President Lincoln had faith in Ulysses S. Grant when few people did. In the spring of 1862, there were many calls for the replacement of Grant. In the spring of 1863, Senator Benjamin Wade came to see the President and insisted that the American people demanded that he dismiss Grant because the campaign to take Vicksburg had bogged down. Mr. Lincoln later said: “To show to what extent this sentiment prevails, even [Congressman Elihu] Washburne, who has always claimed Grant as his by right of discovery, has deserted him, and demands his removal; and I really believe I am the only friend Grant has left. Grant advises me [Mr. Lincoln had never seen General Grant up to that time] that he will take Vicksburg by the Fourth of July, and I believe he will do it; and he shall have the chance.”1
“Although he heard nothing from Grant,” wrote Duane Schultz in The Most Glorious Fourth, President Lincoln “continued to receive complaints about Grant and demands that he be dismissed. The criticisms came in the form of letters, newspaper editorials, and delegations of irate citizens calling on Lincoln in person. The editor of the Cincinnati Gazette wrote, ‘Our noble army of the Mississippi is being wasted by the foolish, drunken, stupid Grant, He cannot organize or control or fight an army. I have no personal feeling about it; but I know he is an ass.'”
Between President Lincoln and General Grant was a mutual appreciation society of the difficulties presented by their respected positions. “In time of war the President, being by the Constitution Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, is responsible for the selection of commanders,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. “He should not be embarrassed in making his selections. I having been selected, my responsibility ended with my doing the best I knew how. If I had sought the place, or obtained it through personal or political influence, my believe is that I would have feared to undertake any plan of my own conception, and would probably have awaited direct orders from my distant superiors. Persons obtaining important commands by application or political influence are apt to keep a written record of complaints and predictions of defeat, which are shown in case of disaster. Somebody must be responsible for their failures.” He noted: “With all the pressure brought to bear upon them, both president Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.”2
President had no personal knowledge of Grant, but he had considerable personal feeling. As he wrote Grant after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1864, “I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you get below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I know wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”3
One witness testified that the President’s admiration had been born two years earlier, sight unseen. “From the occupation of Paducah, Kentucky, may be dated the warm and unswerving friendship of Abraham Lincoln for General U.S. Grant,” recalled Colonel Absalom H. Markland, a Washington postal official connected to Grant’s army. “Other friends may have wavered in their friendship for General Grant, and even recommended his removal from command, but Abraham Lincoln was faithful to General Grant through evil and good report.”4
John G. Nicolay recalled that early in December 1863, President Lincoln said to him of the campaign in Tennessee and Virginia: “Now if this Army of the Potomac was good for anything – if the officers had anything in them – if the army had any legs, they could move thirty thousand men down to Lynchburg and catch [Confederate General James] Longstreet. Can anybody doubt, if Grant were here in command that he would catch him? There is not a man in the whole Union who would for a moment doubt it. But I do not think it would do to bring Grant away from the West.”5
The President regularly showered his praise and gratitude on General Grant long before he met. He wrote Grant in December 1863: “Understanding that your lodgment at Knoxville and at Chattanooga is now secure, I wish to tender you, and all under your command, my more than thanks, my profoundest gratitude for the skill, courage, and perseverance with which you and they, over so great difficulties, have effected that important object. God bless you all.”6
“About all I know of Grant I have got from you,” Mr. Lincoln told Congressman Elihu Washburne that winter. “I have never seen him. Who else besides you knows anything about Grant?” Washburne replied: “I know very little about him. He is my townsman but I never saw very much of him. The only man who really knows Grant is [J. Russell] Jones. He has summer and wintered with him.”7
General Grant and his son Fred checked in Willard’s Hotel on March 8, 1864. A chant of “Grant! Grant! Grant!” was soon taking up by the diners, who rushed to his table to congratulate him. When it became evident that a peaceful dinner was out of the question, the general and his son retired to their room. “Not long after this a political person came to Grant’s door ? former Secretary of War Simon Cameron, as Fred remembered it; Congressman James K. Moorhead of Pennsylvania, by reporter Brooks’s account ? and he bustled Grant off to the White House,” wrote historian Bruce Catton.8
