Chapter One: The End Begins CHAPTER ONE The End Begins
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: By spring 1864 it was clear that the nation’s fate hinged on the president’s success or failure at the November polls.
Washington, DC, had never, in its brief and undistinguished history, known a social season like this one. The winter of 1863–64 had been bitterly cold, but its frozen rains and swirling snows had dampened no spirits. Instead a feeling, almost palpable, of optimism hung in the air, a swelling sense that, after three years of brutal war and humiliating defeats at the hands of rebel armies, God was perhaps in his heaven, after all. The inexplicably lethal Robert E. Lee had finally been beaten at Gettysburg.1
Vicksburg had fallen, completing the Union conquest of the Mississippi River. A large rebel army had been chased from Chattanooga. Something like hope—or maybe just its shadow—had finally loomed into view.
The season had begun as always with a New Year’s reception at the Executive Mansion, hosted by the Lincolns, then had launched itself into a frenzy whose outward manifestation was the city’s newest obsession: dancing. Washingtonians were crazy about it. They were seen spinning through quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas at the great US Patent Office Ball, the Enlistment Fund Ball, and at “monster hops” at Willard’s hotel and the National.2
At these affairs, moreover, everyone
danced. No bored squires or sad-eyed spinsters lingered in the shadows of cut glass and gaslight. No one could sit still, and together all improvised a wildly moving tapestry of color: ladies in lace and silk and crinolines, in crimson velvet and purple moire, their cascading curls flecked with roses and lilies, their bell-shaped forms whirled by men in black swallowtails and colored cravats.
The great public parties were merely the most visible part of the social scene. That winter had seen an explosion of private parties as well. Limits were pushed here, too, budgets broken, meals set forth of quail, partridge, lobster, terrapin, and acreages of confections. Politicians such as Secretary of State William Seward and Congressman Schuyler “Smiler” Colfax threw musical soirees. The spirit of the season was evident in the wedding of the imperially lovely Kate Chase—daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase—to Senator William Sprague. Sprague’s gift to Kate was a $50,000 tiara of matched pearls and diamonds. When the bride appeared, the US Marine Band struck up “The Kate Chase March,” a song written by a prominent composer for the occasion.3
What was most interesting about these evenings, however, was less their showy proceedings than the profoundly threatened world in which they took place. It was less like a world than a child’s snow globe: a small glittering space enclosed by an impenetrable barrier. For in the winter of 1863–64, Washington was the most heavily defended city on earth. Beyond its houses and public buildings stood thirty-seven miles of elaborate trenches and fortifications that included sixty separate forts, manned by fifty thousand soldiers. Along this armored front bristled some nine hundred cannons, many of large caliber, enough to blast entire armies from the face of the earth.4
There was something distinctly medieval about the fear that drove such engineering.
The danger was quite real. Since the Civil War had begun, Washington had been threatened three times by large armies under Robert E. Lee’s command.5
After the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, a rebel force under Lee’s lieutenant Stonewall Jackson had come within twenty miles of the capital while driving the entire sixty-thousand-man Union army back inside its fortifications, where the bluecoats cowered and licked their wounds and thanked heaven for all those earthworks and cannons.6
A year and a half later, the same fundamental truth informed those lively parties. Without that cordon militaire
, they could not have existed. Washington’s elaborate social scene was a brocaded illusion: what the capital’s denizens desperately wanted the place to be, not what it actually was.
