Seward's consummate knowledge of the wiles of diplomacy now came to the rescue and saved the situation. He succeeded in struggling through the crowd with the general until they [21] reached the large East Room, where the people could circulate more freely. This, however, was only a temporary relief. The people by this time had worked themselves up to a state of uncontrollable excitement. The vast throng surged and swayed and crowded until alarm was felt for the safety of the ladies. Cries now arose of “Grant! Grant! Grant!” Then came cheer after cheer. Seward, after some persuasion, induced the general to stand upon a sofa, thinking the visitors would be satisfied with a view of him, and retire; but as soon as they caught sight of him their shouts were renewed, and a rush was made to shake his hand. The President sent word that he and the Secretary of War would await the general's return in one of the small drawing-rooms, but it was fully an hour before he was able to make his way there, and then only with the aid of several officers and ushers.

The story has been circulated that at the conference which then took place, or at the interview the next day, the President and the Secretary of War urged General Grant to make his campaign toward Richmond by the overland route, and finally persuaded him to do so, although he had set forth the superior advantages of the water route. There is not the slightest foundation for this rumor. General Grant some time after repeated to members of his staff just what had taken place, and no reference whatever was made to the choice of these two routes.

The next day, March 9, the general went to the White House, by invitation of Mr. Lincoln, for the purpose of receiving his commission from the hands of the President. Upon his return to Willard's Hotel, I called to pay my respects. Curiosity led me to took at the hotel register, and the modesty of the entry upon the book, in the general's handwriting, made an impression upon me. [22] It read simply, “U. S. Grant and son, Galena, ill.” His eldest boy, Fred, accompanied him.

The act which created the grade of lieutenant-general authorized a personal staff, to consist of a chief of staff with the rank of brigadier-general, four aides-de-camp, and two military secretaries, each with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In our conversation the general referred to this circumstance, and offered me one of the positions of aide-de-camp, which I said I would accept very gladly.

The next day, the 10th, he paid a visit by rail to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, near Brandy Station, in Virginia, about seventy miles from Washington. He returned the day after, and started the same night for Nashville, to meet Sherman and turn over to him the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi. While in Washington General Grant had been so much an object of curiosity, and had been so continually surrounded by admiring crowds when he appeared in the streets, and even in his hotel, that it had become very irksome to him. With his simplicity and total lack of personal vanity, he did not seem able to understand why he should attract so much attention. The President had given him a cordial invitation to dine that evening at the White House, but he begged to be excused for the reason that he would lose a whole day, which he could not afford at that critical period. “Besides,” he added, “I have become very tired of this show business.”

On the 12th the official order was issued placing General Grant in command of all the armies of the United States.

I soon learned that the Secretary of War, in spite of General Grant's request to have me assigned to his staff, wanted to insist upon my continuing my duties in the department at Washington, and I resolved to have an [23] interview with him, and to protest against such action. The Secretary had a wide reputation for extreme brusqueness in his intercourse even with his friends, and seemed determined, as an officer once expressed it, to administer discipline totally regardless of previous acquaintance. A Frenchman once said that during the Revolution, while the guillotine was at work, he never heard the name of Robespierre that he did not take off his hat to see whether his head was still on his shoulders; some of our officers were similarly inclined when they heard the name of Stanton. However, I found the Secretary quite civil, and even patient, and, to all appearances, disposed to allow my head to continue to occupy the place where I was in the habit of wearing it. Nevertheless, the interview ended without his having yielded. I certainly received a very cold bath at his hands, and to this day I never see the impress of his unrelenting features upon a one-dollar treasury note without feeling a chill run down my back.

General Grant returned to the capital on March 23. I went to Willard's to call upon him that evening, and encountered him on the stairs leading up to the first floor. He stopped, shook hands, and greeted me with the words, “How do you do, colonel?” I replied: “I had hoped to be colonel by this time, owing to your interposition, but what I feared has been realized. Much against my wishes, the Secretary of War seems to have made up his mind to keep me here.” “I will see him to-morrow, and urge the matter in person,” answered the general. He then invited me to accompany him to his room, and in the course of a conversation which followed said that he had had Sheridan ordered East to take command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

Sheridan arrived in Washington on April 4. He had [24] been worn down almost to a shadow by hard work and exposure in the field; he weighed only a hundred and fifteen pounds, and as his height was but five feet six inches, he looked anything but formidable as a candidate for a cavalry leader. He had met the President and the officials at the War Department that day for the first time, and it was his appearance on this occasion which gave rise to a remark made to General Grant the next time he visited the department: “The officer you brought on from the West is rather a little fellow to handle your cavalry.” To which Grant replied, “You will find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him.”

General Grant had started for the field on the 26th of March, and established his headquarters in the little town of Culpeper Court-house in Virginia, twelve miles north of the Rapidan. He visited Washington about once a week to confer with the President and the Secretary of War.

