The Big Parade

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For the Westerners, saluting a new President was the hardest part of the march. A boy from the 12th Wisconsin said: “We couldn’t look at the reviewing stand.” Had Lincoln been there, he added, “our line would have broken up.”

Sherman swung his horse into the White House grounds, dismounted, and joined the dignitaries on the reviewing stand. He embraced his wife and son for the first time in eighteen months and shook hands with his father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, and with President Johnson and General Grant. Next in line was Secretary of War Stanton, who gamely put out his hand. An eyewitness said Sherman’s face turned scarlet and his red hair all but stood on end. He ignored the outstretched hand. “I declined it publicly,” he wrote with grim satisfaction, “and the fact was universally noticed.” Then he sat down to watch his men.

The Army of the Tennessee continued its triumphant progress along Pennsylvania Avenue. Not only the rolling stride and the resolute frontward gaze hypnotized the spectators; equally interesting were the accouterments the men had carried with them through the South. The New York World ’s reporter was intrigued by the signalmen carrying sixteen-foot staffs with mysterious flags like “talismanic banners.” Behind almost every company was a captured horse or mule loaded with cooking utensils, captured chickens, and an occasional pig on a rope. Here was the explanation of how they had marched through Georgia unsupplied except, in Grant’s words, by “sweet potatoes sprung up from the ground.”

Behind each division came living evidence of why they fought, proof that the war had been, as Lincoln had hoped, “a new birth of freedom.” A pioneer corps of black men marched in double ranks, with picks, staves, and axes slung across their brawny shoulders. Behind them came six horse-drawn ambulances for each division, their bloodstained stretchers strapped to their sides. At the sight of them the cheers died away and a hush fell on the nearest spectators.

To complete the unorthodox aura, riding sidesaddle beside the ambulances was the angel of the army, sunbonneted Mother Mary Anne Bickerdyke. More than once she had taken on Sherman himself to demand better food and more medicine for the wounded.

On the reviewing stand, as the first divisions passed, the German ambassador reportedly said, “An army like that could whip all Europe.” A half-hour later he gasped, “An army like that could whip the world.” An hour later: “An army like that could whip the devil.”

For seven and a half hours the men of the West strode down Pennsylvania Avenue on those sinewy young legs that had carried them farther than most armies had marched in the history of warfare. In the end the cheering spectators realized the aura of invincibility came from something invisible, intangible, something profoundly connected to the idea of freedom. Lincoln had summoned these grandsons of the pioneers from the nation’s heartland to settle the ancient issue between the founding sections. More than one spectator sensed it was the martyred President himself in his Western prime they saw striding past them on May 24, 1865.

Within a month this exotic host—and its less glamorous brothers in the Army of the Potomac—had vanished like its creator, “melted back,” in the words of one newspaperman, “into the heart of the people from whence it came.”