Porter, David Dixon, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, New York: Appleton and Company, 1885. pp. 292-318
The night before Richmond was evacuated by the Confederate forces we were sitting on the Malvern’s upper deck, enjoying the evening air. The President, who had been some time quiet, turned to me and said, “Can’t the navy do something at this particular moment to make history?”
“Not much,” I replied; “the navy is doing its best just now holding in utter uselessness the rebel navy, consisting of four heavy ironclads. If those should get down to City Point they would commit great havoc—as they came near doing while I was away at Fort Fisher. In consequence, we filled up the river with stones so that no vessels can pass either way. It enables us to ‘hold the fort’ with a very small force, but quite sufficient to prevent any one from removing the obstructions. Therefore the rebels’ ironclads are useless to them.”
“But can’t we make a noise?” asked the President; “that would be refreshing.”
“Yes,” I replied, “we can make a noise; and, if you desire it, I will commence.”
“Well, make a noise,” he said.
I sent a telegram to Captain Breese, just above Dutch Gap, to commence firing the starboard broadside guns of the vessels above, to have the guns loaded with shrapnel, and to fire in the direction of the forts without attempting any particular aim, to fire rapidly, and to keep it up until I told him to stop. The firing commenced about nine o’clock, the hour when all good soldiers and sailors turn in and take their rest.
The President admitted that the noise was a very respectable one, and listened to it attentively, while the rapid flashes of the guns lit up the whole horizon.
In about twenty minutes there was a loud explosion which shook the vessel.
The President jumped from his chair. “I hope to Heaven one of them has not blown up!” he exclaimed.
“No, sir,” I replied. “My ear detects that the sound was at least two miles farther up the river ; it is one of the rebel ironclads. You will hear another in a minute.”
“Well,” he said, “our noise has done some good; that’s a cheap way of getting rid of ironclads. I am certain Richmond is being evacuated, and that Lee has surrendered, or those fellows would not blow up their ironclads.”
Just then there was a second explosion, and two more followed close after.
“That is all of them,” I said; “no doubt the forts are all evacuated, and to-morrow we can go up to Richmond. I will telegraph to Captain Breese to take the obstructions up to-night, or at least enough of them to let the Malvern go through.”
The telegram was sent, and the work of moving the obstructions commenced at once. It was completed by eight o’clock the following morning, and several of the smaller vessels went through, got their boats out, and began sweeping the river for torpedoes.
At daylight it was discovered that all the forts had been set on fire and evacuated, and nothing was to be seen of the ironclads but their black hulls partly out of water.
General Weitzel, who commanded the army on the left of the James, was marching into Richmond, and the whole tragedy was over.
“Thank God,” said the President, fervently, “that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.”
“If there is any of it left,” I added. “There is a black smoke over the city, but before we can go up we must remove all the torpedoes; the river is full of them above Hewlit’s Battery.” It would have been simple destruction to attempt to go up there while the Confederates were in charge, and we could not have accomplished anything without a loss of life and vessels that would have been unjustifiable; it was better as it was, and the only course was to co-operate with the general of the army according to his own desire.
When the channel was reported clear of torpedoes (a large number of which were taken up), I proceeded up to Richmond in the Malvern, with President Lincoln on board the River Queen, and a heavy feeling of responsibility on my mind, notwithstanding the great care that had been taken to clear the river.
Every vessel that got through the obstructions wished to be the first one up, and pushed ahead with all steam; but they grounded, one after another, the Malvern passing them all, until she also took the ground. Not to be delayed, I took the President in my barge, and, with a tug ahead with a file of marines on board, we continued on up to the city.
There was a large bridge across the James about a mile below the landing, and under this a party in a small steamer were caught and held by the current, with no prospect of release without assistance. These people begged me to extricate them from their perilous position, so I ordered the tug to cast off and help them, leaving us in the barge to go on alone.
Here we were in a solitary boat, after having set out with a number of vessels flying flags at every mast-head, hoping to enter the conquered capital in a manner befitting the rank of the President of the United States, with a further intention of firing a national salute in honor of the happy result.
I remember the President’s remarks on the occasion. “Admiral, this brings to my mind a fellow who once came to me to ask for an appointment as minister abroad. Finding he could not get that, he came down to some more modest position. Finally he asked to be made a tide-waiter. When he saw he could not get that, he asked me for an old pair of trousers. But it is well to be humble.”
The tug never caught up with us. She got jammed in the bridge, and remained there that tide.
I had never been to Richmond before by that route, and did not know where the landing was; neither did the coxswain, nor any of the barge’s crew. We pulled on, hoping to see some one of whom we could inquire, but no one was in sight.
The street along the river-front was as deserted as if this had been a city of the dead. The troops had been in possession some hours, but not a soldier was to be seen.
The current was now rushing past us over and among rocks, on one of which we finally stuck.
“Send for Colonel Bailey,” said the President; “he will get you out of this.”
“No, sir, we don’t want Colonel Bailey this time. I can manage it.” So I backed out and pointed for the nearest landing.
There was a small house on this landing, and behind it were some twelve negroes digging with spades. The leader of them was an old man sixty years of age. He raised himself to an upright position as we landed, and put his hands up to his eyes. Then he dropped his spade and sprang forward. “Bress de Lord,” he said, “dere is de great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s bin in my heart fo’ long yeahs, an’ he’s cum at las’ to free his chillun from deir bondage! Glory, Hallelujah!” And he fell upon his knees before the President and kissed his feet. The others followed his example, and in a minute Mr. Lincoln was surrounded by these people, who had treasured up the recollection of him caught from a photograph, and had looked up to him for four years as the one who was to lead them out of captivity.
It was a touching sight—that aged negro kneeling at the feet of the tall, gaunt-looking man who seemed in himself to be bearing all the grief of the nation, and whose sad face seemed to say, “I suffer for you all, but will do all I can to help you.”