I continued my duties in the department at Washington till my fate should be decided, and on the 27th of April I found that the request of the general-in-chief had prevailed, and my appointment was officially announced as an aide-de-camp on his personal staff.

The afternoon of April 29 I arrived at Culpeper, and reported to him for duty. A plain brick house near the railway-station had been taken for headquarters, and a number of tents had been pitched in the yard to furnish additional accommodations.

The next morning the general called for his horse, to ride over to General Meade's headquarters, near Brandy Station, about six miles distant. He selected me as the officer who was to accompany him, and we set out together on the trip, followed by two orderlies. He was mounted upon his large bay horse, “Cincinnati,” which [25] afterward became so well known throughout the army. The animal was not called after the family of the ancient warrior who beat his sword into a plowshare, but after our modern city of that name. He was a half-brother to “Asteroid” and “Kentucky,” the famous racers, and was consequently of excellent blood. Noticing the agility with which the general flung himself into the saddle, I remarked, “I am very glad to see that your injured leg no longer disables you.” “No,” he replied; “it gives me scarcely any trouble now, although sometimes it feels a little numb.” As we rode along he began to speak of his new command, and said: “I have watched the progress of the Army of the Potomac ever since it was organized, and have been greatly interested in reading the accounts of the splendid fighting it has done. I always thought the territory covered by its operations would be the principal battle-ground of the war. When I was at Cairo, in 1861, the height of my ambition was to command a brigade of cavalry in this army. I suppose it was my fondness for horses that made me feel that I should be more at home in command of cavalry, and I thought that the Army of the Potomac would present the best field of operations for a brigade commander in that arm of the service.”

He then changed the subject to Chattanooga, and in speaking of that battle interjected into his descriptions brief criticisms upon the services and characteristics of several of the officers who had taken part in the engagement. He continued by saying: “The difficulty is in finding commanding officers possessed of sufficient breadth of view and administrative ability to confine their attention to perfecting their organizations, and giving a general supervision to their commands, instead of wasting their time upon details. For instance, there is General G-. He is a very gallant officer, but at a [26] critical period of the battle of Chattanooga he neglected to give the necessary directions to his troops, and concentrated all his efforts upon aiming and firing some heavy guns, a service which could have been better performed by any lieutenant of artillery. I had to order him peremptorily to leave the battery and give his attention to his troops.”

He then spoke of his experiences with Mr. Lincoln, and the very favorable impression the President had made upon him. He said: “In the first interview I had with the President, when no others were present, and he could talk freely, he told me that he did not pretend to know anything about the handling of troops, and it was with the greatest reluctance that he ever interfered with the movements of army commanders: but he had common sense enough to know that celerity was absolutely necessary; that while armies were sitting down waiting for opportunities to turn up which might, perhaps, be more favorable from a strictly military point of view, the government was spending millions of dollars every day; that there was a limit to the sinews of war, and a time might be reached when the spirits and resources of the people would become exhausted. He had always contended that these considerations should be taken into account, as well as purely military questions, and that he adopted the plan of issuing his “executive orders” principally for the purpose of hurrying the movements of commanding generals; but that he believed I knew the value of minutes, and that he was not going to interfere with my operations. He said, further, that he did not want to know my plans; that it was, perhaps, better that he should not know them, for everybody he met was trying to find out from him something about the contemplated movements, and there was always a temptation “to leak.” I have not [27] communicated my plans to him or to the Secretary of War. The only suggestion the President made — and it was merely a suggestion, not a definite plan — was entirely impracticable, and it was not again referred to in our conversations. He told me in our first private interview a most amusing anecdote regarding a delegation of “cross-roads wiseacres,” as he called them, who came to see him one day to criticize my conduct in paroling Pemberton's army after the surrender at Vicksburg, who insisted that the men would violate their paroles, and in less than a month confront me anew in the field, and have to be whipped all over again. Said Mr. Lincoln: “I thought the best way to get rid of them was to tell them the story of Sykes's dog. “Have you ever heard about Sykes's yellow dog?” said I to the spokesman of the delegation. He said he hadn't. “Well, I must tell you about him,” said I. “Sykes had a yellow dog he set great store by, but there were a lot of small boys around the village, and that's always a bad thing for dogs, you know. These boys didn't share Sykes's views, and they were not disposed to let the dog have a fair show. Even Sykes had to admit that the dog was getting unpopular; in fact, it was soon seen that a prejudice was growing up against that dog that threatened to wreck all his future prospects in life. The boys, after meditating how they could get the best of him, finally fixed up a cartridge with a long fuse, put the cartridge in a piece of meat, dropped the meat in the road in front of Sykes's door, and then perched themselves on a fence a good distance off, holding the end of the fuse in their hands. Then they whistled for the dog. When he came out he scented the bait, and bolted the meat, cartridge and all. The boys touched off the fuse with a cigar, and in about a second a report came from that dog that sounded like a clap of thunder. Sykes came [28] bouncing out of the house, and yelled, “What's up Anything busted?” There was no reply, except a snicker from the small boys roosting on the fence; but as Sykes looked up he saw the whole air filled with pieces of yellow dog. He picked up the biggest piece he could find, a portion of the back with a part of the tail still hanging to it, and after turning it round and looking it all over, he said, “Well, I guess he'll never be much account again — as a dog.” And I guess Pemberton's forces will never be much account again — as an army.” The delegation began looking around for their hats before I had quite got to the end of the story, and I was never bothered any more after that about superseding the commander of the Army of the Tennessee.””

