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The Power Of A Woman
A persistent soldier’s wife induces Grant to save her husband from the firing squad
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
By the end of October, or middle of November, everything in front of Richmond also settled down in a monotonous procedure which showed that active hostilities in any extended sense were over for that year. Skirmishing along the lines; some demonstrations against exposed rebel positions, enlivened by an occasional iron-clad or gunboat collision on the James, occupied the fall and winter.
For my own convenience in passing the headquarter guard-line by day or night, I had my tent pitched squarely on it, so that the front door of the tent opened inside the line, and the back door outside. One bright forenoon on returning to my tent a woman with an infant in arms was sitting at the back door waiting to see me. She was deeply veiled, poorly dressed, and evidently in great distress. She wanted to see Gen. Grant. I directed her to the proper headquarter entrance, told her to send her name to Gen. Grant by one of the guards, and perhaps she would be admitted. She said she had been told to come to me, and to no one else. I questioned her as to her business with the general, her name, her residence, by what means she had reached the front at a time when so few women were given this permission, and especially as to who had sent her to me. To all this her only reply was that she wanted to see Gen. Grant, and that she could only hope to do this through my friendly mediation. She was downcast, tearful and importunate.
I spent considerable time in explaining the unreasonableness of such a request to me, tried to have her go away and send some acquaintance who could and would intercede for her. But all to no purpose. “Wanted to see Gen. Grant.” “Wanted to see Gen. Grant” was her continual refrain, interrupted only by fits of weeping. I next essayed some rougher talk—told her I could not have her sitting there all day—that I hoped she would not compel me to have her forcibly taken away by a file of soldiers, &c. But she would neither go, nor enter into explanations. Somewhat provoked I left for awhile, expecting she would leave when she found I was obdurate. On returning an hour afterwards she was still there. Her dumb grief mastered my resolutions. So bringing her through my tent to the inside of the guard line, I pointed out the Adjutant’s tent, and told her to ask for Col. Bowers.
Bowers tried to make her understand that Gen. Grant was too busy to give personal attention to business matters—that his staff officers attended to most of it—that if she did see Gen. Grant she would probably be sent back to him at once—begged of her to state her errand, and if possible he would attend to it promptly. To all this she had but the one answer, she “Wanted to see Gen. Grant.” Bowers finally gave up the attempt of getting information from her, and went about his office duties, after telling her that Gen. Grant had ridden away and would not return till night. His efforts to get her to leave had been as futile as mine.
At noon Bowers had provided her a good dinner. At three or four o’clock in the afternoon Grant returned. After a lunch he lighted a cigar and seated himself under his marquee for a smoke. Bowers pointed him out to the woman and said: “Madam, that is Gen. Grant.” I witnessed the performance, and asked him why he sent that woman to Gen. Grant? He replied: “To get rid of her myself.” His good humor was restored.
We soon learned that she was the wife of a federal soldier who had deserted to the enemy, been captured armed and in rebel uniform, had been court-martialed and sentenced to be shot; and was then at the front awaiting execution. She came to plead for his life. Gen. Grant spent an hour in trying to show her how impossible it was to grant her request. Desertion was an unpardonable military offense; but when it was aggravated by taking up arms in the enemy’s ranks, every civilized country in the world inflicted the death penalty. He expressed his sympathy for her, and urged her to return to her home and friends, and try to forget the man who had shown himself to be so unworthy of the affection and love of any good woman—that a man who could so far forget his wife, child and country, would never prove a good husband and father. She listened stolidly; but said over and over again that he had always been a good husband to her. She made no apologies for his conduct, but kept on repeating he had always been a good husband, and begging him to spare his life.
The General left her sitting at his tent door, strolled around headquarters awhile in silence, chewing and pulling at his cigar abstractedly, interviewed Bowers, and again endeavored to get her away from camp without violence. She absolutely refused to leave. Supper time came on, but there she sat. He then ordered a servant to provide her with a supper. By this time Grant was reduced to about the same extremity as Bowers and myself had been. He finally telegraphed Gen. Meade to review the court-martial proceedings and see if there were any technical informalities in them which would justify a review, or a commutation or suspension of sentence. Meade replied that he could find no errors or informalities of any kind. Grant then telegraphed to the President, and received full authority to do as he pleased in the matter. His next order was to Gen. Meade to send the man to his headquarters under guard. He arrived in an ambulance, strongly guarded, about daylight in the morning. The husband and wife were brought together. The former made no attempt to justify his conduct; but was greatly affected at meeting his wife under such circumstances. It was a total surprise to him, as he had not been informed of her presence, and broke him down completely.