Mr. Lincoln looked down on the poor creatures at his feet; he was much embarrassed at his position. “Don’t kneel to me,” he said. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument; but you may rest assured that as long as I live no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”
His face was lit up with a divine look as he uttered these words. Though not a handsome man, and ungainly in his person, yet in his enthusiasm he seemed the personification of manly beauty, and that sad face of his looked down in kindness upon these ignorant blacks with a grace that could not be excelled. He really seemed of another world.
All this scene was of brief duration, but, though a simple and humble affair, it impressed me more than anything of the kind I ever witnessed. What a fine picture that would have made—Mr. Lincoln landing from a ship-of-war’s boat, an aged negro on his knees at his feet, and a dozen more trying to reach him to kiss the hem of his garments! In the foreground should be the shackles he had broken when he issued his proclamation giving liberty to the slave.
Twenty years have passed since that event; it is almost too new in history to make a great impression, but the time will come when it will loom up as one of the greatest of man’s achievements, and the name of Abraham Lincoln—who of his own will struck the shackles from the limbs of four millions of people—will be honored thousands of years from now as man’s name was never honored before.
It was a minute or two before I could get the negroes to rise and leave the President. The scene was so touching I hated to disturb it, yet we could not stay there all day; we had to move on; so I requested the patriarch to withdraw from about the President with his companions and let us pass on.
“Yes, Massa,” said the old man, “but after bein’ so many years in de desert widout water, it’s mighty pleasant to be lookin’ at las’ on our spring of life. ‘Scuse us, sir; we means no disrespec’ to Mass’ Lincoln; we means all love and gratitude.” And then, joining hands together in a ring, the negroes sang the following hymn with melodious and touching voices only possessed by the negroes of the South:
“Oh, all ye people clap your hands,
And with triumphant voices sing;
No force the mighty power withstands
Of God, the universal King.”
The President and all of us listened respectfully while the hymn was being sung. Four minutes at most had passed away since we first landed at a point where, as far as the eye could reach, the streets were entirely deserted, but now what a different scene appeared as that hymn went forth from the negroes’ lips! The streets seemed to be suddenly alive with the colored race. They seemed to spring from the earth. They came, tumbling and shouting, from over the hills and from the water-side, where no one was seen as we had passed.
The crowd immediately became very oppressive. We needed our marines to keep them off.
I ordered twelve of the boat’s crew to fix bayonets to their rifles and to surround the President, all of which was quickly done; but the crowd poured in so fearfully that I thought we all stood a chance of being crushed to death.
I now realized the imprudence of landing without a large body of marines; and yet this seemed to me, after all, the fittest way for Mr. Lincoln to come among the people he had redeemed from bondage.
What an ovation he had, to be sure, from those so-called ignorant beings! They all had their souls in their eyes, and I don’t think I ever looked upon a scene where there were so many passionately happy faces.
While some were rushing forward to try and touch the man they had talked of and dreamed of for four long years, others stood off a little way and looked on in awe and wonder. Others turned somersaults, and many yelled for joy. Half of them acted as though demented, and could find no way of testifying their delight.
They had been made to believe that they never would gain their liberty, and here they were brought face to face with it when least expected. It was as a beautiful toy unexpectedly given to a child after months of hopeless longing on its part; it was such joy as never kills, but animates the dullest class of humanity.
But we could not stay there all day looking at this happy mass of people; the crowds and their yells were increasing, and in a short time we would be unable to move at all. The negroes, in their ecstasy, could not be made to understand that they were detaining the President; they looked upon him as belonging to them, and that he had come to put the crowning act to the great work he had commenced. They would not feel they were free in reality until they heard it from his own lips.
At length he spoke. He could not move for the mass of people —he had to do something.
“My poor friends,” he said, “you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it; it will come to you no more. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years. But you must try to deserve this priceless boon. Let the world see that you merit it, and are able to maintain it by your good works. Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them; obey God’s commandments and thank him for giving you liberty, for to him you owe all things. There, now, let me pass on; I have but little time to spare. I want to see the capital, and must return at once to Washington to secure to you that liberty which you seem to prize so highly.”
The crowd shouted and screeched as if they would split the firmament, though while the President was speaking you might have heard a pin drop. I don’t think any one could do justice to that scene; it would be necessary to photograph it to understand it.
One could not help wondering where all this black mass of humanity came from, or if they were all the goods and chattels of those white people who had for four years set the armies of the Republic at defiance; who had made these people work on their defenses and carry their loads, the only reward for which was the stronger riveting of the chains which kept them in subjection.
At length we were able to move on, the crowd opening for us with shouts. I got the twelve seamen with fixed bayonets around the President to keep him from being crushed. It never struck me that there was any one in that multitude who would injure him; it seemed to me that he had an army of supporters there who could and would defend him against all the world.
But likely there were scowling eyes not far off; men were perhaps looking on, with hatred in their hearts, who were even then seeking an opportunity to slay him.
Our progress was very slow; we did not move a mile an hour, and the crowd was still increasing.
Many poor whites joined the throng, and sent up their shouts with the rest. We were nearly half an hour getting from abreast of Libby Prison to the edge of the city. The President stopped a moment to look on the horrid bastile where so many Union soldiers had dragged out a dreadful existence, and were subjected to all the cruelty the minds of brutal jailers could devise.
“We will pull it down,” cried the crowd, seeing where his look fell.
“No,” he said, “leave it as a monument.”
He did not say a monument to what, but he meant, I am sure, to leave it as a monument to the loyalty of our soldiers, who would bear all the horrors of Libby sooner than desert their flag and cause.
We struggled on, the great crowd preceding us, and an equally dense crowd of blacks following on behind—all so packed together that some of them frequently sang out in pain.