“That evening, as it chanced, was the occasion of the usual weekly reception at the White House, and thither General Grant went by special invitation,” Brooks wrote. “Thither too went throngs of people when it was known that he would be on view with the President. So great was the crowd, and so wild the rush to get near the general, that he was obliged at last to mount a sofa, where 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 in the torrent which swept through the great East Room. Ladies suffered dire disaster in the crush and confusion; their laces were torn and crinolines mashed; and many got upon 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. It was an indescribable scene of curiosity, joy, and pleasure. For once at least the President of the United States was not the chief figure in the picture. The little, scared-looking man who stood on a crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour. He remained on view for a short time; then he was quietly smuggled out by friendly hands, and next day departed from the city, which he then appeared to dread so much, to begin the last and mightiest chapter in his military career.”9
Once installed as the commanding general of the Union armies the next day, President Lincoln’s confidence in General Grant was evidenced by his failure to demand his plans: “The particulars of your plan I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any restraints or constraints upon you.” Wrote historian John Y. Simon: “”Charged with vast responsibilities, General-in-Chief Grant had to act vigorously within the military sphere, tread softly in the political sphere, and understand as well the politics of command. Under Lincoln’s guidance, sometimes oblique, sometimes imperious, Grant succeeded.”10 The Chicago Journal once published this exchange with a visitor who asked: “When will the army move?” Responded the President: “Ask General Grant.” The visitor replied: “General Grant will not tell me.” Responded the President: “Neither will he tell me.”11
It was the Peace Conference of February 1865 which probably caused the most friction between President Lincoln and General Grant. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that “it was General Grant, the idol of the hour, who had influenced Lincoln to take that step. Grant had confidentially written to the Secretary of War expressing his regret that the Confederate commissioners would return home ‘without any expression from any one in authority.’ While he recognized the difficulty of receiving the commissioners, he feared the ‘bad influence’ which their failure to get an authoritative reply would have on the minds of the people, probably South as well as North. It was Grant’s message, in which he deplored the failure of the commissioners to see the President, that had impelled Lincoln to go to Fort Monroe.”11
Major Thomas Eckert of the War Department’s telegraph office was sent as the President’s personal representative to make sure that his directions were followed. Eckert clashed over the hospitality with which Grant was treating the Confederate representatives: Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, Judge John A. Campbell, the Confederacy’s Assistant Secretary of War, and Robert M. T. Hunter, a former United States Senator. Eckert met with them aboard the River Queen on February 1:
“‘I told them that all the proceedings of the conference must be in writing. I then submitted a copy of my instruction from the President which they took saying they would like to consider it and reply later. Hunter was the chief spokesman, but my communications were always to Stephens, his name being the first on the list of three. Campbell had the least to say. He was, however, a close listener. Before the conference we came very near getting into a difficulty that would have forced me to have done something that might have raised a row, because General Grant wanted to be a party to the conference. I told him no. I said, ‘You are the commanding general of the army. If you make a failure or say anything that would be subject to criticism it would be very bad. If I make a mistake I am nothing but a common business man and it will go for naught. I am going to take the responsibility, and I advise you not to go to the conference.’ He finally said, ‘Decency would compel me to go and see them.’ I said that for the purpose of introduction I should be pleased to have him go with me but not until after I had first met the gentlemen. Grant was vexed with me because I did not tell him exactly what my mission was.
“Grant went with me on my second visit a few hours later and after he was introduced, one of the commissioners, I am sure it was Hunter, said to Grant, ‘We do not seem to get on very rapidly with Major Eckert. We are very anxious to go on to Washington, and Mr. Lincoln has promised to see us there.’ General Grant started to make reply when I interrupted him and said, “Excuse me, General Grant, you are not permitted to say anything officially at this time,” and I stopped him right there. I added, ‘If you will read the instructions under which I am acting you will see that I am right.'”
“After listening a while to what the commissioners were saying Grant got up and went out. He was angry with me for years afterward, and this has been a source of sincere regret to me, because in his responsible position as commanding general of the army he had some reason for chagrin at the action of a mere major in questioning his ranking authority in the presence of representatives of the government whose army he was fighting. But at the time I gave no thought to this feature of the case, remembering only my explicit orders written and oral from the President. When Grant was stopped from making a reply to Hunter he and the other commissioners doubtless thought that if they could have presented the matter direct to Grant they would likely get his approval. This view is sustained by Grant’s telegram of 10:30 P.m., February 1, 1865. [See below.]
