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The Big Parade
Once the South was beaten, Eastern and Western troops of the Union army resented each other so violently that some feared for the survival of the victorious government. Then the tension disappeared in one happy stroke that gave the United States its grandest pageant—and General Sherman the proudest moment of his life.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
This was something less than the truth. The Army of the Tennessee had not done any parading for the better part of a year. Uneasily aware that his wild men might disgrace themselves, Sherman nevertheless went to work. That night he summoned his top officers to a conference on the next day’s march. “Be careful about your intervals and your tactics,” he said. “I will give plenty of time to go to the Capitol and see everything afterward, but let them keep their eyes fifteen feet to the front and march by in the old customary way.”
Maj. Gen. William Hazen, thinking he was pleasing Sherman, asked his help to get the men of the XV Corps to cut their hair. Sherman refused, telling Hazen he wanted the spectators to see the army as it had looked on the march through the South. Nevertheless, many generals with friends in the commissary department managed to get some new uniforms to issue to their men. They also ordered those who were in rags to be barred from the parade. But a New York World reporter noted that still left plenty of bare feet.
Precisely at 9:00 A.M. the Army of the Tennessee rounded the corner of the Capitol and headed down Pennsylvania Avenue. The weather was not quite as warm as the day before. As for the spectators, their numbers had, if anything, grown. The New York Times man ruefully estimated them at two hundred thousand, glumly noting that “thousands left the city after the first day but their places were taken by newcomers.”
The pundits and politicians were finding out that however much they might deprecate Sherman and his soldiers, to the public they were the supermen who had somehow marched undefeated and unsupplied through the heart of the South. The Army of the Potomac had earned their affectionate admiration. But the Army of the Tennessee had an aura that virtually compelled people to come see it.
Sherman rode at the head of the column, wreaths of roses around his horse’s neck. His old slouch hat was in his hand, and his red hair glistened in the bright sun. Behind him came the plowboys from Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan. They took furtive, astonished glances at the signs arched over the avenue: HAIL TO THE WESTERN HEROES. HAIL, CHAMPIONS OF SHILOH, VICKSBURG, CHATTANOOGA, ATLANTA. SAVANNAH, PRIDE OF THE NATION .
The Westerners marched with a rolling, springy [stride, perhaps two to four inches longer than that of the men of the East. They were “nothing but bone and muscle and skin under their tattered battle-flags,” said Brie. Gen. Carl Schurz, who had marched with them. Another man thought they marched “like the lords of the world.” The New York Tribune reporter believed their faces were “more intelligent, selfreliant and determined” than those of the Army of the Potomac. The New York World ’s man found them “hardier, knottier, weirder.”
Within minutes the Westerners had won their last victory. The spectators went wild. Sobbing women held up babies; others simultaneously praised God and wept. Thousands of white handkerchiefs waved from the sidelines. Rooftops, windows, even the trees were full of cheering civilians.
For some regiments the excitement was almost unbearable. Wild cheers burst from their throats. Hearing those yells, Sherman rode in an agony of uncertainty. He could not break his own order and look back. He could only pray his legions had not become the undisciplined mob that the Army of the Potomac considered them. Finally, as his bay horse mounted the slope before the Treasury Building, Uncle Billy could stand the suspense no longer. They were only minutes from the presidential reviewing stand. He whirled in his saddle as he reached the crest of the rise.
What he saw made that “the happiest and most satisfactory moment” of his life. Every man was obeying the order to keep his eyes rigidly to the front. They all were marching to the same beat. “The column was compact,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and the glittering muskets looked like a solid mass of steel, moving with the regularity of a pendulum.”
The cheering spectators realized the men’s aura of invincibility came from something intangible.
As Sherman passed the presidential reviewing stand, he raised his sword in salute. The New York World reporter said the acclamation was “without precedent.” Every man, woman, and child in the crowd shouted his lungs out “as if he had been the personal friend of each and every one of them.… Sherman was the idol of the day.” This was the same man newspapers had called a traitor only ten days before.
Behind Sherman his massed bands burst into “Marching through Georgia.” Flowers poured down like raindrops from the roofs and trees, until the street was ankle-deep in blossoms. As the XV Corps passed the reviewing stand, the officers shouted an order. They whipped off their hats and bellowed a cheer for the President. But their eyes remained locked to the front.