It was not a model style for the President of the United States to enter the capital of a conquered country, yet there was a moral in it all which had more effect than if he had come surrounded with great armies and heralded by the booming of cannon.
He came, armed with the majesty of the law, to put his seal to the act which had been established by the bayonets of the Union soldiers—the establishment of peace and good-will between the North and the South, and liberty to all mankind who dwell upon our shores.
We forced our way onward slowly, and, as we reached the edge of the city, the sidewalks were lined on both sides of the streets with black and white alike—all looking with curious, eager faces at the man who held their destiny in his hand; but there was no anger in any one’s face; the whole was like a gala day, and it looked as if the President was some expected guest who had come to receive great honors. Indeed, no man was ever accorded a greater ovation than was extended to him, be it from warm hearts or from simple ceremony.
It was a warm day, and the streets were dusty, owing to the immense gathering which covered every part of them, kicking up the dirt. The atmosphere was suffocating, but Mr. Lincoln could be seen plainly by every man, woman, and child, towering head and shoulders above that crowd; he overtopped every man there. He carried his hat in his hand, fanning his face, from which the perspiration was pouring. He looked as if he would have given his Presidency for a glass of water—I would have given my commission for half that.
Now came another phase in the procession. As we entered the city every window flew up, from ground to roof, and every one was filled with eager, peering faces, which turned one to another and seemed to ask, “Is this large man, with soft eyes and kind, benevolent face, the one who has been held up to us as the incarnation of wickedness, the destroyer of the South?” I think that illusion vanished, if it was ever harbored by any one there. I don’t know what there was to amuse them in looking on the scene before them, but certainly I never saw a merrier crowd in my life, black or white.
We were brought to a halt by the dense jam before we had gone a square into the city, which was still on fire near the Tredegar Works and in the structures thereabout, and the smoke, setting our way, almost choked us.
I had not seen a soldier whom I could send to General Weitzel to ask for an escort, and it would have been useless to send one of the contrabands, for he would have been too much interested in seeing the sights and in looking at the President, from whom none of them took their eyes. I don’t think any one noticed the rest of the party.
I think the people could not have had a gala day since the Confederates occupied Richmond as headquarters. Judging from present appearances, they certainly were not grieving over the loss of the Government which had just fled.
There was nothing like taunt or defiance in the faces of those who were gazing from the windows or craning their necks from the sidewalks to catch a view of the President. The look of every one was that of eager curiosity—nothing more.
While we were stopped for a moment by the crowd, a white man in his shirt-sleeves rushed from the sidewalk toward the President. His looks were so eager that I questioned his friendship, and prepared to receive him on the point of my sword; but when he got within ten feet of us he suddenly stopped short, took off his hat, and cried out, “Abraham Lincoln, God bless you! You are the poor man’s friend!” Then he tried to force his way to the President to shake hands with him. He would not take “No” for an answer until I had to treat him rather roughly, when he stood off, with his arms folded, and looked intently after us. The last I saw of him he was throwing his hat into the air.
Just after this a beautiful girl came from the sidewalk, with a large bouquet of roses in her hand, and advanced, struggling through the crowd toward the President. The mass of people endeavored to open to let her pass, but she had a hard time in reaching him. Her clothes were very much disarranged -in making the journey across the street.
I reached out and helped her within the circle of the sailors’ bayonets, where, although nearly stifled with the dust, she gracefully presented her bouquet to the President and made a neat little speech, while he held her hand. The beauty and youth of the girl —for she was only about seventeen—made the presentation very touching.
There was a card on the bouquet with these simple words: “From Eva to the Liberator of the slaves.” She remained no longer than to deliver her present; then two of the sailors were sent to escort her back to the sidewalk. There was no cheering at this, nor yet was any disapprobation shown; but it was evidently a matter of great interest, for the girl was surrounded and plied with questions.
I asked myself what all this could mean but that the people of Richmond were glad to see the end of the strife and the advent of a milder form of government than that which had just departed in such an ignoble manner. They felt that the late Government, instead of decamping with the gold of the Confederacy, should have remained at the capital, and surrendered in a dignified manner, making terms for the citizens of the place, guarding their rights, and acknowledging that they had lost the game. There was nothing to be ashamed of in such a surrender to a vastly superior force; their armies had fought as people never fought before. “They had robbed the cradle and the grave “ to sustain themselves, and all that was wanted to make them glorious was the submission of the leaders, with the troops, in a dignified way, while they might have said, “We have done our best to win, but you have justice on your side, and are too strong for us; we pledge ourselves to keep the peace.”
Instead of remaining to protect the citizens against ruffianism, the Confederate authorities of Richmond left that to our troops, and I will say no soldiers ever performed a trust more faithfully. At the moment of which I speak the majority of them were engaged in putting out the fires that were started as the enemy left the town, determined, it seemed, to destroy all the public works, so that we could derive no benefit from them. They would have been about as useful to us as the old “hay-ricks” which encumbered the navy list at the end of the war.
At length I got hold of a cavalryman. He was sitting his horse near the sidewalk, blocked in by the people, and looking on with the same expression of interest as the others.
He was the only soldier I had seen since we landed, showing that the general commanding the Union forces had no desire to interfere, in any case, with the comfort of the citizens. There was only guard enough posted about the streets to protect property and to prevent irregularities.
“Go to the general,” I said to the trooper, “and tell him to send a military escort here to guard the President and get him through this crowd!”
“Is that old Abe?” asked the soldier, his eyes as large as saucers. The sight of the President was as strange to him as to the inhabitants; but off he went as fast as the crowd would allow him, and, some twenty minutes later, I heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs over the stones as a troop of cavalry came galloping and clearing the street, which they did, however, as mildly as if for a parade.