This garishly defended capital was still a smallish, grubby, corrupt, malodorous, and oddly pretentious municipality whose principal product, along with legislation and war making, was biblical sin in its many varieties. Much of the city had been destroyed in the War of 1812. What had replaced the old settlement was both humble and grandiose. Vast quantities of money had been spent to build the city’s precious handful of public buildings: the Capitol itself (finished in December 1863), the Post Office Building, the Smithsonian Institution, the US Patent Office, the US Treasury, and the Executive Mansion. (The Washington Monument, whose construction had been suspended in 1854 for lack of funds, was an abandoned and forlorn-looking stump.)7
But those structures stood as though on a barren plain. The Corinthian columns of the Post Office Building may have been worthy of the high Renaissance, but little else in the neighborhood was. The effect was jarring, as though pieces of the Champs-Élysées had been dropped into a swamp. Everything about the place, from its bloody and never-ending war to the faux grandiosity of its windswept plazas, suggested incompleteness. Like the Washington Monument, it all seemed half-finished. The wartime city held only about eighty thousand permanent residents, a pathetic fraction of the populations of New York (800,000) and Philadelphia (500,000), let alone London (2.6 million) or Paris (1.7 million).8
Foreign travelers, if they came to the national capital at all, found it hollow, showy, and vainglorious. British writer Anthony Trollope, who visited the city during the war and thought it a colossal disappointment, wrote:
Washington is but a ragged, unfinished collection of unbuilt broad streets.… Of all the places I know it is the most ungainly and most unsatisfactory; I fear I must also say the most presumptuous in its pretensions. Taking [a] map with him… a man may lose himself in the streets, not as one loses oneself in London between Shoreditch and Russell Square, but as one does so in the deserts of the Holy Land… There is much unsettled land within the United States of America, but I think none so desolate as three-fourths of the ground on which is supposed to stand the city of Washington.9
He might have added that the place smelled, too. Its canals were still repositories of sewage; tidal flats along the Potomac reeked at low tide. Pigs and cows still roamed the frozen streets. Dead horses, rotting in the winter sun, were common sights. At the War Department, one reporter noted, “The gutter [was] heaped up full of black, rotten mud, a foot deep, and worth fifty cents a car load for manure.”10
The unfinished mall where the unfinished Washington Monument stood held a grazing area and slaughterhouse for the cattle used to feed the capital’s defenders.11
The city was both a haven and a dumping ground for the sort of human chaff that collected at the ragged edges of the war zone: deserters from both armies, sutlers (civilians who sold provisions to soldiers), spies, confidence men, hustlers, and the like.
Washington had also become the nation’s single largest refuge for escaped slaves, who now streamed through the capital’s rutted streets by the thousands. When Congress freed the city’s thirty-three hundred slaves in 1862, it had triggered an enormous inflow of refugees, mostly from Virginia and Maryland.12
By 1864 fifty thousand of them had moved within Washington’s ring of forts. Many were housed in “contraband camps,” and many suffered in disease-ridden squalor in a world that often seemed scarcely less prejudiced than the one they had left. But they were never going back. They were never going to be slaves again. This was the migration’s central truth, and you could see it on any street corner in the city. Many would make their way into the Union army, which at the end of 1863 had already enlisted fifty thousand from around the country, most of them former slaves.
But the most common sights of all on those streets were soldiers. A war was being fought, one that had a sharp and unappeasable appetite for young men. Several hundred thousand of them had tramped through the city since April 1861, wearing their blue uniforms, slouch hats, and knapsacks. They had lingered on its street corners, camped on its outskirts. Tens of thousands more languished in wartime hospitals. Mostly they were just passing through, on their way to a battlefield or someone’s grand campaign or, if they were lucky, home. Many were on their way to death or dismemberment. In their wake came the seemingly endless supply trains with their shouting teamsters, rumbling wagon wheels, snorting horses, and creaking tack.
Because of these soldiers—unattached young men, isolated, and far from home—a booming industry had arisen that was more than a match for its European counterparts: prostitution. This was no minor side effect of war. Ten percent or more of the adult population were inhabitants of Washington’s demimonde. In 1863, the Washington Evening Star
had determined that the capital had more than five thousand prostitutes, with an additional twenty-five hundred in neighboring Georgetown, and twenty-five hundred more across the river in Alexandria, Virginia. That did not count the concubines or courtesans who were simply kept in apartments by the officer corps. The year before, an army survey had revealed 450 houses of ill repute.13
All served drinks and sex. In a district called Murder Bay, passersby could see nearly naked women in the windows and doors of the houses. For the less affluent—laborers, teamsters, and army riffraff—Nigger Hill and Tin Cup Alley had sleazier establishments, where men were routinely robbed, stabbed, shot, and poisoned with moonshine whiskey. The Star
could not help wondering how astonished the sisters and mothers of these soldiers would be to see how their noble young men spent their time at the capital.14
Many of these establishments were in the heart of the city, a few blocks from the president’s house and the fashionable streets where the capital’s smart set whirled in gaslit dances.
This was Washington, DC, in that manic, unsettled winter of 1863–64, in the grip of a lengthening war whose end no one could clearly see.
