Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

Muffle the drums! Se the flag is furled!
Shouts of the battle have died away.
Over the fields where war's dust-cloud whirled
Peace and tranquility reign today.
Clashing of arms,
Wild bugle alarms,
Ne'er shall be heard where our heroes lie
Rest, soldier, rest,
While o'er thy breast
God's sacred watch-fires their vigil are keeping!
--E. A. Brinistool

What a week, that was just preceding the day fixed for the Grand Review! It was a week of hilarity and of keen enjoyment. The weather was as delightful as it could well be, and the happy faces one met on every side tended to demonstrate the joyfulness that everyone felt over the end of the long and bloody war. Not all the soldiers were idle, by any means, as many of them were quietly preparing surprises for "the march past," when the two days came that were required for the grand review, in which so many were to participate. This, however, did not take up much of the time for the reason that there was so much help at hand that not more than a couple of hours each day were needed to prepare the surprises alluded to, and which were as much as possible kept "under the rose" those instrumental in arranging them not desiring to have their plans exposed until they appeared in the march down Pennsylvania avenue --a street one hundred and fifty feet wide and extending from the rear of the capital building to the White House, a short distance said at the time to be two miles. It was the principal street of a city that has since the war come to be known as among the handsomest in the world. I have heard the representatives of foreign governments --ministers and consuls --declare it to be one of the most beautiful places on the globe; although one of them asserted that if it had a rival for beauty it was Florence, Italy. These comments were made many years ago, but since then, Washington City has gone on developing, enlarging and beautifying until it is my own opinion that at the present day it is really with a peer for beauty anywhere. It is in no sense a trading or a manufacturing city. With the exception of supplying its own people with their needs, but little attention is paid to business of any other kind. It is however, an official city --a place where one meets strangers on the streets from every section of the inhabitable globe, not even excepting unenlightened people from central Asia, interior Africa, Esquimaux from the Arctic circle, Patagonians, South Sea Islanders, and even the chiefs of many tribes of Indians, holding their authority under the President of the United States. These and many from many other different localities of the world at large can be seen from time to time at Washington, walking the streets --Pennsylvania avenue in particular--wearing the strange costumes and decorations in that barbaric manner that seems to be an inborn feature of the uncivilized nations, tribes and classes, that from time to time visit the national capital of this Republic.

The Army of the Potomac, under the immediate command of General Meade, followed by the cavalry under General Sheridan, all --General Sherman's included --had preceded the troops under the latter to Washington, and as it was simply out of the question for so many troops to pass in review on a single day it was decided by General Grant that the Army of the Potomac should be reviewed on the 23d, and that of General Sherman on the 24th of May, 1865. Consequently the forces under General Meade, including the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were directed to prepare for the great event. The troops composing these two great divisions of the army had never been compelled to make the long marches that those from the West had been called upon to perform, and hence it was only fair to presume that they were superior in drill and all the duties of the soldier laid down in the tactics, than those who had put in so much of their time in long marches and in engaging in many skirmishes and battles, leaving them no time to learn the niceties of military life; and well did the veterans of the Eastern forces perform their duties on the occasion of the grand Review. There was nothing to which a soldier was entitled that was not provided for them, and as the respective regiments, brigades, divisions and corps filed out into the upper end of that broad and handsome thoroughfare, known as Pennsylvania avenue they presented a handsome appearance, indeed, with their company lines so nicely adjusted and marching in such perfect time that not even the slightest jog in the formation could be detected. There being so large an army to be reviewed, it became necessary for each company to be "closed en masse" in order to permit the passage of the troops past the reviewing stand in front of the White House on the same day; indeed, this closing up of the ranks by companies had to be done on both days, so great was the number of troops to be reviewed on each day.