The general related this anecdote with more animation than he usually displayed, and with the manifestation of a keen sense of the humorous, and remarked afterward, “But no one who does not possess the President's unequaled powers of mimicry can pretend to convey an idea of the amusing manner in which he told the story.”

This characteristic illustration employed by the President was used afterward in a garbled form by writers, in an attempt to apply it to other events. I give the original version.

When we reached General Meade's camp, that officer, who was sitting in his quarters, came out and greeted the general-in-chief warmly, shaking hands with him before he dismounted. General Meade was then forty-nine years of age, of rather a spare figure, and graceful in his movements. He had a full beard, which, like his hair, was brown, slightly tinged with gray. He wore a slouched felt hat with a conical crown and a turned-down rim, which gave him a sort of Tyrolese appearance. The two commanders entered Meade's quarters, [29] sat down, lighted their cigars, and held a long interview regarding the approaching campaign. I now learned that, two days before, the time had been definitely named at which the opening campaign was to begin, and that on the next Wednesday, May 4, the armies were to move. Meade, in speaking of his troops, always referred to them as “my people.” During this visit I had an opportunity to meet a number of old acquaintances whom I had not seen since I served with the Army of the Potomac on General McClellan's staff two years before. After the interview had ended I returned with the general to headquarters, riding at a brisk trot. His conversation now turned upon the commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the course of which he remarked: “I had never met General Meade since the Mexican war until I visited his headquarters when I came East last month. In my first interview with him he talked in a manner which led me to form a very high opinion of him. He referred to the changes which were taking place, and said it had occurred to him that I might want to make a change in the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and to put in his place Sherman or some other officer who had served with me in the West, and urged me not to hesitate on his account if I desired to make such an assignment. He added that the success of the cause was much more important than any consideration for the feelings of an individual. He spoke so patriotically and unselfishly that even if I had had any intention of relieving him, I should have been inclined to change my mind after the manly attitude he assumed in this frank interview.”

This was the first long personal talk I had with the general-in-chief, as our intercourse heretofore had been only of an official character, and the exhibition of the remarkable power he possessed as a conversationalist [30] was a revelation. I began to learn that his reputed reticence did not extend to his private intercourse, and that he had the ability to impart a peculiar charm to almost any topic.

That evening a large correspondence was conducted in relation to the final preparations for the coming movements.

A few days before, an occurrence had happened which came very near depriving the armies of the services of General Grant in the Virginia campaign. On his return to headquarters after his last visit to the President in Washington, when his special train reached Warrenton Junction he saw a large cloud of dust to the east of the road. Upon making inquiries of the station master as to its cause, he learned that Colonel Mosby, who commanded a partizan Confederate force, called by his own people Mosby's “conglomerates,” and who had become famous for his cavalry raids, had just passed, driving a detachment of our cavalry before him. If the train had been a few minutes earlier, Mosby, like Christopher Columbus upon his voyage to this country, would have discovered something which he was not looking for. As the train carried no guard, it would not have been possible to make any defense. In such case the Union commander would have reached Richmond a year sooner than he finally arrived there, but not at the head of an army.

General Grant now held a command the magnitude of which has seldom been equaled in history. His troops consisted of twenty-one army-corps, and the territory covered by the field of operations embraced eighteen military departments, besides the region held by the Army of the Potomac, which had never been organized into a department. The total number of troops under his command, “present for duty, equipped,” was [31] 533,000. In all purely military questions his will was at this time almost supreme, and his authority was usually unquestioned. He occupied the most conspicuous position in the nation, not excepting that of the President himself, and the eyes of all the loyal people in the land were turned to him appealingly as the one man upon whom their hopes were centered and in whom their chief faith reposed. The responsibilities imposed were commensurate with the magnitude of the undertaking which had been confided to him. While commanding all the armies of the nation, he had wisely decided to establish his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and give his immediate supervision to the operations of that force and the troops which were intended to cooperate with it in the State of Virginia. Telegraphic communication was then open with nearly all the armies.