OF ALL THE PARTIES, gatherings, and balls that season, none would be as indelibly etched into the memories of Washingtonians as a public reception at the White House on the wet, blustery night of Tuesday, March 8. President Lincoln held two such receptions a week—known in the day as levees—where he and his wife, Mary, would stand in the doorway to the Blue Room and greet all comers. The president would shake hands, in a manner that reminded people of someone sawing wood, and say “How do?” and perhaps a few more words, then visitors would be passed along to Mary Lincoln, who greeted them in turn. The Tuesday reception was the more formal one. According to a reporter who was there, the well-dressed attendees were as usual “pour[ing] through the drawing rooms into the great East Room, where they circulate in a revolving march to the music of the Marine Band, stationed in an adjoining room.”15
Except that this night was different. At about nine thirty, Lincoln was at his usual perch, wearing a collar one size too large, a badly tied necktie, and his habitual expression of bemused melancholy, when a sudden noise and commotion arose at the entrance to the room.16
From the small crowd at the door, which had sorted itself into a double file, now emerged a man with a slender build, slightly stooped shoulders, mild blue eyes, and an unexceptional beard, wearing the uniform of a Union soldier.17
When Lincoln saw him, all sadness vanished from the president’s face, and he rushed toward the man.
“Why, here is General Grant!” Lincoln exclaimed. “Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you!”18
As the crowd gaped, the two men chatted amiably, if somewhat awkwardly, for a moment—the stork-like Lincoln was fully eight inches taller than Grant and had to stoop to engage him—whereupon Grant was passed to Secretary of State William Seward, who then presented him to the first lady. As word of the visitor’s arrival traveled rocket-like through the Blue Room and into the crowded East Room, utter pandemonium broke loose. A genteel riot ensued, driven by wild cheers and applause so uninhibited that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles found it “rowdy and unseemly.”19
As one observer described it, “Laces were torn, crinoline mashed.” Within minutes, Seward and his charge, Ulysses S. Grant, war hero of the west and the great hope of the Union, were swallowed by the great surge of the crowd.20
As the crowd’s behavior suggested, this was no casual visit. Grant had come to Washington because he had just been promoted by act of Congress to a rank—lieutenant general—that had been held only twice in American history, once by George Washington and once by Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican-American War. In both cases, the commission was honorary. Thus the modest and unassuming Ulysses S. Grant, known to his army friends as Sam, the antithesis of pomp, circumstance, and military grandeur, was about to become the first full-blown three-star general in US history.21
The immediate impetus for the promotion had been his victory at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November, where he had broken General Braxton Bragg’s siege and then sent Bragg’s forty-thousand-man Confederate army reeling in retreat, thus confirming what Abraham Lincoln had been thinking anyway: that Grant, among a crowded field of often timid, indecisive, and incompetent Union commanders, was the best choice to win the war. But Chattanooga was merely Grant’s most recent trophy of war. In 1862 he had swallowed a twelve-thousand-man rebel army whole at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, refusing to offer any terms but unconditional surrender
. Those words, with their strange, cold, insistent rhythm, had passed immediately into American legend. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863 he had shocked the nation again by capturing another entire Confederate army, this time containing thirty thousand men. Nor had his attitude toward surrender grown more charitable. When the opposing general had politely suggested a negotiating session to hammer out terms of surrender to “save the further effusion of blood,” Grant replied, “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose by an unconditional surrender of the city and the garrison.” This was more of the same music that had sounded at Fort Donelson, bright and dissonant, and it was like nothing anyone had ever before heard. Where other commanders temporized and hesitated, Grant simply put his head down and hammered forward, like a battering ram.
A good deal more was attached to Grant than these three victories—including a drinking problem that had gotten him dismissed from the army, his questionable performance at the Battle of Shiloh, and a bizarre episode of anti-Semitism in 1862—but for now only the winning mattered. Few people of consequence, in the winter of 1863–64, argued against the promotion of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, the Union general who won. He was the implacable force, the irresistible power from the west, where the soldiery had not formed a habit of losing.
