President Lincoln Confers with General Ulysses Grant

June 21, 1864

President Lincoln arrives at City Point after travelling overnight from Washington by steamer. Grant aide Horace Porter wrote in Campaigning with Grant: “On Tuesday, June 21, a white river-steamer arrived at the wharf, bringing President Lincoln, who had embraced this opportunity to visit for the first time the armies under General Grant’s immediate command. As the boat neared the shore, the general and several of us who were with him at the time walked down to the wharf, in order that the general-in-chief might meet his distinguished visitor and extend a greeting to him as soon as the boat made the landing. As our party stepped aboard, the President came down from the upper deck, where he had been standing, to the after-gangway, and reaching out his long, angular arm, he wrung General Grant’s hand vigorously, and held it in his for some time, while he uttered in rapid words his congratulations and expressions of appreciation of the great task which had been accomplished since he and the general had parted in Washington. The group then went into the after-cabin. General Grant said: “ hope you are very well, Mr. President.” “ Yes, I am in very good health,” Mr. Lincoln replied; “but I don’t feel very comfortable after my trip last night on the bay. It was rough, and I was considerably shaken up. My stomach has not yet entirely recovered from the effects.” An officer of the party now saw that an opportunity had arisen to make this scene the supreme moment of his life, in giving him a chance to soothe the digestive organs of the Chief Magistrate of the nation. He said: “Try a glass of champagne, Mr. President. That is always a certain cure for seasickness.” Mr. Lincoln looked at him for a moment, his face lighting up with a smile, and then remarked: “No, my friend; I have seen too many fellows seasick ashore from drinking that very stuff.” This was a knockdown for the officer, and in the laugh at his expense Mr. Lincoln and the general both joined heartily. General Grant now said: “I know it would be a great satisfaction for the troops to have an opportunity of seeing you, Mr. President; and I am sure your presence among them would have a very gratifying effect. I can furnish you a good horse, and will be most happy to escort you to points of interest along the line.» Mr. Lincoln replied: “Why, yes; I had fully intended to go out and take a look at the brave fellows who have fought their way down to Petersburg in this wonderful campaign, and I am ready to start at any time.”

General Grant presented to Mr. Lincoln the officers of the staff who were present, and he had for each one a cordial greeting and a pleasant word. There was a kindliness in his tone and a hearty manner of expression which went far to captivate all who met him. The President soon stepped ashore, and after sitting awhile at headquarters mounted the large bay horse ” Cincinnati,” while the general rode with him on “Jeff Davis.” Three of us of the staff accompanied them, and the scenes encountered in visiting both Butler’s and Meade’s commands were most interesting. Mr. Lincoln wore a very high black silk hat and black trousers and frockcoat. Like most men who had been brought up in the West, he had good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged that in appearance he was not a very dashing rider. On this occasion, by the time he had reached the troops he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. As he had no straps, his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes. A citizen on horseback is always an odd sight in the midst of a uniformed army, and the picture presented by the President bordered upon the grotesque. However, the troops were so lost in admiration of the man that the humorous aspect did not seem to strike them. The soldiers rapidly passed the word along the line that” Uncle Abe ” had joined them, and cheers broke forth from all the commands, and enthusiastic shouts and even words of familiar greeting met him on all sides. After a while General Grant said: “Mr. President, let us ride on and see the colored troops, who behaved so handsomely in Smith’s attack on the works in front of Petersburg last week.” “Oh, yes,” replied Mr. Lincoln; “I want to take a look at those boys. I read with the greatest delight the account given in Mr. Dana’s despatch to the Secretary of War of how gallantly they behaved. He said they took six out of the sixteen guns captured that day. I was opposed on nearly every side when I first favored the raising of colored regiments; but they have proved their efficiency, and I am glad they have kept pace with the white troops in the recent assaults. When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind. I think, general, we can say of the black boys what a country fellow who was an oldtime abolitionist in Illinois said when he went to a theater in Chicago and saw Forrest playing Othello. He was not very well up in Shakspere, and did n’t know that the tragedian was a white man who had blacked up for the purpose. After the play was over the folks who had invited him to go to the show wanted to know what he thought of the actors, and he said: ‘Waal, layin’ aside all sectional prejudices and any partiality I may have for the race, derned ef I don’t think the nigger held his own with any on ’em.'” The Western dialect employed in this story was perfect.

