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The Big Parade

June 2024
14min read

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.

When the Civil War sputtered out early in May 1865, there were two huge Union armies within a few days’ march of Washington, D.C. One was the Army of the Potomac, winner of the war in the East, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. The other was the Army of the Tennessee, or the Western Army, the men who had marched through Georgia to the sea, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. What to do with these two very different bodies of men was a problem that vexed politicians in Washington.

The sheer logistics of getting vast numbers of men off the payroll was problem enough. But Sherman’s Western Army was more than a problem; it was a threat. The men around the volatile Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suspected Sherman and his men of contemplating the overthrow of the federal government. Lincoln was dead, and Stanton was the de facto ruler of the country, as Andrew Johnson groped to comprehend the situation with the usual bewilderment of Vice-Presidents suddenly catapulted from superfluity to power. With furious intensity Stanton was prosecuting the band that had conspired with John Wilkes Booth in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Driven by political ambition and his own punitive instincts, Stanton was trying to convict the entire South of murder. The trial, conducted before a military tribunal at the Arsenal Penitentiary, added to the tension in the jittery capital.

The crowds cheered the army’s commander until the “old snapping turtle” managed a frosty smile.

Undoubtedly Stanton’s attitude toward Sherman was not improved by Sherman’s brother-in-law, the former Maj. Gen. Tom Ewing, who was defending three of the alleged Lincoln conspirators—Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Edward Spangler—and doing a very good job of it. But the larger reason for Stanton’s attitude was the treaty of peace Sherman had negotiated with Joseph Johnston, commander of one of the last Confederate armies in being.

Two weeks after Appomattox, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sherman had sat down with his fellow West Pointer and signed a document that endorsed the legitimacy of Southern state governments as soon as they took an oath of allegiance to the United States. It also guaranteed political rights to the ex-Rebels as well as “rights of person and property.” Sherman thought he was following Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation, but to vengeful minds he sounded as if he were reconstituting the Old South, complete with slavery. Stanton and the Radical Republicans were outraged—and frightened. Calling in reporters, Stanton accused Sherman of insubordination, stupidity, and treason. Headlines across the country echoed the Secretary’s condemnation.

Not too surprisingly, Sherman’s soldiers took a dim view of anyone who said such distressing things about “Uncle Billy.” In Raleigh they burned a collection of Northern newspapers someone had brought into the town. The implication was clear that they would just as cheerfully burn the newspaper offices. Some people in Washington had little difficulty imagining that these Westerners, who had denounced New England abolitionists and Southern ultras with equal fervor before the war, might decide to take charge of the country. They had just torn the South apart, and it was not completely illogical to imagine them doing the same thing to the East.

What to do? Someone, his name lost to history, came up with a brilliant idea. The government would give both armies a “grand review.” They would march separately, on successive days. It not only defused the political mine that was fizzling under the government’s feet—it turned out to be the greatest parade in American history.

But this happy result was by no means immediately apparent. The behavior of Sherman and his men as they marched toward Washington was not reassuring. When they camped outside Richmond, they were annoyed to discover that the Union general in charge of the Confederate capital, Henry Halleck, had issued orders barring them from the city, while Southerners were being permitted to go and come without so much as a pass. Tempers flared, fistfights and small riots erupted, and only with difficulty were the Westerners restrained from shooting up Army of the Potomac units guarding the routes into the Confederate capital.

When General Halleck, who was chief of staff and in theory the second-in-command of the entire Union army, invited Sherman to parade one of his army’s corps as a symbolic gesture through Richmond by way of testifying to their martial prowess, Sherman told him to go to hell. Sherman had found out that Halleck was siding with Stanton and had sent telegrams to Western subordinates, such as George Thomas in Nashville, telling them to disregard any and all orders from Sherman.

Sherman, “outraged beyond measure,” said only a direct order from the Union general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, would change his mind about parading through Richmond. Grant was doing everything in his power to contain the crisis. He had rushed to Raleigh and helped Sherman revise the surrender terms, ignoring an order from Stanton to relieve him from command. Grant now suggested it might be a good idea for Sherman to march his army through Richmond. It would give his troops a look at the city and remove the sting of Halleck’s refusal to let them in as tourists.

Sherman stiffly complied, first warning Halleck to stay out of sight, lest he be insulted by his angry cadres. The comments of the Army of the Potomac spectators were not complimentary. They sneered at “Sherman’s Greasers” and said they looked like Mexicans, “dark with pitchpine smoke.” For their part, the Westerners, having examined the city’s defenses, said they could have taken Richmond in a week. When they marched past Halleck’s headquarters, they expressed their opinion of him, Western style. One of them broke ranks, sauntered up to the immaculate sentry at the door, and shot a stream of tobacco juice all over his highly polished shoes.


The Westerners’ performance did not improve as they approached Washington. The first to arrive were a pair of bummers, loaded with loot, riding magnificent horses. Asked how they could be part of Sherman’s army, most of which was still departing from Richmond, they explained that they always made it their business to keep to the front. Roaring protests, they were thrown in the guardhouse. They were released when their comrades reached the city and undoubtedly joined those who crowded the capital’s saloons and demanded “three groans for the Secretary of War.”

The nervous War Department ordered the Westerners to camp on the southern side of the Potomac, hoping a river between the two armies would reduce the friction. They could not keep Sherman there, however. He stormed into the capital, but another talk with Grant and a conference with his brother, Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, calmed him down. Whether he could calm his soldiers was not so certain.

Officially, Washington, D.C., was still in mourning for the slain Lincoln. Many hotels and offices and private homes were draped in black. Nevertheless, the government launched an all-out effort to create a celebratory atmosphere. For five days before the march, teams of workers decked every public building with blue-and-white bunting. Arches of spring flowers soared above Pennsylvania Avenue.