For the first time since starting from the landing we were able to walk along uninterruptedly. In a short time we reached the mansion of Mr. Davis, President of the Confederacy, occupied after the evacuation as the headquarters of Generals Weitzel and Shepley. It was quite a small affair compared with the White House, and modest in all its appointments, showing that while President Davis was engaged heart and soul in endeavoring to effect the division of the States, he was not, at least, surrounding himself with regal style, but was living in a modest, comfortable way, like any other citizen.
Amid all his surroundings the refined taste of his wife was apparent, and marked everything about the apartments.
There was great cheering going on. Hundreds of civilians—I don’t know who they were—assembled at the front of the house to welcome Mr. Lincoln.
General Shepley made a speech and gave us a lunch, after which we entered a carriage and visited the State-House—the late seat of the Confederate Congress. It was in dreadful disorder, betokening a sudden and unexpected flight; members’ tables were upset, bales of Confederate scrip were lying about the floor, and many official documents of some value were scattered about. It was strange to me that they had not set fire to the building before they departed, to bury in oblivion every record that might remain relating to the events of the past four years.
After this inspection I urged the President to go on board the Malvern. I began to feel more heavily the responsibility resting upon me through the care of his person. The evening was approaching, and we were in a carriage open on all sides. He was glad to go; he was tired out, and wanted the quiet of the flag-ship.
We took leave of our hosts and departed.
I was oppressed with uneasiness until we got on board and stood on deck with the President safe; then there was not a happier man anywhere than myself.
I determined that the President should go nowhere again, while under my charge, unless I was with him and had a guard of marines. I thought of the risks we had run that day, and I was satisfied before night was over that I had good cause for apprehension.
We were all sitting on the upper deck about eight o’clock that evening, when a man came down to the landing and hailed the Malvern (the vessel had come-to off the city during the day), saying that he had dispatches for the President. I told the captain to send a boat to the shore to bring off the dispatches, but not to bring the bearer. The boat returned with neither dispatches nor man. The boat-officer said the man would not deliver the dispatches to any one but the President himself.
“Let him come on board,” said the President.
“Don’t you think we should be careful whom we admit after dark, sir ?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” he replied; “but these dispatches may be from General Grant, and the man may be only obeying his orders literally.”
I ordered the boat to go back and bring the man on board, determined to stand near the President when the dispatches were delivered.
I knew that General Grant would send dispatches only by an officer, and the midshipman in the boat told me this was not one.
When the boat returned to the shore the man was gone. As I suspected, he was a bogus dispatch-bearer. The circumstance was very suspicious.
I inquired about the appearance of the person when seen by the officer of the boat.
“He was a tall man with a black moustache, wore a slouch hat and a long cloak, a regular theatrical villain—one of the stereotyped play robbers.”
That man was, without doubt, Wilkes Booth, who sought the President’s life. It would have suited Booth’s tragical spirit to slay him on such an occasion; it would have added greatly to the scenic effect.
In the course of a half-hour another hail came from the shore, from which we lay not more than twenty yards. A person wanted a boat; a sailor from the Saugus wanted to report himself on board. There was no such vessel in the fleet, though there was one in the navy. I sent an officer and four men in the boat to bring the man off, not to let him escape, and, when in the boat, to put hand-irons on him. Then I swept the shore with a night-glass, but could see no one. The boat landed a minute later. There was no man to be seen. The boat’s crew ran up and down the river and looked over the bank, but no one could be found.
These two circumstances made me more suspicious, and every care was taken that no one should get on board without full identification.
The President himself felt a little unpleasant and nervous, and that night a marine kept guard at his state-room door.
Next morning, at ten o’clock, Mr. John A. Campbell, late Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States sent a request to be allowed to come on board with General Weitzel. He wanted to call on the President. He came on board and spent an hour. The President and himself seemed to be enjoying themselves very much, to judge from their laughter.
I did not go down to the cabin. In about an hour General Weitzel and Mr. Campbell came on deck, asked for a boat, and were landed.
I went down below for a moment, and the President said: “Admiral, I am sorry you were not here when Mr. Campbell was on board. He has gone on shore happy. I gave him a written permission to allow the State Legislature to convene in the Capitol in the absence of all other government.”
I was rather astonished at this piece of information. I felt that this course would bring about complications, and wondered how it had all come to pass. I found it had all been done by the persuasive tongue of Mr. Campbell, who had promised the President that if the Legislature of Virginia could meet in the halls of the Confederate Congress it would vote Virginia right back into the Union; that it would be a delicate compliment paid to Virginia which would be appreciated, etc.
Weitzel backed up Mr. Campbell, and the President was won over to agree to what would have been a most humiliating thing if it had been accomplished.
When the President told me all that had been done, and that General Weitzel had gone on shore with an order in his pocket to let the Legislature meet, I merely said: “Mr. President, I suppose you remember that this city is under military jurisdiction, and that no courts, Legislature, or civil authority can exercise any power without the sanction of the general commanding the army. This order of yours should go through General Grant, who would inform you that Richmond was under martial law; and I am sure he would protest against this arrangement of Mr. Campbell’s.”
The President’s common sense took in the situation at once. “Why,” he said, “Weitzel made no objection, and he commands here.”
“That is because he is Mr. Campbell’s particular friend, and wished to gratify him; besides, I don’t think he knows much about anything but soldiering. General Shepley would not have preferred such a request.”
“Run and stop them,” exclaimed the President, “and get my order back! Well, I came near knocking all the fat into the fire, didn’t I?”
To make things sure, I had an order written to General Weitzel and signed by the President as follows: “Return my permission to the Legislature of Virginia to meet, and don’t allow it to meet at all.” There was an ambulance-wagon at the landing, and, giving the order to an officer, I said to him, “Jump into that wagon, and kill the horse if necessary, but catch the carriage which carried General Weitzel and Mr. Campbell, and deliver this order to the general.”
