The Big Parade


Sherman, “outraged beyond measure,” said only a direct order from the Union general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, would change his mind about parading through Richmond. Grant was doing everything in his power to contain the crisis. He had rushed to Raleigh and helped Sherman revise the surrender terms, ignoring an order from Stanton to relieve him from command. Grant now suggested it might be a good idea for Sherman to march his army through Richmond. It would give his troops a look at the city and remove the sting of Halleck’s refusal to let them in as tourists.

Sherman stiffly complied, first warning Halleck to stay out of sight, lest he be insulted by his angry cadres. The comments of the Army of the Potomac spectators were not complimentary. They sneered at “Sherman’s Greasers” and said they looked like Mexicans, “dark with pitchpine smoke.” For their part, the Westerners, having examined the city’s defenses, said they could have taken Richmond in a week. When they marched past Halleck’s headquarters, they expressed their opinion of him, Western style. One of them broke ranks, sauntered up to the immaculate sentry at the door, and shot a stream of tobacco juice all over his highly polished shoes.


The Westerners’ performance did not improve as they approached Washington. The first to arrive were a pair of bummers, loaded with loot, riding magnificent horses. Asked how they could be part of Sherman’s army, most of which was still departing from Richmond, they explained that they always made it their business to keep to the front. Roaring protests, they were thrown in the guardhouse. They were released when their comrades reached the city and undoubtedly joined those who crowded the capital’s saloons and demanded “three groans for the Secretary of War.”

The nervous War Department ordered the Westerners to camp on the southern side of the Potomac, hoping a river between the two armies would reduce the friction. They could not keep Sherman there, however. He stormed into the capital, but another talk with Grant and a conference with his brother, Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, calmed him down. Whether he could calm his soldiers was not so certain.

Officially, Washington, D.C., was still in mourning for the slain Lincoln. Many hotels and offices and private homes were draped in black. Nevertheless, the government launched an all-out effort to create a celebratory atmosphere. For five days before the march, teams of workers decked every public building with blue-and-white bunting. Arches of spring flowers soared above Pennsylvania Avenue.

In front of the White House sweating carpenters hammered together a covered pavilion, decorated with flags and flowers and evergreens. On the roof were scrolled the names of the great battles: Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh. Opposite this presidential reviewing stand was another covered platform for state governors, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices. Other stands for guests and Army and Navy officers, the press, and convalescent soldiers stretched along both sides of the broad street.

Enormous crowds surged into the capital from Maryland and more distant states. Henry Adams’s future wife was one of a group of young Massachusetts women who arrived to find every hotel and boardinghouse room in the city taken. They settled for a single attic room near Willard’s Hotel. The day before the review, they hired carriages and rode out to the camps of the various Eastern regiments, where we may be sure they were cordially entertained.

May twenty-third dawned oppressively hot and dry. Clouds of choking dust filled every street as chaises and carriages and wagons carried spectators to Pennsylvania Avenue. At nine o’clock a signal gun boomed, and the Army of the Potomac headed down the wide street. It was inevitable that they would be given the privilege of marching first. This was Washington’s own army, the men who had defended the city from the oncoming Confederates in a score of desperate battles. Their commanders and many of their lesser officers were well known to every Washingtonian.

Not a few politicians and generals hoped the Easterners would shame Sherman’s marauders with the precision of their marching and the magnificence of their uniforms. The first impression tended to fulfill this expectation. ‘The swaying of their bodies and the swinging of their arms were as measured as the vibrations of a pendulum,” wrote one eyewitness. “Their muskets shone like a wall of steel.”

Uniforms were spotless, shoes gleamed, and every man gripped his musket with a white-gloved hand. They came down the avenue in formation, twelve men to a file, while two elaborate bands, each the size of a symphony orchestra, played “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home,” “Tramp Tramp Tramp, the Boys Are Marching,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”