“‘At 9.30 P.M. I informed the commissioners that they could not proceed further unless they complied with the terms recited in my letter of instructions, their formal reply to which had been delivered to me at our earlier interview and to inform General Grant in case they concluded to accept the terms. I then withdrew and sent my cipher-despatch to President Lincoln dated 10 P.M. Feb. 1, advising him that the reply of the Peace Commissioners was ‘not satisfactory.’ The originals of all writings at this conference were taken to Fort Monroe and handed to Secretary Seward.”12
Grant’s memoirs omitted his conflict with Eckert. After the arrival of the Confederate commissioners, he installed them on the Mary Martin: “I at once communicated by telegraph with Washington and informed the Secretary of War and the President of the arrival of these commissioners and that they object was to negotiate terms of peace between the United States and, as they termed it, the Confederate Government.” Grant denied that he had any substantive discussions with them about peace negotiations: ” It was something I had nothing to do with, and I therefore did not wish to express any views on the subject. For my own part I never had admitted, and never was ready to admit, that they were the representatives of a government. There had been too great a waste of blood and treasure to concede anything of the kind.”
On February 2, “I received a dispatch from Washington, directing me to send the commissioners to Hampton Roads to meet the President and a member of the cabinet. Mr. Lincoln met them there and had an interview of short duration. It was not a great while after they met that the President visited me at City Point. He spoke of his having met the commissioners, and said he had told them that there would be no use in entering into any negotiations unless they would recognize, first: that the Union as a whole must be forever preserved, and second: that slavery must be abolished. If they were willing to concede these two points, then he was ready to enter into negotiations and was almost willing to hand them a blank sheet of paper with his signature attached for them to fill in the terms upon which they were willing to live with us in the Union and be one people. He always showed a generous and kindly spirit toward the Southern people, and I never heard him abuse an enemy. Some of the cruel things said about President Lincoln, particularly in the North, used to pierce him to the heart; but never in my presence did he evince a revengeful disposition – and I saw a great deal of him at City Point, for he seemed glad to get away from the cares and anxieties of the capital.”13
Despite his confidence in Grant, President Lincoln was careful to keep political questions in his own hand. At one point in March 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote Grant: “The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Lees army, or on solely minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question: such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions – mean time you are to press to the utmost, your military advantages.”14
About the third week of March, President Lincoln responded to an invitation from General Grant to visit his headquarters. According to Grant aide Horace Porter, “This invitation was promptly accepted, and on the 24th word came he was on his way up the James aboard the River Queen. About nine o’clock that evening the steamer approached the wharf, and General Grant, with those of us who were with him at the moment, including Robert Lincoln, went down to the landing and met the President, Mrs. Lincoln, their youngest son, ‘Tad,’ and several ladies who had come from Washington with the Presidential party. The meeting was very cordial. It lasted but a short time, however, as Mr. Lincoln and his family were evidently fatigued by the trip, and it was thought that they might to retire at an early hour.”15
Grant’s consideration of the President was reflected in his judgment of horseflesh. “Upon Lincoln’s arrival at City Point, March 24, Grant had offered him the choice of his two favorite horses, ‘Cincinnati’ and ‘Little Jeff.’ Lincoln selected the former, being the larger of the two, as better suited to his tall form, and during his stay he frequently rode Cincinnati around the camp,” wrote War Department employee David Homer Bates. ” He was a good rider and greatly enjoyed this recreation, and when Grant went to the front to personally direct the general assault upon Lee’s army along a line of over thirty miles, he left a trusted groom in charge of Cincinnati, so that if the movement should prove successful, the President might ride out to the front.”16 Presidential guard William Crook later recalled:
“It was after dark on the 24th when we reached City Point. It was a beautiful sight at this time, with the many-colored lights of the boats in the harbor and the lights of the town straggling up the bluffs of the shore, crowned by the lights from Grant’s headquarters at the top.