The carriage was caught after it reached the city. The old wagon horse had been a trotter in his day, and went his- three minutes. The general and Mr. Campbell were surprised. The President’s order was sent back, and they never returned to try and reverse the decision.
Mr. Campbell evidently saw that his scheme of trying to put the State Legislature in session with the sanction of the President had failed, and that it was useless to try it again. It was a clever dodge to soothe the wounded feelings of the South, and no doubt was kindly meant by the late Justice Campbell, but what a howl it would have raised at the North! Mr. Campbell had been gone about an hour when we had another remarkable scene. A man appeared at the landing, dressed in gray homespun, of a somewhat decayed appearance, and with a staff about six feet long in his hand. It was, in fact, nothing more than a stick taken from a wood-pile. It was about two inches in diameter, and was not even smoothed at the knots. It was just such a weapon as a man would pick up to kill a mad dog with.
“Who are you, and what do you want ?” asked the officer of the deck. “You can not come on board unless you have important business.”
“I am Duff Green,” said the man. “I want to see Abraham Lincoln, and my business concerns myself alone. You tell Abraham Lincoln Duff Green wants to see him.”
The officer came down into the cabin and delivered the message. I arose and said, “I will go up and send him away,” but the President interposed.
“Let him come on board,” he said; “Duff is an old friend of mine, and I would like to talk to him.”
I then went on deck to have a boat sent for him and to see what kind of a man this was who sent off such arrogant messages to the President of the United States. He stepped into the boat as if it belonged to him; instead of sitting down he stood up, leaning on his long staff. When he came over the side he stood on the deck defiantly, looked up at the flag and scowled, and then, turning to me, whom he knew very well, he said, “I want to see Abraham Lincoln.” He paid no courtesy to me or to the quarter deck.
It had been a very long time since he had shaved or cut his hair, and he might have come under the head “unkempt and not canny.”
“When you come in a respectful manner,” I said, “the President will see you; but throw away that cord of wood you have in your hand before entering the President’s presence.”
“How long is it,” he said, “since Abraham Lincoln took to aping royalty? Man, clothed in brief authority, cuts such fantastic capers before high heaven as make the angels weep. I can expect airs from a naval officer, but I don’t expect them in a man with Abraham Lincoln’s horse sense.”
I thought the man crazy, and think so still. “I can’t permit you to see the President,” I said, “until I receive further instructions; but you can’t see him at all until you throw that wood-pile overboard.”
He turned on his heel and tried to throw the stick on shore, but it fell short, and went floating down with the current.
“Ah,” he said, “has it come to that? Is he afraid of assassination? Tyrants generally get into that condition.”
I went down and reported this queer customer to the President, and told him I thought the man insane; but he said, “Let him come down; he always was a little queer. I sha’n’t mind him.”
Mr. Duff Green was shown into the cabin.
The President got up from his chair to receive him, and, approaching, offered him his hand.
“No,” said Green, with a tragic air, “it is red with blood; I can’t touch it. When I knew it, it was an honest hand. It has cut the throats of thousands of my people, and their blood, which now lies soaking into the ground, cries aloud to Heaven for vengeance. I came to see you, not for old remembrance’ sake, but to give you a piece of my opinion. You won’t like it, but I don’t care, for people don’t generally like to have the truth told them. You have come here, protected by your army and navy, to gloat over the ruin and desolation you have caused. You are a second Nero, and, had you lived in his day, you would have fiddled while Home was burning!”
When the fanatic commenced this tirade of abuse Mr. Lincoln was standing with his hand outstretched, his mouth wreathed with the pleasant smile it almost always wore, and his eyes lighted up as when anything pleased him. He was pleased because about to meet an old and esteemed friend, and better pleased that this friend had come to see him of his own accord.
The outstretched hand was gradually withdrawn as Duff Green started on his talk, the smile left the President’s lips as the talker got to the middle of his harangue, and the softness of his eyes faded out. He was another man altogether.
Had any one closed his eyes after Duff Green commenced speaking, and opened them when he stopped, he would have seen a perfect transformation. The hearer’s slouchy manner had disappeared, his mouth was compressed, his eyes were fixed, even his stature appeared increased.
Duff Green went on without noticing the change in the President’s manner and appearance. “You came here,” he continued, ‘to triumph over a poor, conquered town, with only women and children in it; whose soldiers have left it, and would rather starve than see your hateful presence here; those soldiers—and only a handful at that—who have for four years defied your paid mercenaries on those glorious hills, and have taught you to respect the rights of the South. You have given your best blood to conquer them, and now you will march back to your demoralized capital and lay out your wits to win them over so that you can hold this Government in perpetuity. Shame on you! Shame on—”
Mr. Lincoln could stand it no longer; his coarse hair stood on end, and his nostrils dilated like those of an excited race-horse. He stretched out his long right arm, and extended his lean forefinger until it almost touched Duff Green’s face. He made one step forward, to place himself as near as possible to this vituperator, and in a clear, cutting voice addressed him. He was really graceful while he spoke—with the grace of one expressing his honest convictions.
“Stop, you political tramp,” he exclaimed, “you, the aider and abettor of those who have brought all this ruin upon your country, without the courage to risk your person in defense of the principles you profess to espouse! A fellow who stood by to gather up the loaves and fishes, if any should fall to you! A man who had no principles in the North, and took none South with him! A political hyena who robbed the graves of the dead, and adopted their language as his own! You talk of the North cutting the throats of the Southern people. You have all cut your own throats, and, unfortunately, have cut many of those of the North. Miserable impostor, vile intruder! Go, before I forget myself and the high position I hold! Go, I tell you, and don’t desecrate this national vessel another minute!” And he made a step toward him.