In front of the White House sweating carpenters hammered together a covered pavilion, decorated with flags and flowers and evergreens. On the roof were scrolled the names of the great battles: Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh. Opposite this presidential reviewing stand was another covered platform for state governors, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices. Other stands for guests and Army and Navy officers, the press, and convalescent soldiers stretched along both sides of the broad street.

Enormous crowds surged into the capital from Maryland and more distant states. Henry Adams’s future wife was one of a group of young Massachusetts women who arrived to find every hotel and boardinghouse room in the city taken. They settled for a single attic room near Willard’s Hotel. The day before the review, they hired carriages and rode out to the camps of the various Eastern regiments, where we may be sure they were cordially entertained.

May twenty-third dawned oppressively hot and dry. Clouds of choking dust filled every street as chaises and carriages and wagons carried spectators to Pennsylvania Avenue. At nine o’clock a signal gun boomed, and the Army of the Potomac headed down the wide street. It was inevitable that they would be given the privilege of marching first. This was Washington’s own army, the men who had defended the city from the oncoming Confederates in a score of desperate battles. Their commanders and many of their lesser officers were well known to every Washingtonian.

Not a few politicians and generals hoped the Easterners would shame Sherman’s marauders with the precision of their marching and the magnificence of their uniforms. The first impression tended to fulfill this expectation. ‘The swaying of their bodies and the swinging of their arms were as measured as the vibrations of a pendulum,” wrote one eyewitness. “Their muskets shone like a wall of steel.”

Uniforms were spotless, shoes gleamed, and every man gripped his musket with a white-gloved hand. They came down the avenue in formation, twelve men to a file, while two elaborate bands, each the size of a symphony orchestra, played “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home,” “Tramp Tramp Tramp, the Boys Are Marching,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

At the head of the column rode the army’s commander, Major General Meade, the hero of Gettysburg. Cheers rang out, and people pushed forward to deck garlands around the neck of his horse. Meade, known to his men as the Old Snapping Turtle, managed a frosty smile. He had had the difficult task of commanding this great army in the shadow of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was its real director in the convulsive, costly battles of 1864 that had loosened Robert E. Lee’s grip on Richmond.

Although Meade was hailed with affection, the crowd was baffled by Grant’s absence. Where was the Quiet Man? Why wasn’t he at the head of the column?

On the reviewing stand Sherman turned red, ignored Stanton’s outstretched hand, and sat down.

Grant had solved a difficult political problem in his usual unassuming, almost offhand way. Theoretically he could have led both armies. He was the commander in chief of both, and he had commanded in the battles that broke the Confederacy in the West in 1863. Instead, he decided to let Meade and Sherman have the cheers. In the same simple uniform he had worn in the field, without a trace of gold braid, he had slipped through the White House grounds and taken his place on the presidential reviewing stand without the slightest fanfare.

After General Meade and his staff came the cavalry. Spectators searched for another hero, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, but in vain; he was on the Rio Grande warning the emperor Maximilian and his French backers to get out of Mexico. Even so, there was more than enough cavalry to satisfy the most fanatic devotee—no less than seven miles of it. The numbers testified to Little Phil’s contribution to the war—the idea that cavalry could and should operate independently as a strike force capable of tearing up the enemy’s rear and destroying his cavalry in head-on battle. It took the horsemen a full hour to pass any given point in the line of march.

In Sheridan’s absence, the star of the men on horseback was the twenty-five-year-old Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. A New York World reporter noted his “sunrise of golden hair which ripples down upon his blue shoulders.” Ignoring regulations as usual, Custer wore a crimson necktie and buckskin breeches. As he neared the reviewing stand in front of the White House, a woman rushed out of the crowd and threw a wreath of flowers to him. He lunged forward to catch it, and his horse bolted—or seemed to. Custer’s hat blew off, and he went hurtling past the reviewing stand, hair streaming out a foot behind him “like the charge of a Sioux chieftain.”

After the cavalry came some of the more colorful regiments of the Army of the Potomac: Zouaves in gaudy blue and red, Irish outfits with sprigs of green in their hats. Then came the artillery, the arm that had made the crucial difference for the Easterners in many of their struggles with Lee. The gunners sat stiffly on caissons behind their weapons.

For the spectators the most moving sight in the long line of march was the battle flags. Bullet-riddled, some of them bloodstained, many in shreds, they were the rallying points around which brave men had died on so many hard-fought fields. On this day they were hung with ribbons and garlands, and many people rushed into the street to press their lips against the torn folds.

It took seven hours for the Army of the Potomac to pass the reviewing stand. Everyone agreed the troops had given a splendid military performance. Even before the parade began, the reporter for The New York Times, which had been savagely critical of Sherman’s treaty with Johnston, assumed Meade’s men would win the popularity contest. He predicted thin crowds for the next day’s march. Most people would be “indifferent” about watching another column of men trudge past for seven or eight more hours in the hot sun.

Not everyone on the presidential reviewing stand admired the Army of the Potomac’s performance, however. William Tecumseh Sherman thought the Easterners marched poorly—too many “turned their eyes around like country gawks to look at the big people on the stand”—and he disparaged the “pampered and well-fed bands that are taught to play the latest operas.”

Sherman did not express this admittedly prejudiced opinion publicly. To Meade, who eventually joined him on the reviewing stand, Sherman apologized in advance for his “poor tatterdemalion corps.” Meade assured him that the people would make allowances, and the bandmaster offered to bring his two regiments of opera players back for the Westerners. Sherman politely declined. He would depend on his regimental bands because the men were more used to marching with them.

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.

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.”

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