It was known at Grant headquarters that the President was coming, and a lookout had been kept. As soon as the River Queen was made fast to the wharf. General Grant with some members of his staff came aboard. They had a long consultation with the President, at the end of which Mr. Lincoln appeared particularly happy. General Grant had evidently made him feel that the end of the conflict was at hand, nearer than he had expected. After General Grant had gone, Taddie and I went ashore to take a look at the place by starlight. We did not get many steps from the steamer before we were halted by a sentinel. I explained who we were, but Taddie thought he would go back. He said he did not like the looks of things. He wasn’t used to being halted by sentinels who didn’t know who he was. We went back to the boat. Everybody was up until late. The President and Mrs. Lincoln talked of the trip; they were in very good spirits.
The next day, the 25th, was clear and warmer. We had an opportunity of seeing one of the great centres of the war. In Mr. Lincoln’s estimation it was the critical point, and he had placed his lieutenant-general, the man in whom he had most faith, in charge. The Appomattox and the James come together at City Point. The harbor thus made is overhung with high bluffs. On the top of one bluff was a group of houses, which Grant and his staff used as headquarter. The harbor was crowded with craft of all kinds – fishing-boats, row-boats, sail-boats, transports, and passenger-boats. From higher ground in the vicinity could be seen the tents of Lee’s army. It was a busy camp, and everything was in motion. Just west of our troops was the long, curved line of lee’s intrenchments, stretching from Petersburg, south of the James and fifteen miles from City Point, to Richmond, northwest of City Point and nearly double that distance.
We all went ashore and visited General Grant’s headquarters. After the greetings, General Grant invited the President to take a ride to the front, where General Meade was in command. When we started, Mr. Lincoln was sen to be on a black pony belonging to General Grant. The name of the animal was Jeff Davis. Everybody laughed at the idea, and at the sight, too, for the president’s feet nearly touched the ground. Mr. Lincoln was a good horseman, but always rather an ungainly sight on horseback. He laughed at himself this time, and said, ‘Well, he may be Jeff Davis and a little too small for me, but he is a good horse.'”
Mrs. Lincoln rode in an army ambulance with Mrs. Grant, who was a member of the party that day. It had been intended when we started for City Point that there should be a grand review of the troops. But the Confederates were active the first part of the ten days before we left to visit Richmond, and the preparations for the final operations before Petersburg were being made the latter part of the time. There was a lull in between, but never a time when it was possible to draw all the soldiers away from their positions. So we never had the grand review.
We saw some lively skirmishing, however, between the picket-lines of the two forces while we were at General Meade’s headquarters. We were on a hill just east of where the troops were engaged; it was not more than a quarter of a mile away from the wood where the fighting was in progress. We could see the shells as they were fired; but while we were there they burst in the air and did no damage. The President asked whether the position was not too close for the comfort of his party. When he was assured that there was no danger, he remained two hours watching the struggle, and turned away only when the firing ceased.17
On April 3, according to Horace Porter, “General Grant proposed to the President that forenoon that he should accompany him on a trip to the Petersburg front. The invitation was promptly accepted, and several hours were spent in visiting the troops, who cheered the President enthusiastically. He was greatly interested in looking at the prisoners who had been captured that morning; and while at Meade’s headquarters, about two o’clock, sent a despatch to Stanton, saying: ‘…I have nothing to add to what General Meade reports, except that I have seen the prisoners myself, and they look like there might be the number he states – 1600.’ The President carried a map with him, which he took out of his pocket and examined several times. He had the exact location of the troops marked on it, and he exhibited a singularly accurate knowledge of the various positions.” Grant recalled his memoirs:
The next morning after the capture of Petersburg, I telegraphed Mr. Lincoln asking him to ride out there and see me, while I would await his arrival. I had started all the troops out early in the morning, so that after the National army left Petersburg there was not a soul to be seen, not even an animal in the streets. There was absolutely no one there, except my staff officers and, possibly, a small escort of cavalry. We had selected the piazza of a deserted house, and occupied it until the President arrived.
About the first thing that Mr. Lincoln said to me, after warm congratulations for the victory, and thanks both to myself and to the army which had accomplished it, was: ‘Do you know, general, that I have had a sort of sneaking idea for some days that you intended to do something like this.’ Our movements having been successful up to this point, I no longer had any object in concealing from the President all my movements, and the objects I had in view. He remained for some days near City Point, and I communicated with him frequently and fully by telegraph.