This was something Duff Green had not calculated upon; he had never seen Abraham Lincoln in anger. His courage failed him, and he turned and fled out of the cabin and up the cabin-stairs as if the avenging angel was after him. He never stopped till he reached the gangway, and there he stood, looking at the shore, seemingly measuring the distance, to see if he could swim to the landing.
I was close behind him, and when I got on deck I said to the officer in charge, “Put that man on shore, and if he appears in sight of this vessel while we are here, have him sent away with scant ceremony.”
He was as humble at that moment as a whipped dog, and hurried into the boat when ordered.
The last I saw of him he was striding rapidly over the fields, as if to reach the shelter of the woods. When I returned to the cabin, about fifteen minutes later, the President was perfectly calm—as if nothing had happened—and did not revert to the subject for some hours.
“This place seems to give you annoyance, sir,” I said. “Would you prefer to get under way and go to City Point, where we are more among friends than here?”
“Yes,” he answered, “let us go. I seem to be ‘putting my foot into it’ here all the time. Bless my soul, how Seward would have preached, and read Puffendorf, Vattel, and Grotius to me, if he had been here when I gave Campbell permission to let the Legislature meet! I’d never have heard the last of it. Seward is a small compendium of international law himself, and laughs at my ‘horse sense,’ which I pride myself on, and yet I put my foot into that thing about Campbell with my eyes wide open. If I were you, I don’t think I would repeat that joke yet awhile. People might laugh at you for knowing so much, and more than the President! I am afraid that the most of my learning lies in my heart more than in my head.”
We got under way and steamed down the river. While we had been up at Richmond the gun-boat people had completed the removal of the torpedoes from the river-bed and laid them all out on the banks, where they looked like so many queer fish basking in the sun, of all sizes and shapes.
The President had originally proposed to come up on horseback, but I told him that “there was not a particle of danger from torpedoes; that I would have them all taken up.” When he saw them all on the bank he turned to me and said, “You must have been ‘awful afraid’ of getting on that sergeant’s old horse again to risk all this.” We got down safe, however; there was not enough danger to make it interesting. The President had some quaint remarks about everything we saw, particularly about Dutch Gap, which, he said, “ought to have been commenced before the war— at least ten years. Then,” he said, “you might have had a chance of getting your gun-boats up that way. By the way, your friend the general wasn’t a ‘boss’ engineer. He was better at running cotton-mills. How many people did it cost for that jetty?” he asked.
“One hundred and forty killed there as far as I can learn,” I answered.
Then he went into a discussion of the generals of the war—what difficulties he had in making appointments, etc. He illustrated each case with a story. In speaking of one general, he said it reminded him of a friend of his—a blacksmith—he knew out in the West when he was a boatman.
This old friend was celebrated for making good work, especially axes, which were in great demand at that day. No boatman had a complete outfit unless he had a good axe.
“One day he said to me, ‘Lincoln, I have the finest piece of steel you ever saw; I got it on purpose to make an axe for you, and if you will sit down and tell me a good story you shall have the axe when it is finished.’ ‘Go ahead,’ I said, and I sat down to tell the story while he made the axe.
“My friend the blacksmith first put on a huge piece of fresh coal, and blew it up until it was at a proper heat—the coals glowing; he took up the piece of steel and looked at it affectionately, patted it all over, then, ‘Lincoln,’ he said, ‘did you ever see a piece of steel equal to that? It’ll make you a companion you will never want to part with, and when you are using it you will think of me.’ Then he put it into the fire, and began to work his bellows while I commenced my story.
“He blew and blew until the steel was at a deep-red heat, when, taking it out of the fire and laying it on the anvil, he gave it a clip with a four-pound hammer. Lord bless you, how the sparks flew, and the big red scales also! The blacksmith hit it about a dozen blows and then stopped. ‘Lincoln,’ he said, ‘here’s a go, and a bad one too. This lump of steel ain’t worth the powder that would blow it up. I never was so deceived in anything in all my life. It won’t make an axe. But I’ll tell you what it will make. It will make a clevis,’ and he put it in the fire again and went through the same performance as before. Then, when it was heated, he laid it on the anvil and commenced to hammer it. The sparks flew, and so did the scales, and in a minute half of it was gone. The blacksmith stopped and scratched his head, as men often do under difficulties. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘this certainly is an onery piece of steel, but it may get better nearer the heart of it . I can’t make a clevis of it, but it will make a clevis-bolt. It may have some good in it yet. After all, a good clevis-bolt is not a bad thing.’
“He put it into the fire again, and this time got it to a white heat. ‘I think I have it now, Lincoln,’ and he pounded away at it until I was almost blinded with scales.
“‘This won’t do,’ he said. ‘I certainly don’t know my trade to allow a thing like that to fool me so. Well, well, it won’t make a clevis-bolt, but I have one resort yet; it will make a tenpenny nail. Yon will have to wait for your axe,’ and he put the metal into the fire again.
“This time he didn’t blow it; he let it get red-hot naturally, and when it was as he wanted it, he put it on the anvil again.
“‘This,’ he said, ‘is a sure thing. I am down to the heart of the piece. There must be a ten-penny nail in this.’ But he was mistaken; there was only a small piece of wire left. He was actually dazed.
“‘Durn the thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to make of it. I tried it as an axe, it failed me. Then it failed me as a clevis. It failed me as a clevis-bolt, and the cussed thing wouldn’t even make a ten-penny nail!’
“‘But I’ll tell you, old fellow, what it will make,’ and he put it into the fire again until it and the tongs were at white heat. Then, turning around, he rammed it into a bucket of water. ‘There, durn you, you’ll make a big fizzle, and that’s all you will make!’ and it sputtered and fizzed until it went out, and there was nothing of it left.