Of course the sidewalks of Pennsylvania avenue on each side were crowded to their utmost capacity with people from every State in the Union, intermingled with Sherman's soldiers whose turn to "march past" would come on the morrow, May 24th; but it must not be understood that all of the men who had followed the flag of Sherman and Grant up the Tennessee river, then west to Memphis, down the Father of Waters to Vicksburg, out to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, back again to Vicksburg, and after Chickamauga, was hastened to the relief of the hemmed-in veterans of Rosecranz in Chattanooga; then following the beginning of another year, opening the Atlantic campaign, winding up with the March to the Sea," then up through the Carolinas, past the capital of the Confederacy, on to Washington. On the contrary, hundreds of them were now getting ready to make a like march on the 24th and thousands of them were in their camps trying on new suits of clothes, so that they too, could make a respectable appearance in new ones, rather than appear in the ragged and tattered uniforms in which they had arrived at the nation's capital; while still others were engaged in getting the colored Pioneer corps--the ex-slaves, who had made the roads and built the bridges across hundreds of streams on that historic march and "swing around the circle." These colored pioneers --peculiar to the Western army--created quite a sensation, too, clad in new clothes, as they were, and each carrying a shovel as a soldier would his musket "at right shoulder shift" in the grand parade of the next day. Then, too, at the instance of some inventive genius it had been resolved to represent "Sherman's Foragers" --"bummers" they had come to be called by common consent, both in the army and out of it --and the preparations for that feature required the procuring of many live chickens, several head of live sheep, sacks filled so as to represent sweet potatoes, and many other things that represented the kind of supplies the foragers would bring in to the hungry men of Sherman's army on the March from Atlanta to Savannah.

Thus the 23d of May passed, the troops composing the Army of the Potomac and that of "The James" marching past the reviewing stand from early morning until darkness had gathered before the last of the troops had gone by the stand, and certainly it was a great success in every particular. It was well into the night of the 23d ere the corps of Sherman's forces were silent, for there were many things to do in order for the officers and men to get ready to participate in the review fixed for the next day, the 24th inst. The natural rivalry that had existed during all of the later years of the war had incited a desire on the part of the Westerners to eclipse, if possible, "the march past" of their Eastern brethren in arms --if not in marching, then in the novelty of the parade, and hence the preparations to which I have already alluded went on in the camps until after midnight. The generality of the troops knew nothing of this. And therefore, the vast majority of the Western army was not only as much surprised, and as thoroughly enjoyed these novelties as did the spectators which lined both sides of Pennsylvania avenue from the capitol building for the full two miles to the White House in front of which the reviewing stand had been erected.

Sherman's army had been encamped in the region round about Alexandria ever since their arrival and it must be understood that a vast amount of territory was required on which to place in camp so large an army as was that under the command of the General when all the various corps were assembled in the same vicinity, while that portion under General Grant and his subordinates consisting mostly of Eastern troops, required even more ground, the army of the Potomac and of the James being much more numerous. On the morning of the 24th of May, 1865, at a very early hour the troops under General Sherman's command crossed over the Potomac river on what was known as "Long Bridge," and as the starting point of the second day's review had been fixed for the head of Pennsylvania Avenue at the capital, these troops proceeded to their destination through the less known streets at an early hour, so as not to obstruct in any way the reviewing street. The start had been fixed for precisely 8 o'clock in the morning and the signal for the march to begin was three blank shots by the artillery on the capital grounds, two minutes apart, the troops to begin the march promptly after the third shot was fired. I have already stated that spectators of the grand scene about to be enacted, had been arriving for several days from every section of the country, and I heard it stated at the time that over $15,000 had been expended in the purchase of flowers to decorate the passing troops. Of course, I know nothing as to the truthfulness of this statement, but I do know that my own regiment had been especially selected to head the column on the second day's review, that I had not moved a hundred feet into Pennsylvania avenue, following the discharge of the third signal gun, until my horse was fairly covered from the saddle forward with great wreaths of flowers, fully as large as the collar horses wear in harness, while bouquets were showered upon the moving men in endless profusion, and I am therefore willing to believe that the fifteen thousand dollar report of the cost was true. Clear through the march on the great avenue, this continued, and the pioneer corps composed of ex-slaves, clad in their new uniforms and carrying their shovels and picks as a soldier carries his gun, as well as the four or five companies of foragers that brought up the rear of several of the divisions with their loads of live chickens, sheep, calves --a feature almost unknown to the Eastern army --created a real furor; wild applause being bestowed upon each of these odd illustrations of army life. Well might these pioneer corps be cheered, too, for they were a very essential feature in Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea, and thence northward to Washington; for they had rebuilt hundreds of destroyed bridges, and laid miles upon miles of corduroy on the line of march, and thus enabled Sherman's troops to move forward at a speed that surprised the Confederates. There were four or five companies of these improvised foragers, and nearly every division had a representative of colored pioneer corps--so great a novelty to the members of the Eastern army.

