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A Rude Reception

February 2019

A tall stranger, told to keep out of the general’s tent, turns out to be Lincoln

Gen. Grant having decided to transfer his army to the James River, preparations began at once. . . . On Tuesday morning, June 14th, Warren crossed [the Chickahominy] at Long Bridge, with Hancock following him. Burnside and Wright crossed at Jones’ Bridge four miles below Long Bridge. The advance of the army reached the James before night, and commenced laying pontons immediately. The crossing was effected near Charles City Court House on the north side, and Fort Powhattan on the south side of the James.

Generals Grant and Meade broke camp near Cold Harbor at 3:00 P.M. , Sunday, June 12th, and settled for the night at Summit Station. At six o’clock both were in the saddle, on their way to James River. On Tuesday afternoon, June 14th, Grant telegraphed from Bermuda Landing to Secretary Stanton, that the army was then crossing the river below, and that our movement from Cold Harbor had been made with great celerity and without loss.

I remained at Charles City Court House, while Gen. Grant ran up by boat to Bermuda Landing for a conference with Gen. Butler. The view from the front of my tent was among the most imposing I ever witnessed. As soon as the work of laying ponton bridges commenced, all navigation temporarily stopped. Vessels and transports of every description, loaded with army supplies, cast anchor and floated idly on the placid bosom of the James so far downward as the eye could reach, and still they kept coming. Many hundreds accumulated while the army was crossing. The troops were thrown across as rapidly as they could be moved, day and night, till all were safely landed on the south side of the river. As fast as they crossed by organizations, they pushed onward towards Petersburg with the hope of assisting to capture that place before Gen. Lee could send troops for its defense.

[The attack on Petersburg on June 15 was bungled, and Confederate reinforcements, arriving just in time, repulsed subsequent attacks with heavy losses. So Grant settled down to a siege. His army was now posted east and south of Richmond, and, with a numerical superiority of almost two to one, he pushed his lines steadily westward, forcing Lee to extend his thinner lines, until the two armies faced one another along a thirty-five-mile front.]


Gen. Grant’s headquarters were established at City Point on the evening of June 15th and a few tents pitched for the officers. My own tent was under the umbrageous branches of a large mulberry tree which afforded protection from the blistering sunshine, until it had to be removed to conform to the general camp arrangement. By night of the 16th all was regularly laid out and adjusted. Headquarters proper were in the form of a parallelogram, with the two ends, and the north side closely filled with tents. The south side was open. The west end extended to the bluff bank of the Appomattox, perhaps fifty to sixty feet in height.

From the 17th to the 20th the James was covered with vessels and transports which had followed the army with supplies, and with them came swarms of civilians—employees of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions—sutlers—pretended volunteer nurses—and greedy sight-seers who managed to get there to gratify their morbid curiosity. They swarmed around the wharves, filled up the narrow avenues at the landing between the six-mule teams which stood there by the acre, plunged frantically across the road in front of your horse wherever you rode, plied everybody with ridiculous questions about “the military situation,” invaded the privacy of every tent, stood around every mess-table till invited to eat unless driven away, and wandered around at nearly all hours.

They congregated especially in the vicinity of headquarters, standing in rows just outside of the guardline, staring at Gen. Grant and staff, pointing out the different members of the latter to each other, and seizing upon every unfortunate darky belonging to headquarters who came within their reach, and asking all manner of impertinent questions: “Does Gen. Grant smoke? Where does he sleep and eat? Does he drink? Are you sure he is not a drinking man? Where’s his wife? What became of his son that was with him at Vicksburg? Which is Gen. Grant? What? Not that little man?” And so on by the hour. For several days headquarters resembled a menagerie.

On June 21st about one o’clock P.M. , a long, gaunt bony looking man with a queer admixture of the comical and the doleful in his countenance that reminded one of a professional undertaker cracking a dry joke, undertook to reach the general’s tent by scrambling through a hedge and coming in alone. He was stopped by a hostler and told to “keep out of here.” The man in black replied that he thought Gen. Grant would allow him inside. The guard finally called out: “No sanitary folks allowed inside.” • After some parleying the man was obliged to give his name, and said he was Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, seeking an interview with Gen. Grant! The guard saluted, and allowed him to pass. Grant recognized him as he stepped under the large “fly” in front of his tent, rose and shook hands with him cordially, and then introduced him to such members of the staff as were present and unacquainted.

• The reference is to personnel of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

It transpired that the President had just arrived on the City of Baltimore , and was accompanied by his son “Tad”; Asst. Sec. of the Navy, [Gustavus Vasa] Fox; Mr. Chadwick, proprietor of the Willard Hotel, as purveyor for the party; and the Marine Band. The conversation took a wide, free-and-easy range until dinner was announced. The President was duly seated, ate much as other mortals, managed to ring in three capital jokes during the meal, and kept everybody on the lookout for others, till the party rose.

He was naturally desirous of riding to the front, so at four o’clock horses were brought up. Mr. Lincoln was mounted on Grant’s thorough-bred “Cincinnatus,” the general on “Egypt,” and “Tad,” on Grant’s black pacing pony “Jeff Davis.” Accompanied by a large proportion of the staff, and a cavalry escort, the party rode to Gen. Wright’s headquarters, where Gen. Meade and staff met them. The location commanded as good a view of Petersburg as could then be had from our lines. Maps were examined, the position of the army explained, its future operations discussed, the steeples and spires of the city observed as well as the dust and smoke would allow, national airs were played by the bands, the enemy’s works on the opposite side of the Appomattox inspected, and after a stay of an hour and a half the party started on its return to headquarters.

On the way out many persons recognized Mr. Lincoln. The news soon spread, and on the return ride, the road was lined with weather-beaten veterans, anxious to catch a glimpse of “Old Abe.” One cavalry private had known him in Illinois. Mr. Lincoln shook him by the hand, as an old familiar acquaintance, to the infinite admiration of all bystanders.