“Now that’s the case with the person I was speaking of,” continued the President. “I tried him as an axe. I tried him as a clevis. He was so full of shakes he wouldn’t work into one. I tried him as a clevis-bolt. He was a dead failure, and he wouldn’t make even a ten-penny nail. But he did make the biggest fizzle that has been made this war, and fizzled himself out of the army.
“‘With a shocking bad name,
And his credit at zero,
He was contented to stay
At home as a hero!’“
We anchored a short time afterward, and were glad to be looking on the quiet wharves at City Point.
That evening the sailors and marines were sent out to guard and escort in some prisoners, numbering about a thousand, more or less, who were placed on board a large transport lying in the stream.
The President expressing a desire to go on shore, I ordered the barge and went with him.
We had to pass the transport with the ^prisoners; they all rushed to the side with eager curiosity; all wanted to see the Northern President.
They seemed perfectly content; every man had a hunk of meat and a piece of bread in his hand, and was doing his best to dispose of it.
“That’s old Abe,” said one of them. “Give the old fellow three cheers,” said another; while a third called out, “Halloo, Abe, your bread and meat’s better than pop-corn.”
This was all good-natured and kindly. I could see no difference between them and our own men, except that they were ragged and attenuated from want of wholesome food. They were as happy a set of men as I ever saw; they could see their homes looming up before them in the distance, and knew the war was over.
“They will never shoulder a musket again in anger,” said the President, “and if Grant is wise he will leave them their guns to shoot crows with, and their horses to plow with; it would do no harm.”
GENERAL SHERMAN ARRIVES AT GOLDSBORO’—SHERMAN CALLS ON THE PRESIDENT—COUNCIL ON BOARD THE RIVER QUEEN— PRESIDENT LINCOLN’S KIND INTENTIONS TOWARD THE CONFEDERATE ARMIES—LET THEM HAVE THEIR HORSES TO PLOW WITH, AND THEIR MUSKETS TO SHOOT CROWS WITH—”THERE ARE NO SOUTHERN RAILROADS; MY BUMMERS HAVE TAKEN THEM ALL UP”—WHY SUCH A HOWL AT THE NORTH—LEE SURRENDERS—THE PRESIDENT RETURNS TO WASHINGTON—SEND OFFICERS WITH HIM TO PROTECT HIS PERSON—HIS DEATH—THERE LIES THE BEST MAN I EVER KNEW.
I Must now go back a little.
While General Grant was preparing to march and surround General Lee at Richmond, Sherman was coming rapidly with all his veterans toward Goldsboro’, North Carolina, which place he reached on the 21st of March, 1865. There he effected a junction with the forces of Generals Schofield and Terry, which had come up from Wilmington. This combination gave Sherman an effective force of at least eighty thousand men.
When Sherman arrived at Goldsboro’ his army was literally without clothes and very short of provisions. It was necessary that they should be supplied at once, and it was so important that he should see General Grant and ascertain the exact position that he determined to come to City Point. The President also desired to see him at that place, and I think General Grant sent him a communication to that effect.
Leaving General Schofield in command of the army, Sherman took the small steamer Russia from Morehead City and proceeded in her to City Point, arriving on March 27th. He was received on board the River Queen by the President with that warmth of feeling which always distinguished him when meeting any of the brave men who had devoted their lives to crushing out the great Rebellion.
General Sherman spent a long time with the President, explaining to him the situation in his department, which was very encouraging.
At this moment Sherman’s army was holding General Joe Johnston’s forces in North Carolina in a position from which he could not move without precipitating a battle with some eighty thousand of the best troops in our army. It was thought at that time that Johnston would endeavor to make a junction with General Lee at Richmond, which, in the light of subsequent events, would have been an impossibility. Again, it was thought that Lee would attempt to escape from Richmond and try to effect a junction with Johnston. Quite as impossible as the other move, for at that moment Sheridan was pushing his cavalry across the James River from North to South, and with this cavalry intended to extend his left below Petersburg so as to meet the South Shore road, and, if Lee should leave his fortified lines, Grant would fall on his rear and follow him so closely that he could not possibly fall on Sherman’s army in North Carolina, besides which Sherman felt confident that with his eighty thousand men he could hold his own against Johnston and Lee combined until Grant came up with the Army of the James.
The morning after Sherman’s arrival the President held a council on board the River Queen, composed of General Grant, General Sherman, and myself, and, as considerable controversy was caused by the terms of surrender granted to General Joe Johnston, I will mention here the conversation which took place during this meeting in the River Queen’s cabin.
I made it a rule during the war to write down at night before retiring to rest what had occurred during each day, and I was particularly careful in doing so in this instance.
At this meeting Mr. Lincoln and General Sherman were the speakers, and the former declared his opinions at length before Sherman answered him. The President feared that Lee—seeing our lines closing about him, the coast completely blockaded, his troops almost destitute of clothing and short of provisions—might make an attempt to break away from the fortified works at Richmond, make a junction with General Joe Johnston, and escape South or tight a last bloody battle.
Any one looking at the situation of the armies at that time will see that such an attempt would not have been possible.
Sherman had eighty thousand fine troops at Goldsboro’, only one hundred and fifty miles from Richmond and one hundred and twenty miles from Greensborough, which latter place cut the Richmond and Danville Railroad, the only one by which Lee could escape.
The President’s mind was made easy on this score, yet it was remarkable how many shrewd questions he asked on the subject, and how difficult some of them were to answer. He stated his views in regard to what he desired; he felt sure, as did every one at that council, that the end of the war was near at hand; and, though some thought a bloody battle was impending, all thought that Richmond would fall in less than a week.
He wanted the surrender of the Confederate armies, and desired that the most liberal terms should be granted them. “Let them once surrender,” he said, “and reach their homes, they won’t take up arms again. Let them all go, officers and all. I want submission, and no more bloodshed. Lot them have their horses to plow with, and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with. I want no one punished ; treat them liberally all round. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws. Again I say, give them the most liberal and honorable terms.”
