Grant and Lincoln at City Point

In 1864-5, City Point, VA briefly became the tenth largest city in the United States.

Grant in the East

On February 29, 1864, President Lincoln promoted General Ulysses S. Grant as General of the Army – outranking everyone. Since Grant had never been to Washington, his good friend General Sherman advised him to avoid the capital at all costs, and make his headquarters “in the West” where he believed the war would be won.

Grant and Lincoln: an illustration

Within a few days of his promotion, Grant decided to take Sherman’s advice – partially. He declined to make his HQ in Washington, a morass of political and social distractions, but he realized that the war in the east required his presence, for many reasons. His HQ would primarily be in the saddle, attached to the Army of the Potomac, still commanded by General George Meade. The two generals (who had never met) formed a cooperative relationship.

For six weeks, Grant directed a fierce chase through central Virginia after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army. The casualties were horrific, and “Unconditional Surrender” Grant gained another nickname: The Butcher of the Battlefield.

To make matters worse, it was an election year, and President Lincoln was far from confident that he would be re-elected. Everything depended on how the war was going – and it was not going well.

By late May, Grant and Meade settled in for a long siege in Petersburg, VA.

Petersburg

The city of Petersburg is around twenty miles from Richmond, then the capital of the Confederacy. Grant had determined (against traditional military thinking) that Richmond per se had little strategic importance to the war. Petersburg, and its “suburb” of City Point, had vital importance.

It was at the confluence of two large and deep rivers, the James and the Appomattox. It also was the hub of five separate railroads, all leading south and west. This was where supplies to feed and forage the Rebel Army were distributed. This was where incoming feed and forage from the deep south and west (generally unaffected by the fighting), came to replenish the rebels’ dwindling supply. The Union army was determined to keep those supplies dwindling.

Modern photo of the Eppes home

The little village of City Point, on a spit of land the outskirts of Petersburg about six miles from the front lines, had a deep port on the James River, suitable for Union supply ships coming from the north. The ships came in droves, bringing ammunition and weaponry, food and clothing, forage for the horses and mules, an enormous amount of building supplies and sundries, including twenty-five locomotives and 275 railroad cars brought by barge from Washington, D.C. to provide their own transportation.

Grant’s HQ

Interestingly enough, while the “best quarters available” were usually reserved for the General, Grant assigned the spacious Appomattox Plantation mansion at City Point (owned and vacated by Confederate Doctor Richard Eppes), to Quartermaster General Rufus Ingalls, whose daily traffic was nonstop. Grant had a small two-room cabin built nearby for his own modest needs.

Quartermaster General Rufus Ingalls

Lincoln Visits City Point

With the fallout from the enormous casualties of Grant’s Overland Campaign in early spring, and with the upcoming election boding poorly for the President, Lincoln, as commander-in-chief decided to visit his new General of the Army and assess the situation in person. Lincoln, like Grant, had come the conclusion that the Civil War had become one of attrition. Last man standing. The North had more men and resources. Lincoln’s trip was a brief one, between June 21-23, 1864. He boarded the USS Baltimore in Washington, in the late afternoon of June 20, accompanied only by his son Tad, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. They arrived at noon on the 21st.

On this brief visit General Grant suggested that the President might welcome a visit to some of the troops – something the POTUS always enjoyed. Offering the President his own horse, Cincinnati, Grant rode his other mount, Jeff Davis, and escorted his CinC to the front.

General Horace Porter

According to Brigadier General Horace Porter, “…by the time they had ridden the nearly 10 miles to where the troops were, “he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. His pants legs had hiked up above his ankles, and he looked like a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.”

The troops cheered him enthusiastically. Then Grant suggested they visit the “colored troops, who behaved so handsomely…in front of Petersburg last week.” He was referring to the U.S. Colored Troops of General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Eighteenth Corps, who had charged the Confederate rifle pits on June 15.

Originally iffy, Grant had formed a good opinion of Black soldiers. He told his division commanders to enlist runaways and freed slaves when possible. He also insisted that they be paid promptly, and ordered white soldiers to be court martialed if they abused their Black compatriots.  

Lincoln was delighted to meet the troops, noting that he had read the reports of their valiant efforts. He also mentioned to Grant how he too, had been initially hesitant to authorize raising Black troops, preferring to hire them as laborers. He was sincerely pleased that they had performed so well.

If Lincoln was happy to meet them, it was nothing compared to how they felt about meeting him. General Porter wrote that “some of them kissed his hands, while others ran off crying in triumph …that they had touched his clothes. The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humbled and devoted men through whose ranks he rode.

Porter continued. “The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.

Sources:

Porter, Horace – Campaigning With Grant – Mallard Press, 1991

https://www.nps.gov/pete/learn/historyculture/city-point.htm

https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM7XN5_Abraham_Lincoln_visits_City_Point_VA

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/02/22/home/5230.html

This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Nifty History People, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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