The staff consisted of fourteen officers only, and was not larger than that of some division commanders. The chief of staff was Brigadier-general John A. Rawlins. When the war broke out he was a practising lawyer in Galena, Illinois, and had gained some prominence in politics as a Democrat. After the firing upon Fort Sumter a public meeting was held in Galena, and Captain Grant, being an ex-army officer, was called upon to preside. Rawlins attended the meeting, and made a stirring and effective speech, declaring it to be the duty of all good citizens to sink their political predilections, and urging them to pledge themselves to the support of the Union and the enforcement of the laws. General Grant was much impressed with the vigor and logic of the address, and when he was afterward assigned to the command of a brigade, he appointed Rawlins on his staff. He was at first aide-de-camp, afterward assistant adjutant-general, and finally chief of staff. The general [32] had a high regard for him officially, and was warmly attached to him personally. Rawlins in his youth had worked on a farm, and assisted his father in burning charcoal, obtaining what education he could acquire at odd times in the district school and at a neighboring seminary. He was frank, honest, and resolute, and loyally devoted to his chief. He always had the courage of his convictions, and was capable of stating them with great force. He was plain and simple in manner, of a genial disposition, and popular with all the other members of the staff. He had never served in a military organization, nor made a study of the art of war; but he possessed natural executive ability of a high order, and developed qualities which made him exceedingly useful to his chief and to the service.

The rest of the staff consisted of the following officers: Lieutenant-colonel C. B. Comstock, aide-de-camp, an officer of the United States corps of engineers, with a well-deserved reputation for scientific attainments, who had shown great efficiency while serving with General Grant in the Vicksburg campaign.

Lieutenant-colonel Horace Porter, aide-de-camp.

Lieutenant-colonel 0. E. Babcock, aide-de-camp, an accomplished officer of engineers, who had gained an excellent reputation in several campaigns, in which he had been conspicuous for his good judgment and great personal courage.

Lieutenant-colonel F. T. Dent, aide-de-camp, a classmate of General Grant, and brother of Mrs. Grant. He had served with credit in the Mexican war, and in Scott's advance upon the city of Mexico had been severely wounded, and was twice promoted for gallant and meritorious conduct in battle.

The four officers just named were of the regular [33] army, and were graduates of the West Point Military Academy.

Lieutenant-colonel Adam Badeau, military secretary, who had first gone to the field as a newspaper correspondent, and was afterward made an aide-de-camp to General T. W. Sherman. He was badly wounded in the foot at Port Hudson, and when convalescent was assigned to the staff of General Grant. He had had a good training in literature, and was an accomplished writer and scholar.

Lieutenant-colonel William R. Rowley, military secretary, was also from Galena. He entered an Illinois regiment as a lieutenant, and after the battle of Donelson was made a captain and aide-de-camp to General Grant. His gallant conduct at Shiloh, where he greatly distinguished himself, commended him still more highly to his commander. He resigned August 30, 1864, and was succeeded by Captain Parker.

Lieutenant-colonel T. S. Bowers, assistant adjutant-general, was a young editor of a country newspaper in Illinois when hostilities began. He raised a company of volunteers for the Forty-eighth Illinois Infantry, but declined the captaincy, and fought in the ranks. He was detailed as a clerical assistant at General Grant's headquarters in the Donelson campaign, and was soon made a lieutenant, and afterward a captain and aide-de-camp. His services in all the subsequent campaigns were highly appreciated by his chief.

Lieutenant-colonel W. L. Duff had been for a time acting chief of artillery under General Grant in the West, and was now assigned to duty as assistant inspector-general.

Captain Ely S. Parker, assistant adjutant-general, who was a full-blooded Indian, a grand nephew of the famous Red Jacket, and reigning chief of the tribes [34] known as the Six Nations. His Indian name was Donehogawa. Colonel Parker had received a good education, and was a civil engineer employed upon the United States government building in Galena at the breaking out of the war. He commended himself to General Grant by his conduct in the Vicksburg campaign, and was there placed on his staff, and served in the adjutant-general's department.

Captain George K. Leet, assistant adjutant-general, who had come East with General Grant from the Army of the Tennessee, and who was assigned to duty at the headquarters of the army in Washington, and remained there during the campaign.

Captain H. W. Janes, assistant quartermaster.

Captain Peter T. Hudson, a volunteer officer from the State of Iowa, had served with the general in the West, and was retained as an aide-de-camp.

Lieutenant William McKee Dunn, Jr., a beardless boy of nineteen, was assigned as an acting aide-de-camp to General Rawlins, but performed general staff duty at headquarters, and under many trying circumstances proved himself as cool and gallant as the most experienced veteran.

All the members of the staff had had abundant experience in the field, and were young, active, and ready for any kind of hard work.

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