Mr. Lincoln that it had been arranged for Sherman to join me at a fixed time, to co-operate in the destruction of Lee’s army. I told him that I had been very anxious to have the Eastern armies vanquish their old enemy who had so long resisted all their repeated and gallant attempts to subdue them or drive them from their capital. The Western armies had been in the main successful until they had conquered all the territory from the Mississippi River to the State of North Carolina, and were now almost ready to knock at the back door of Richmond, asking admittance. I said to him that if the Western armies should be even upon the field, operating against Richmond and Lee, the credit would be given to them for the capture, by politicians and non-combatants from the section of country which those troops hailed from. It might lead to disagreeable bickerings between members of Congress of the East and those of the West in their debates. Western members might be throwing it up to the member of the East that in the suppression of the rebellion they were not able to capture an army, or to accomplish much in the way of contributing toward that end, but had to wait until the Western armies had conquered all the territory south and west of them, and then come on to help them capture the only army they had been engaged with.
Mr. Lincoln said he saw that now, but had never thought of it before, because his anxiety was so great that he did not care where the aid came from so the work was done.
The Army of the Potomac has every reason to be proud of its four years’ record in the suppression of the rebellion. The army it had to fight was the protection of the United States. Its loss would be the loss of the cause. Every energy, therefore, was put forth by the Confederacy to protect and maintain their capital. Everything else would go if it went. Lee’s army had to be strengthened enable it to maintain its position, no matter what territory was wrested from the South in another quarter.
I never expected any such bickering as I have indicated, between the soldiers of the two sections; and, fortunately, there has been none between the politicians. Possibly I am the only one who thought of the liability of such a state of things in advance.
When our conversation was at an end Mr. Lincoln mounted his horse and started on his return to City Point, while I and my staff started to join the army, now a good many miles in advance. Up to this time I had not received the report of the capture of Richmond.18
Grant’s relationship with President Lincoln was largely unaffected by the difficult relationships engendered by Mrs. Lincoln with Grant’s wife. Mary Lincoln was highly jealous of any attentions granted by her husband to another woman. When she visited the Richmond front in April 1865, she erupted several times at Mrs. Grant over what she regarded as improper liberties granted the wives of Union generals. Historian John Y. Simon wrote:
On April 7, the day Grant first asked Lee to surrender, [Julia Grant and the wife of General John A. Rawlins] received a telegram from Ulysses telling them to return home. Grant expected to be absent ten or twelve days longer, to go to Danville, and to unite with Sherman, who was then in North Carolina, in crushing the remnants of the rebel forces. Julia proudly noted on the telegram that she ‘did not obey’ but remained at City Point and eventually returned to Washington escorted by victorious generals.”
“While Grant cornered Lee, Julia visited the Lincolns on the River Queen. She understood that Mary Lincoln did not welcome her company. Somewhat miffed that Lincoln had visited Richmond without her, Julia made her own visit to the Confederate capital, weeping when she reflected on the human cost of war. When she returned, she learned that the Lincolns, about to return to Washington, had not invited her to a final reception on board their boat. Julia decided to embark upon a James River cruise with her friends, took along a band, and had it play ‘Now You’ll Remember Me’ as her boat passed the River Queen. Julia had acquired a sense of social standing that eclipsed that of her husband.”19
Although General Grant attended a Cabinet meeting on the morning before President Lincoln was assassinated, he declined to accompany the Lincolns to the theater – largely because of his wife’s insistence that they leave town to visit their children in Burlington, New Jersey.
Grant returned to the Capital when Secretary of War telegraphed his train with news of the assassination.
- Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 184-185.
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p. 179.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 326 (Letter to Ulysses S. Grant, July 13, 1863).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 322 (Absalom.H. Markland).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 121 (Memorandum, December 7, 1863).
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p. 265 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, December 8, 1863).
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 537.
- Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, p. 124-125.
- Gabor S. Boritt, editor, Lincoln’s Generals, p. 198 (John Y. Simon, ‘Grant, Lincoln, and Unconditional Surrender’).
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 554.
- Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 208-209.
- David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 335-338.
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p. 404-405.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 330 (Letter to Ulysses S. Grant, March 3, 1865).
- Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, p. 402-403.
- David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 346-348.
- Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, William H. Crook, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, p. 41-43.
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p. 461.
- Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon, Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives, p. 135.