Like the formation of the Army of the Potomac, General Sherman's troops also moved in closer order instead of by company fronts, the usual way laid down in the tactics. This was done in order that the great number in the line could pass the reviewing stand before darkness ensued, which could not have been done had the troops been formed in the usual way in what is designated, as already stated, by company distances between each. Even by forming in close order the rear of the marching troops did not pass the reviewing stand until after darkness had settled upon the capital city. Owing to the fact that with the exception of the commanding Generals with their respective staffs and body guards, my own regiment was the first infantry to pass the President and his cabinet and the commanding Generals occupying the stand, including all of the officials above a certain rank, and it thus happened that I witnessed the episode that occurred between General Sherman and Halleck. for the information of the reader, who may not have been a soldier during the war, it is only proper for me to state that in such a military ceremony as that of the review, it is customary for the head of the army and his staff to occupy the extreme front of the troops to be review. In arriving in front of the reviewing officers --in this case president Andrew Johnson--through tears were shed because the deeply beloved Abraham Lincoln was not there to witness the end of the war --the officer at the head of the troops dismounts and takes his seat on the reviewing stand until after the troops under his immediate command pass by. At the grand review I am describing this feature only extended to corps commanders in addition to General Sherman. My regiment was just passing, and as I was at the head of it, I could see General Sherman making his way forward on the stand in order to salute the President of the United States as his superior officer. This was done when Secretary Stanton, next in rank to the President, in this case, offered his hand to General Sherman, who at once turned away refusing to take it. The adverse criticism Sherman had received from the War Department following his treaty for the surrender of the Confederates under Gen. Joe E. Johnston, created a very sore feeling on the part of General Sherman. This incident has been denied on the part of Stanton and his friends, but as I was a witness to the scene referred to, I take occasion to set it down as a downright positive fact that General Sherman did refuse to take the Secretary of War by the hand on that occasion, and although Mr. Stanton offered to shake hands, the General turned his back upon him. It should be borne in mind that many of the Northern newspapers criticized General Sherman very severely over the fact that he granted too liberal terms to General Johnston and his army and not at all in accord with the views or the sentiments of the officials at Washington, or indeed the great majority of the Union people of the North, and as a consequence, General Sherman's feelings were aroused to a wonderful extent, the blame for which he laid upon the shoulders of Secretary of War Stanton, although the latter was wholly innocent, so far as the "lampooning" General Sherman received from the press.

Having a desire to see for myself the grand parade, immediately after passing the President's reviewing stand, I turned the command of the regiment over to the Lieutenant Colonel and rode back to the Willard Hotel, and after stabling my horse, I sought a position on a third-story balcony, where the whole line of march was in full view. On stepping through the window I was surprised to discover that it contained thirteen Confederate officers, who had sought the same place to inspect the soldiers as they passed. They were so interested in viewing the parade, and their attention was so wholly engrossed with the sight that they had not noticed my presence, and as the Western troops came down the avenue with that swinging step so noticeably different from the well-drilled veterans of the East, one of these confederates --a brigadier general's mark on his coat collar --looking away up the two-mile line of troops, made the remark, as though it had been forced from him involuntarily -- " Great God," said he, "we never could have whipped them in the world." And that seemed to be this sentiment of the entire party. Surely the Grand Review was a great event. All of the representatives of foreign governments, as well as consuls, who had gathered at Washington to witness the great parade, were almost carried away in the presence of those veterans of four years, requiring, as it did, two days to pass, and were loud in their praises of such an army, the greatest review of troops that even they, coming from countries where the tread of soldiers was an every-day occurrence, were enthusiastic over the wonderful sight. When I add that it was calculated and so published in the daily papers that the average march of each man participating in the review from the time "the march past" began until the soldiers were back in camp, was seventeen miles, the extent of the march as well as the ground covered by men, will seem wonderful, I feel sure.

Northern Indianian July 7, 1904

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