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A Lincoln Family Visit

June 2018

The President tells funny stories at camp until his angry wife sends Tad to fetch him

The months of January, February and March were devoid of much public interest till towards the close of the latter when a few exciting things took place. Generals Grant and Rawlins sent for their wives to spend a few weeks at City Point, and I thereupon sent for mine to visit me at the same time. They all arrived early in January, and passed an enjoyable time till a start was made on our final campaign against Gen. Lee the last of March. Mrs. Grant went on the headquarter boat, anchored in the river, and remained there a week or two longer. But having no gunboats or iron clads for my wife’s protection, I started her home the day before we broke camp at City Point.

During the last six months of the war, Mr. Lincoln and family made several short visits to City Point on a small steamboat, the River Queen , which he was in the habit of taking for such purposes. On one of these visits, their youngest son familiarly called “Tad,” came with them. The boat always anchored out in the river, and Mrs. Lincoln rarely came ashore. But the President, and “Tad,” landed in a tug regularly every morning, soon after breakfast.

Mr. Lincoln would go directly to the Adjutant’s Office to hear all the news from the front which had been received during the night; and would often have long conferences with Gen. Grant and others concerning prospective operations. When these subjects had been exhausted the chat would take another turn, and Mr. Lincoln’s propensity for story telling would be given free-play, and be encouraged to the utmost. His faculty in this way was absolutely marvelous. It has never been exaggerated, and never can be. He abounded in apt illustrations, and his stories were sidesplitting. He would occasionally join as heartily as any one else in the laughter his stories provoked; and enjoyed these seasons of relaxations in a way that was charming to all who were present.

Mrs. Lincoln seemed insanely jealous of every person, and everything, which drew him away from her and monopolized his attention for an hour. She would send “Tad” with a message to come to the boat, nearly every day. At one time “Tad” found his father enjoying himself in animated conversation, and a little oblivious it may have been to his wife’s message. “Tad” went back to the boat but soon returned with a more urgent command, which he kept repeating loud enough for all to hear. He finally burst out: “Come, come, come now, mama says you must come instantly.” Mr. Lincoln’s countenance fell from unconstrained good-humor and gayety, to the sober, careworn, lugubrious expression so common to him in those days. After a moment’s silence he rose, saying: “My God, will that woman never understand me”; and departed meekly, and sadly, convoyed by “Tad.”

On another occasion—the first one of her visits after Mrs. Grant’s arrival in January—Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Rawlins and Mrs. Cadwallader had a conference as to the propriety of their making a joint call on her aboard the River Queen anchored in the river. It was finally decided that as none of them had ever met her, and in view of the exalted opinions she was known to hold as to what was due to her as wife of the President of the United States, it might be better for Mrs. Grant to make her first call a very formal and semi-official one. She would go as the wife of the Lieut. Gen., and present her respects to the wife of the President. This would be a safe and warranted procedure, and the after presentation of the other two, should be left to Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes.

Mrs. Grant accordingly made what I suspect to have been as near a “state call,” as any in her life. She was received coldly, rather haughtily, and in a manner and spirit which convinced her that Mrs. Lincoln felt it a condescension to receive her. Mrs. Grant returned displeased. It was her first and only call on the Lady of the White House, so far as I ever knew. Mrs. Rawlins and Mrs. Cadwallader never ran the risk of being snubbed, and kept away.

January 31st, 1865, some stir was created at headquarters, which extended all over the north, by the arrival of a Peace Commission, under a flag of truce, consisting of Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Southern Confederacy; Judge [John A.] Campbell, Assistant Secretary of War; and R. M. T. Hunter, formerly United States Senator from Virginia, and then a member of the Confederate Senate. They arrived about night, and after a short interview with Gen. Grant, were quartered aboard the Mollie Martin , till the Washington authorities could be informed and orders received as to what should be done with them.

On the second of February they were sent to Fortress Monroe, when Mr. Lincoln and Secretary Seward met them unofficially, but nothing resulted from the conference except Mr. Lincoln’s declaration that the only terms of peace which the U.S. government would entertain for a moment, were: A recognition of the abolition of slavery by the Confederate government; an immediate laying down of its arms and cessation of hostilities; and a return to the Federal Union. These conditions the gentlemen were not prepared to accept, so they returned to Richmond in a few days.

Gen. Grant’s magnanimity at Appomattox Court House to Lee’s defeated, starving army, was foreshadowed at City Point by his treatment of these Peace Commissioners. They were given the best accommodations which could be provided; no guards were placed over them, or around them; no restraints prevented their wandering about as they pleased on shore through the day; no promises, nor paroles, of any kind, were exacted from them; and they came freely to the general’s headquarters every day for conversations and conferences.

March 27th, Gen. Sherman arrived at City Point for a conference with Gen. Grant, and found the President there also. His march from Atlanta to Savannah, and subsequent progress northward, had made him the favorite of the hour, and every one was glad to meet him. I cannot better describe his visit perhaps than I did to Mr. A. D. Richardson in the winter of 1867-8, for use in his Personal history of U. S. Grant, pages 455-7: “Several general officers met him at the wharf and escorted him to headquarters where many more awaited him. ‘How are you Grant?’ ‘How are you Sherman,’ with cheery smiles on the face of each, comprised about all formal salutations. Sherman said: ‘I didn’t expect to find all you fellows here. You don’t travel as fast as we do.’

“No time was spent in compliments. Sherman sat down in Grant’s stockade cabin with the general and his staff, and asked for a map. He was given to poring over maps. ... A large one was brought, and Sherman began to point out what he proposed to do. His plan was to bring his army up to Weldon, where it would be within supporting distance and could either join Grant, or go west to Burke’s Station to intercept Lee. When Sherman was through Grant said: ‘Well Sherman, I am going to move up to Dinwiddie on the 29th, and think that will force Lee out of his lines to give me battle there, which will be all I want; or so weaken his lines that I can attack him.’

“ ‘A big banter A big banter,’ said Sherman, ‘but we can make things perfectly sure.’

“ ‘Well,’ said Grant, ‘if we don’t succeed here, probably I can keep him from drawing back till you come up.’

“Sherman remained two days. Grant’s fear was that Lee might escape and join Johnston. He was anxious that the Army of the Potomac, which had fought so many battles for such slight compensations, should win a final triumph. To every suggestion from Sherman, or others, that the western army should be brought to cooperate in defeating Lee, he invariably replied, in substance as follows: ‘No. Some western men, or commands, would taunt this army with: “We had to come to your assistance before you could whip Lee, or end the war.” It will be better for the future peace of the country that the Army of the Potomac should finish the job.’ Mr. Lincoln, who at first favored Sherman’s joining Grant, was greatly impressed by the latter’s reasoning, and heartily approved it.”