At Lincoln’s request Congress had promoted Grant, and now, in March, he had been summoned by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Washington to accept his new commission as head of all Union armies. Traveling with his thirteen-year-old son, Fred, his close aide John Rawlins, and another officer, Grant had made his way by boat from Louisville to Cincinnati, then by train to Washington, arriving at the station on the afternoon of March 8. He was one of the most celebrated men in the Western World at that moment, and the focus of fierce, often obsessive, national interest. He was probably more popular in the North than Lincoln himself. Grant was so famous that his full-length portrait, field glasses in hand and flanked by a demolished rebel cannon, hung in a committee room in the Capitol.22
His likeness was featured on patriotic posters. Oceans of printer’s ink had been expended describing his battlefield victories.
But few people in the east knew what he looked like, a problem compounded by his not looking like much at all. He had grown up in Ohio, which was very much part of “the west” in the middle nineteenth century. Though he had attended West Point in New York State, he had been to Washington exactly once in his life and had spent his entire military career, including the Civil War, in the Midwest, the far West, or Mexico.
His arrival in the late afternoon of March 8 was almost comically unceremonious. Due to a logistical error, no one had met his train at the station. To all appearances, he was just another sunburned soldier in an army hat and linen duster, stepping off a passenger car, looking blankly around him for whoever had been appointed to greet him. Thus stranded, Grant’s small group took a carriage to the office of army general-in-chief Henry Wager Halleck, in the hope of seeing a familiar face. But Halleck was not there. The group then proceeded to Halleck’s residence, but he was not there either. Having failed three times to find anyone who might welcome him, Grant decided he would just go on to Willard’s hotel, where he had been told rooms had been reserved for him and his party.
The difference between Grant’s arrival and the arrival, nineteen months earlier, of the Union’s leading general George McClellan in Washington following his defeat in the Seven Days Battles, east of Richmond, is worth noting.23
The caravan bearing the baggage of McClellan and his staff consisted of twenty-five six-foot-by-nine-foot wagons, painted dark brown and varnished to a high gleam. The wagons were each drawn by four matched bay horses—both their color and manes had been deliberately coordinated for effect—and each driven by two black attendants in immaculate blue livery. On the side of each wagon, in large gold letters, was the inscription BAGGAGE. HEADQUARTERS. ARMY OF THE POTOMAC. McClellan had arrived like an imperial pasha with one hundred horses and fifty attendants; Grant with only his son and a light suitcase.24
The lordly McClellan had turned out to be an embarrassment, a timid general who had to be coaxed, cajoled, shamed, and threatened into fighting Confederates and who finally had to be gotten rid of.
Grant’s ordeal of anonymity was not quite over. He arrived at Willard’s, quietly checked in as “U. S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill.,” and, still unrecognized, went down to dinner with Fred.25
In the dining room the lightning bolt finally struck. After whispers, more whispers, and a rising commotion, a nearby gentleman banged on his table with a dinner knife, rose, and announced that he had “the honor to inform [the diners] that General Grant was present in the room with them.” The crowd of diners rose to their feet, and soon thunderous cheers were rolling through the room. “My father arose and bowed,” Fred Grant recalled later, “and the crowd began to surge around him; after that, dining became impossible; and an informal reception was held for perhaps three quarters of an hour; but as there seemed to be no end to the crowd assembling, my father left the dining room and retired to his apartments.”26
Word of Grant’s arrival spread quickly. Former secretary of war Simon Cameron soon came to collect him and give him a proper escort to Lincoln’s reception, two blocks away.
What Grant faced inside the East Room made the disturbance at Willard’s seem tame. He was greeted by more booming cheers, but now the possibility that he might be trampled seemed quite real. Secretary of State Seward solved the problem by having Grant climb up onto a sofa, where, in the description of Sacramento Daily Union
reporter Noah Brooks,
he could be seen, and where he was secure, at least for a time, from the madness of the multitude. People were caught up and whirled into the torrent which swept through the Great East Room.… Many got up on sofas, chairs, and tables to be out of harm’s way or to get a better view of the spectacle. It was the only real mob I ever saw in the White House. For at least once, the President of the United States was not the chief figure in the picture. The little, scared-looking man who stood on a crimson-colored sofa was the idol of the hour.27
At least sixty minutes passed before Lincoln and a flushed and perspiring Grant were able to hold a conversation.28
In the meantime the people had gotten a glimpse of Grant and were thrilled by what they saw: a plain and modest man whose clear and impassive blue eyes showed both confidence and determination, a man free of the cant and hollow grandeur that had marked some of his predecessors.29
With his immense gifts of command and his humble manner, he managed to be transcendently American.