The camp of the colored troops of the Eighteenth Corps was soon reached, and a scene now occurred which defies description. They beheld for the first time the liberator of their race — the man who by a stroke of his pen had struck the shackles from the limbs of their fellow-bondmen and proclaimed liberty to the enslaved. Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits. They cheered, laughed, cried, sang hymns of praise, and shouted in their negro dialect, “God bress Massa Linkum!” “De Lord save Fader Abraham!” “De day ob jubilee am come, shuah.”

They crowded about him and fondled his horse; some of them kissed his hands, while others ran off crying in triumph to their comrades 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 humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.

In the evening Mr. Lincoln gathered with General Grant and the staff in front of the general’s tent, and then we had an opportunity of appreciating his charm as a talker, and hearing some of the stories for which he had become celebrated. He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact. So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President’s remarks was heard to say, “Well, that man’s got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.”

He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln’s jokes than own the negative of any other man’s. In the course of the conversation that evening he spoke of the improvement in arms and ammunition, and of the new powder prepared for the fifteen-inch guns. He said he had never seen the latter article, but he understood it differed very much from any other powder that had ever been used. I told him that I happened to have in my tent a specimen which had been sent to headquarters as a curiosity, and that I would bring it to him. When I returned with a grain of the powder about the size of a walnut, he took it, turned it over in his hand, and after examining it carefully, said: “Well, it’s rather larger than the powder we used to buy in my shooting days. It reminds me of what occurred once in a country meeting-house in Sangamon County. You see, there were very few newspapers then, and the country storekeepers had to resort to some other means of advertising their wares. If, for instance, the preacher happened to be late in coming to a prayer-meeting of an evening, the shopkeepers would often put in the time while the people were waiting by notifying them of any new arrival of an attractive line of goods. One evening a man rose up and said: ‘Brethren, let me take occasion to say, while we ‘re a-waitin’, that I have jest received a new inv’ice of sportin’ powder. The grains are so small you kin sca’cely see ’em with the naked eye, and polished up so fine you kin stand up and comb yer ha’r in front of one o’ them grains jest like it was a lookin’-glass. Hope you ‘ll come down to my store at the cross-roads and examine that powder for yourselves.’ When he had got about this far a rival powder-merchant in the meeting, who had been boiling over with indignation at the amount of advertising the opposition powder was getting, jumped up and cried out: ‘Brethren, I hope you ‘ll not believe a single word Brother Jones has been sayin’ about that powder. I’ve been down thar and seen it for myself, and I pledge you my word that the grains is bigger than the lumps in a coal-pile; and any one of you, brethren, ef you was in your future state, could put a bar’l o’ that powder on your shoulder and march square through the sulphurious flames surroundin’ you without the least danger of an explosion.'” We thought that grain of powder had served even a better purpose in drawing out this story than it could ever serve in being fired from a fifteen-inch gun.

As the party broke up for the night I walked into my quarters to put back the grain of powder, and upon turning round to come out, I found that the President had followed me and was looking into my tent, from curiosity, doubtless, to see how the officers were quartered. Of course I made haste to invite him in. He stepped inside for a moment, and his eye fell upon a specimen artillery trace, a patented article which some inventor had left the day before in order to have it examined at headquarters. The President exclaimed, “Why, what ‘s that?” I replied, “That is a trace.” “Oh,” remarked Mr. Lincoln, ” that recalls what the poet wrote: ‘Sorrow had fled, but left her traces there.’ What became of the rest of the harness he didn’t mention.”

Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana in Recollections of the Civil War, recalled: “A few days later we had an interesting visit from President Lincoln, who arrived from Washington on June 21st, and at once wanted to visit the lines before Petersburg, General Grant, Admiral Lee, myself, and several others went with him. I remember that, as we passed along the lines, Mr. Lincoln’s high hat was brushed off by the branch of a tree. There were a dozen young officers whose duty it was to get it and give it back to the President; but Admiral Lee was off his horse before any of these young chaps, and recovered the hat for the President. Admiral Lee must have been forty-five or fifty years old. It was his agility that impressed me so much.

As we came back we passed through the division of colored troops which had so greatly distinguished itself under Smith on the 15th. They were drawn up in double lines on each side of the road, and they welcomed the president with hearty shouts. It was a memorable thing to behold him whose fortune it was to represent the principle of emancipation passing bareheaded through the enthusiastic ranks of those negroes armed to defend the integrity of the nation.

Journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader recalled: ‘On June 21st about one o’clock p.m., a long, gaunt bony looking man with a queer admixture of the comical and the doleful in his countenance that reminded one of a professional undertake cracking a dry joke, undertook to reach the general’s tent by scrambling through a hedge and coming in alone. He was stopped by a hostler and told to ‘keep out of here.’ The man in black replied that he thought Gen. Grant would allow him inside. The guard finally called: ‘No sanitary folks allowed inside’ [a reference to Sanitary Commission volunteers — ed.]. After some parleying the man was obliged to give his name, and said he was Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, seeking an interview with Gen. Grant! The guard saluted, and allowed him to pass. Grant recognized him as he stepped under the large ‘fly’ in front of his tent, rose and shook hands with him cordially, and then introduced him to such members of the staff as were present and unacquainted.

It transpired that the President had just arrived on the ‘City of Baltimore,’ and was accompanied by his son ‘Tad’; Asst. Sec. Of the Navy, [Gustavus Vasa] Fox; Mr. Chadwick, proprietor of the Willard Hotel, as purveyor for the party; and the Marine Band. The conversation took a wide, free-and-easy range until dinner was announced. The President was duly seated, ate much as other mortals, managed to ring in three capital jokes during the meal, and kept everybody on the lookout for others, till the party rose.

He was naturally desirous of riding to the front, so at four o’clock horses were brought up. Mr. Lincoln was mounted on Grant’s thorough-bred ‘Cincinnatus,’ the general on ‘Egypt,’ and ‘Tad,’ on Grant’s black pacing pony ‘Jeff Davis.’ Accompanied by a large proportion of the staff, and a cavalry escort, the party rode to Gen. Wright’s headquarters, where Gen. Meade and staff met them. The location commanded as good a view of Petersburg as could then be had from our lines. Maps were examined, the position of the army explained, its future operations discussed, the steeples and spires of the city observed as well as the dust and smoke would allow, national airs were played by the bands, the enemy’s works on the opposite side of the Appomattox inspected, and after a stay of an hour and a half the party started on its return to headquarters.

On the way out many persons recognized Mr. Lincoln. The news soon spread, and on the return ride, the road was lined with weather-beaten veterans, anxious to catch a glimpse of ‘Old Abe.’ One cavalry private had known him in Illinois. Mr. Lincoln shook him by the hand, as an old familiar acquaintance, to the infinite admiration of all bystanders.

The noticeable feature of the ride was the passing a brigade of negro troops. They were lounging by the roadside, and when he approached came rushing by hundreds screaming, yelling, shouting: “Hurrah for the Liberator; Hurrah for the President,’ and were wild with excitement and delight. It was a genuine spontaneous outburst of love and affection for the man they looked upon as their deliverer from bondage. The President uncovered as he rode through their ranks, and bowed on every hand to his sable worshipers.”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes: “The President being absent, there was no Cabinet-meeting to-day.”

Published in: on June 21, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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