The Big Parade


When the Civil War sputtered out early in May 1865, there were two huge Union armies within a few days’ march of Washington, D.C. One was the Army of the Potomac, winner of the war in the East, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. The other was the Army of the Tennessee, or the Western Army, the men who had marched through Georgia to the sea, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. What to do with these two very different bodies of men was a problem that vexed politicians in Washington.

The sheer logistics of getting vast numbers of men off the payroll was problem enough. But Sherman’s Western Army was more than a problem; it was a threat. The men around the volatile Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suspected Sherman and his men of contemplating the overthrow of the federal government. Lincoln was dead, and Stanton was the de facto ruler of the country, as Andrew Johnson groped to comprehend the situation with the usual bewilderment of Vice-Presidents suddenly catapulted from superfluity to power. With furious intensity Stanton was prosecuting the band that had conspired with John Wilkes Booth in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Driven by political ambition and his own punitive instincts, Stanton was trying to convict the entire South of murder. The trial, conducted before a military tribunal at the Arsenal Penitentiary, added to the tension in the jittery capital.

The crowds cheered the army’s commander until the “old snapping turtle” managed a frosty smile.

Undoubtedly Stanton’s attitude toward Sherman was not improved by Sherman’s brother-in-law, the former Maj. Gen. Tom Ewing, who was defending three of the alleged Lincoln conspirators—Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Edward Spangler—and doing a very good job of it. But the larger reason for Stanton’s attitude was the treaty of peace Sherman had negotiated with Joseph Johnston, commander of one of the last Confederate armies in being.

Two weeks after Appomattox, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sherman had sat down with his fellow West Pointer and signed a document that endorsed the legitimacy of Southern state governments as soon as they took an oath of allegiance to the United States. It also guaranteed political rights to the ex-Rebels as well as “rights of person and property.” Sherman thought he was following Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation, but to vengeful minds he sounded as if he were reconstituting the Old South, complete with slavery. Stanton and the Radical Republicans were outraged—and frightened. Calling in reporters, Stanton accused Sherman of insubordination, stupidity, and treason. Headlines across the country echoed the Secretary’s condemnation.

Not too surprisingly, Sherman’s soldiers took a dim view of anyone who said such distressing things about “Uncle Billy.” In Raleigh they burned a collection of Northern newspapers someone had brought into the town. The implication was clear that they would just as cheerfully burn the newspaper offices. Some people in Washington had little difficulty imagining that these Westerners, who had denounced New England abolitionists and Southern ultras with equal fervor before the war, might decide to take charge of the country. They had just torn the South apart, and it was not completely illogical to imagine them doing the same thing to the East.

What to do? Someone, his name lost to history, came up with a brilliant idea. The government would give both armies a “grand review.” They would march separately, on successive days. It not only defused the political mine that was fizzling under the government’s feet—it turned out to be the greatest parade in American history.

But this happy result was by no means immediately apparent. The behavior of Sherman and his men as they marched toward Washington was not reassuring. When they camped outside Richmond, they were annoyed to discover that the Union general in charge of the Confederate capital, Henry Halleck, had issued orders barring them from the city, while Southerners were being permitted to go and come without so much as a pass. Tempers flared, fistfights and small riots erupted, and only with difficulty were the Westerners restrained from shooting up Army of the Potomac units guarding the routes into the Confederate capital.

When General Halleck, who was chief of staff and in theory the second-in-command of the entire Union army, invited Sherman to parade one of his army’s corps as a symbolic gesture through Richmond by way of testifying to their martial prowess, Sherman told him to go to hell. Sherman had found out that Halleck was siding with Stanton and had sent telegrams to Western subordinates, such as George Thomas in Nashville, telling them to disregard any and all orders from Sherman.