The Big Parade


At the head of the column rode the army’s commander, Major General Meade, the hero of Gettysburg. Cheers rang out, and people pushed forward to deck garlands around the neck of his horse. Meade, known to his men as the Old Snapping Turtle, managed a frosty smile. He had had the difficult task of commanding this great army in the shadow of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was its real director in the convulsive, costly battles of 1864 that had loosened Robert E. Lee’s grip on Richmond.

Although Meade was hailed with affection, the crowd was baffled by Grant’s absence. Where was the Quiet Man? Why wasn’t he at the head of the column?

On the reviewing stand Sherman turned red, ignored Stanton’s outstretched hand, and sat down.

Grant had solved a difficult political problem in his usual unassuming, almost offhand way. Theoretically he could have led both armies. He was the commander in chief of both, and he had commanded in the battles that broke the Confederacy in the West in 1863. Instead, he decided to let Meade and Sherman have the cheers. In the same simple uniform he had worn in the field, without a trace of gold braid, he had slipped through the White House grounds and taken his place on the presidential reviewing stand without the slightest fanfare.

After General Meade and his staff came the cavalry. Spectators searched for another hero, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, but in vain; he was on the Rio Grande warning the emperor Maximilian and his French backers to get out of Mexico. Even so, there was more than enough cavalry to satisfy the most fanatic devotee—no less than seven miles of it. The numbers testified to Little Phil’s contribution to the war—the idea that cavalry could and should operate independently as a strike force capable of tearing up the enemy’s rear and destroying his cavalry in head-on battle. It took the horsemen a full hour to pass any given point in the line of march.

In Sheridan’s absence, the star of the men on horseback was the twenty-five-year-old Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. A New York World reporter noted his “sunrise of golden hair which ripples down upon his blue shoulders.” Ignoring regulations as usual, Custer wore a crimson necktie and buckskin breeches. As he neared the reviewing stand in front of the White House, a woman rushed out of the crowd and threw a wreath of flowers to him. He lunged forward to catch it, and his horse bolted—or seemed to. Custer’s hat blew off, and he went hurtling past the reviewing stand, hair streaming out a foot behind him “like the charge of a Sioux chieftain.”

After the cavalry came some of the more colorful regiments of the Army of the Potomac: Zouaves in gaudy blue and red, Irish outfits with sprigs of green in their hats. Then came the artillery, the arm that had made the crucial difference for the Easterners in many of their struggles with Lee. The gunners sat stiffly on caissons behind their weapons.

For the spectators the most moving sight in the long line of march was the battle flags. Bullet-riddled, some of them bloodstained, many in shreds, they were the rallying points around which brave men had died on so many hard-fought fields. On this day they were hung with ribbons and garlands, and many people rushed into the street to press their lips against the torn folds.

It took seven hours for the Army of the Potomac to pass the reviewing stand. Everyone agreed the troops had given a splendid military performance. Even before the parade began, the reporter for The New York Times, which had been savagely critical of Sherman’s treaty with Johnston, assumed Meade’s men would win the popularity contest. He predicted thin crowds for the next day’s march. Most people would be “indifferent” about watching another column of men trudge past for seven or eight more hours in the hot sun.

Not everyone on the presidential reviewing stand admired the Army of the Potomac’s performance, however. William Tecumseh Sherman thought the Easterners marched poorly—too many “turned their eyes around like country gawks to look at the big people on the stand”—and he disparaged the “pampered and well-fed bands that are taught to play the latest operas.”

Sherman did not express this admittedly prejudiced opinion publicly. To Meade, who eventually joined him on the reviewing stand, Sherman apologized in advance for his “poor tatterdemalion corps.” Meade assured him that the people would make allowances, and the bandmaster offered to bring his two regiments of opera players back for the Westerners. Sherman politely declined. He would depend on his regimental bands because the men were more used to marching with them.