Mid-March through Mid-May, 1865 were fraught with events
With General Ulysses Grant squeezing the Rebel Army even tighter in Petersburg, VA, and General William Sherman marching his vast army up the eastern coast, everyone knew that the end of a terrible Civil War was close at hand. Yes, there would be more fighting and more casualties, but the end was coming.
And to that end, President Abraham Lincoln, newly inaugurated to his second term, paid a visit to General Grant and Admiral David Porter. General Sherman made a flying trip to join the discussions.
Lincoln obviously meant every word in his “malice toward none” Second Inaugural speech. He wanted it to be policy: “let ‘em up easy.” A generous approach would woo the vanquished far easier than brutal blame and punishment demanded by many in Congress.
April 9-15, 1865
After a desperate cut, run and chase across central Virginia, Union forces, vastly outnumbering the dwindling Confederates, finally cornered them. Realizing the futility of further hostilities, and with his army near starvation, General Lee surrendered. The terms were generous. Everyone said so.
The news sizzled over the telegraph wires. Within minutes bells rang, cannons boomed in celebration, bands played, choirs sang, churches were filled to capacity for thanksgiving services. Red-white-and-blue bunting was hung. It was over. Finally.
The colorful bunting hung for only a week. The emotional euphoria plummeted abruptly. President Lincoln was assassinated.
Black crepe replaced the bright bunting. The bells tolled a muffled sound. Bands played mournful dirges.
Cracks began to appear in the “malice toward none.”
President Andrew Johnson
Nobody – including Andrew Johnson himself – ever expected him to become President. He was a Southerner, born in North Carolina and a long-time resident of Tennessee. He was a Democrat, albeit a staunch Unionist: the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat in 1861.
Like Lincoln, his childhood was poverty stricken and devoid of opportunity. And, like Lincoln, he was self-educated and ambitious for advancement.
But unlike Lincoln, his was a pugnacious temperament; far more inclined to stand his ground and slug it out, rather than search for more viable alternatives.
Nevertheless, he had performed yeoman services in Tennessee during the Civil War, and his personal courage never faltered. When Republican Lincoln ran for re-election on the “Union” ticket, he specifically chose Democrat Johnson as his running mate.
On March 4, 1865, Johnson disgraced himself at his inauguration. He had been ill (perhaps typhoid), and unable to eat for a few days. The whiskey his doctor prescribed went to his head. Fortunately, the Vice Presidential inauguration was private, held in the Senate Chambers, sparing him from widespread humiliation. During the next few weeks, Johnson kept a low profile.
When the Presidency dropped suddenly on his shoulders, he was a gentleman. He presided with dignity throughout the Lincoln funeral proceedings and generously allowed Mrs. Lincoln, incapacitated by grief, to remain in the White House as long as needed. He was on his best behavior.
It was his political honeymoon.
May 23-24, 1865
Washington, DC, along with the rest of the country, exhausted by four years of war, the flurry of exhilaration and the devastating grief of the assassination, needed to pull out of its emotional turmoil.
After the surrender, the Union Army printing presses cranked out hundreds of thousands of discharge certificates and related paperwork. Clerks worked around the clock in War Department offices.
Finally, when all the “t’s” were crossed and “i’s” dotted, Union soldiers, soon to be called the Grand Army of the Republic, gathered to march unit by unit, brigade by brigade, division by division in a Grand Review of the Armies down Pennsylvania Avenue. Infantry, cavalry, artillery, scouts, medical wagons. And military bands playing the tunes the country had been singing for the past four years.
The weather was perfect. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets.
Stands were constructed for honored guests. President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet took center stage in his first major public appearance (other than mourning). But the real star of the show was General Grant, the Hero of Appomattox, an unimposing figure, but the one that everyone wanted to see.
When the signal was given to begin, George Meade, General of the Army of the Potomac led nearly 100,000 of his spit-and-polished soldiers in a six-mile parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, marching twelve abreast, with all the associated bells and whistles. It took six hours for the parade to pass.
But if General Grant was the star, the scene stealer was brash “boy-general” George Armstrong Custer, of General Sheridan’s 7th Cavalry. He broke away from his assigned place, and galloped way ahead of his troops, waving his hat in the air! The crowd roared its enthusiasm.
The following day was not quite so spit-and-polished, yet soldierly and in fine drill. It was General William T. Sherman’s western Armies of Tennessee and Georgia – mostly unknown to Washington except by reputation. Flowers and bunting and ribbons were scattered among the soldiers, acknowledging their valor and contributions.
Eighty-five thousand soldiers rode behind Sherman, as he rode past the reviewing stand, peeled off, and took his place beside President Johnson and General Grant, and the other notables. More bands. More songs. It took another six hours. And the combined total of marchers was only 20% of the Union Army at the end of the War.
Within a week, the armies were disbanded, and the soldiers went home. During the decades to come there would be many more parades. But never like this.
The Grand Review may have been Andrew Johnson’s happiest day as President. It was a glad day, a victorious day, a day of pride and celebration.
And hovering over it all was the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001