As a westerner—that was how he thought of himself—Grant had learned to despise the intrigue, corruption, infighting, pettifoggery, and personality-driven politics of Washington. Instinctively, he wanted nothing to do with the place. The regular army had enough of all that anyway. He was a straight-ahead fighter, not someone who bent with political winds. He wanted to be measured by battlefield results. Everyone around him agreed with him that he needed to stay away from Washington—both as a place and as an idea. John Rawlins wrote, of his boss’s Washington visit, “I am doing everything I can to get him away from here.”30
Grant’s sidekick and sometime political conscience William Tecumseh Sherman had advised him, in his letter congratulating him on his promotion, “Do not stay in Washington.… For God’s sake and for your country’s sake, come out of Washington!”31
Now, in the presence of the great Lincoln, Grant was vouchsafed a clear view as to why. Though Lincoln had just met Grant, the president was already stage-managing the events of the next day, when Grant would officially accept his new commission. The president spoke to Grant as though the little general might have trouble understanding how such complicated adult matters worked, as one would to a bright middle schooler.
“I shall then make a very short speech to you,” Lincoln said, “to which I desire you to make a reply… and that you may be properly prepared to do so I have written what I shall say—only four sentences in all—which I will read from my MS. as an example which you may follow and also read your reply, as you are perhaps not as much accustomed to speaking as I, myself—and I therefore give you what I shall say that you may consider it and form your reply.” If this wasn’t quite patronizing enough—perhaps it had momentarily escaped Lincoln that managing the Union armies in the western theater, from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, might require some presentational skills—he then went on to tell Grant exactly what he was to say:
There are two points that I would like to have you make in your answer, 1st, to say something which shall prevent or obviate any jealousy of you from any of the other generals in the service, and 2nd, something which shall put you on as good terms as possible with this Army of the Potomac.32
At the ceremony the next day Lincoln read his statement, praising and promoting Grant, and then Grant made his own little speech, which must have entirely lived up to Lincoln’s dismal expectations: choppy, disjointed, and delivered in what one observer called a “struggling” fashion. Grant had scribbled it down in pencil on a half sheet of notepaper and seemed to have trouble reading his own writing. “Mr. President, I accept this commission with gratitude for the high honor conferred, with the aid of the noble armies that have fought on so many fields for our common country.” And so on. He managed to say little, and, perhaps not coincidentally, nothing at all of what his boss had told him to say.
Lincoln’s secretary, John G. Nicolay, noted dryly at the time that Grant “had either forgotten or disregarded entirely the president’s hints to him of the night previous.”33
Grant took Sherman’s advice and got the hell out of Washington as soon as he could. He turned down a dinner invitation from Lincoln, saying, “Dinner to me means a million dollars a day lost to the country,” which appealed to Lincoln’s fiscal instincts. He also told Lincoln that he had “become very tired of this show business,” which also pleased the president, who was by then tired of grandstanding generals. Grant made a brief excursion to Brandy Station in northern Virginia to visit the Army of the Potomac and its commander, General George G. Meade—where brass bands greeted Grant in pouring rain—then took a train to Nashville, where he met with his friend Sherman, to whom he handed command of the Union armies in the west.34
When Grant returned east a few days later, it was not to Washington, DC, but to a small town in Virginia called Culpeper Court House. As general in charge of all Union armies, he would not, as his predecessor Major General Henry Wager Halleck had, make his headquarters in the political rat’s nest of Washington. Grant would be at the front. Camped across the Rapidan River from him, just a few miles away, was the single most potent military force on the North American continent, the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the other towering military genius of the Civil War, a man whom Grant had never faced on a battlefield. Grant’s mission was simple yet unprecedented in a war that had until now favored conquering real estate instead of armies, cities instead of people: destroy Robert E. Lee. In Grant’s attempt to do that he would unleash, in just a few months, a storm of blood and death that beggared even the killing fields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. He would find himself in a world of bitterness, violence, hatred, and retribution that would make the early years of the conflict look innocent and honorable by comparison. He and Lee would soon remake the war into something that neither the country nor its hardened veterans had ever before seen.