General Grant Arrives in Washington; Goes to the White House for Reception

March 8, 1864

It was a rainy day in Washington when General Ulysses S. Grant arrives in the capital by train.   Journalist Noah Brooks writes that Grant “went very quietly to Willard’s, and it was not until he had half-finished his dinner that people knew that he was in town.  As soon as it was discovered that he was at the table, eating his dinner, just like ordinary mortals, there was a shout of welcome from all present, an immense cheer going up from the crowd in the dining-room.”

Presidential aide John G. Nicolay writes a memo: “ In obedience to an invitation from the Sec. Of War, Gen Grant reached the city about 5 P.M.  By some sort of negligence there was no one at the depot to receive him but he found his way to Willard’s with the two members of his staff who accompanied him.”  President and Mrs. Lincoln were hosting their regular Tuesday evening reception at which the general arrives at 9:30.   Nicolay continued:

The weather was bad; but the Republican having announced that Grant would attend the reception, it brought out a considerable crowd.  At about 9 ½ P.M. the General came in — alone again excepting this staff –  and he and the President met for the first time.  The President, expecting him knew from the buzz and movement in the crowd that it must be him; and when a man of modest mien and unimposing exterior presented himself, the President said: ‘This is General Grant, is it not?’ The General replied, ‘Yes!’ and the two greeted each other more cordially, but still with that modest deference –  felt rather than expressed in word or action –  so appropriate to both — the one the honored ruler, the other the honored Victor of the nation and the time.  The crowd too partook of the feeling of the occasion  – there was no rude jostling  –  or pushing, or pulling, but unrestrained the circle kept its respectful distance, until after a brief conversation the President gave the General in charge of Seward to present to Mrs. L. at the same time instructing me to send for the Secretary of War.  After paying his respects to Mrs Lincoln the General was taken by Seward to the East Room where he was greeted with cheer after cheer by the assembled crowd, and where he was forced to mount a sofa from whence he could shake hands with those who pressed from all sides to see him.  It was at least an hour before he returned, flushed, heated and perspiring with the unwonted exertion.

“After a promenade in the East Room – the Prest with Mrs Seward and Gen Grant with Mrs. L. [–] the party returned to the Blue Room and sat down.  The President went up stairs and returning in a little while sat down near where the General the Sec of War and myself were sitting[.]

‘Tomorrow,’ said the Prest to the Genl, ‘at such time as you may arrange with the Sec. War, I desire to make to you a formal presentation of your commission as Lieut. Genl. I shall then make a very short speech to you, to which I desire you to reply for an object; 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 MMS. 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 from [form] your reply.  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 secondly, something which shall put you on as good terms as possible with this Army of the Potomac.  Now, consider whether this may not be said to make it of some advantage; and if you see any objection whatever to doing it be under no restraint whatever in expressing that objection to the Secretary of War who will talk further with you about it.”

The General asked at what time this presentation would take place.

‘The Secretary of War and yourself may arrange the time to suit your convenience.  I am all ready, whenever you shall have prepared your reply.”

“I can be ready in thirty minutes,” said the General.

One o’clock tomorrow was finally fixed as the hour, after which the General took his leave, accompanied by the Sec. Of War.

——- The president, as I learned in reply to a question to him, is contemplating brining the General East to see whether he can do something with the unfortunate Army of the Potomac.

–During the reception a dispatch was brought to me announcing that the Union ticket had been today carried in N.H. by 3000.

Boston Journalist Ben Perley Poore: “When General Grant called on the President, he met with a hearty reception, and Mr. Lincoln, taking him into a private room, repeated to him a story from a comic article by Orpheus C. Kerrr, satirically criticising the conduct of the war.  It was a story about Captain Bob Shorty and the Mackerel Brigade and the Anaconda Policy — something about generals in the field being hampered by a flood of orders.   When he had finished his story, he told General Grant that he did not care to know what he wanted to do, only to know what was wanted.   He wished him to beat Lee.   How he did it was his own lookout.  He said he did not wish to know his plans or exercise any scrutiny over his operations.  So long as he beat the rebel army he was satisfied.  The formal presentation of the new commission as Lieutenant-General was made in the presence of Cabinet officers and other distinguished guests, and was in all respects a notable historic scene.”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “Quite a gathering; very many that are not usually seen at receptions were attracted thither, I presume from the fact that General Grant was expected to be there.  He came about half-past nine.  I was near the centre of the reception room, when a stir and buzz attracted attention, and it was whispered that General Grant had arrived.  The room was not full, the crowd having passed through to the East Room.  I saw some men in uniform standing at the entrance, and one of them, a short, brown, dark-haired man, was talking with the President.  There was hesitation, a degree of awkwardness in the General, and embarrassment in that part of the room, and a check or suspension of the moving column.  Soon word was passed around for ‘Mr. Seward.’ ‘General Grant is here,’ and Seward, who was just behind me, hurried and took the General by the hand and led him to Mr. Lincoln, near whom I was standing.  The crowd gathered around the circle rapidly, and, it being intimated that it would be necessary the throng should pass on, Seward took the General’s arm and went with him to the East Room.  There was clapping of hands in the next room as he passed through and all in the East Room joined in it as he entered.  A cheer or two followed.  All of which seemed rowdy and unseemly.  An hour later the General and Mr. Seward and Stanton returned.  Seward beckoned me and introduced me and my two nieces.”

Journalist Brooks wrote: “The crowd at the levee was immense, and for once the interest was temporarily transferred from the President to the new-comer.  The mass of people thronged about him wherever he moved, everybody being anxious to get at least a glimpse of his face.  The women were caught up and whirled into the torrent which swept through the great East room; laces were torn, crinoline mashed, and things were generally much mixed.  People mounted sofas and tables to get out of harm’s way or to take observations, and for a time the commotion was almost like a Parisian emeute; but the cause of all this disturbance soon withdrew, and the tumult subsided.”

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