“But, Mr. President,” said Sherman, “I can dictate my own terms to General Johnston. All I want is two weeks’ time to fit out my men with shoes and clothes, and I will be ready to march upon Johnston and compel him to surrender; he is short of clothing, and in two weeks he would have no provisions at all.”
“And,” added the President, “two weeks is an age, and the first thing you will know General Johnston will be off South again with those hardy troops of his, and will keep the war going indefinitely. No, General, he must not get away; we must have his surrender at all hazards, so don’t be hard on him about terms. Yea, he will get away if he can, and you will never catch him until after miles of travel and many bloody battles.”
“Mr. President,” said Sherman, “there is no possible way of General Johnston’s escaping; he is my property as he is now situated, and I can demand an unconditional surrender; he can’t escape.”
“What is to prevent him from escaping with all his army by the Southern railroads while you are fitting out your men ?” asked Grant.
“Because,” answered Sherman, “there are no Southern railroads to speak of; my bummers have broken up the roads in sections all behind us—and they did it well.”
“But,” said Grant, “can’t they relay the rails, the same as you did the other day, from Newbern and Wilmington to Goldsboro’?”
Sherman laughed. “Why, no,” he said, “my boys don’t do things by halves. When they tore up the rails they put them over hot fires made from the ties, and then twisted them more crooked than a ram’s horn. All the blacksmiths in the South could not straighten them out.”
“Mr. President,” said Sherman, turning to Mr. Lincoln, “the Confederacy has gone up, or will go up. We hold all the line between Wilmington and Goldsboro’, where my troops aro now fitting out from the transports. My transports can come up the Neuse River as far as Newbern. Wo could flood the South with troops and provisions without hindrance. We hold the situation, and General Johnston can surrender to me on my own terms.”
“All very well,” said the President, “but we must have no mistakes, and my way is a sure way. Offer Johnston the same terms that will be offered to Lee; then, if he is defiant, and will not accept them, try your plan. But as long as the Confederate armies lay down their arms, I don’t think it matters much how it is done. Only don’t let us have any more bloodshed if it can be avoided. General Grant is for giving Lee the most favorable terms.”
To this General Grant assented.
“Well, Mr. President,” said Sherman, “I will carry out your wishes to the letter, and I am quite satisfied that, as soon as Richmond falls, Joe Johnston will surrender also.”
Sherman, at the end of that council, supposed he was acting under instructions, which he carried out, so far as I can understand it, pretty much as the President desired.
The council over, and the President being desirous that General Sherman should return to his command as soon as possible, the latter determined to return that afternoon by sea.
I gave him the naval steamer Bat to take him back again to his post—a vessel that could make sixteen knots an hour—and he was soon at his headquarters.
I shall never forget that council which met on board the River Queen. On the determinations adopted there depended peace, or a continuation of the war with its attendant horrors. That council has been illustrated in a fine painting by Mr. Healy, the artist, who, in casting about for the subject of an historical picture, hit upon this interview, which really was an occasion upon which depended whether or not the war would be continued a year longer. A single false step might have prolonged it indefinitely.
Even at the last, when the Confederates were known to be in most straitened circumstances—without food and clothing for their troops or forage for their animals, short at the same time of ammunition, without which their armies were useless—they had powerful forces in and about Richmond, which, if once united with General Johnston’s army, would have made a most formidable array. Eighty thousand men, handled by such men as General Lee and General Johnston, would have been a hard army to beat. We had had so many proofs during the war of the ability of those generals and soldiers to hold their own against superior numbers, that we knew very well what they could and would do when driven to desperation.
Though seemingly brought to the end of their tether, they were still able to fight one more bloody battle—so bloody that it would have brought sorrow to the hearthstones of very many thousands, North and South.
Mr. Lincoln saw all this; he often talked to me about it, and when he came to City Point it was with the intention to bring about a peace, even if he had to waive some point to the Confederate generals.
The kindness of his intentions was shown when he agreed to the late Justice Campbell’s proposition to allow the Virginia Legislature to convene in the State-House at Richmond, as related in the last chapter.
Another proof of Mr. Lincoln’s determination to bring about peace was that he would not permit any member of his Cabinet to join him at City Point.
Mr. Seward telegraphed several times to the President for an invitation to visit him at that place, with other members of the Cabinet; but Mr. Lincoln, on each and every occasion, positively declined to have them come there. He had his own views, and determined to carry them out, unhampered by the opinions of his advisers.
General Grant and the President were in perfect accord in all matters relating to the surrender of the Confederate forces ; for, while the latter had the most implicit faith in General Grant’s ability as a leader of armies, he had also great confidence in his good judgment and humane feelings.
Grant’s most generous treatment of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, after its surrender, satisfied the President that he would be equally generous to Generals Lee and Johnston. I am quite sure that General Grant shared the convictions of the President, that we should deal with the Confederates in the most generous manner and thereby bring about a lasting peace.
I was present almost always at the interviews between the President and General Grant, and, though the former did most of the talking, General Grant agreed with him in his views of the situation.
Thus it was that Sherman, after his interview with the President on board the River Queen, became impressed with the hitter’s desire to terminate hostilities without further Woodshed, and that the most liberal terms should be conceded to his opponents.
Why it was that such a howl was sent up at the North when General Sherman entered into an agreement with General Johnston I don’t know, especially as that agreement was to be submitted to the Government for confirmation.
There are points in those terms of capitulation which, it seems to me, should only have been decided upon by the Government itself, which, it will be perceived, is what General Sherman intended in the agreement drawn up between him and General Johnston. He had been so impressed with the President’s views of concluding a peace that he desired only to carry out—after his death—what he supposed to be his policy, and which, if living, he felt certain Mr. Lincoln would have approved.
At least he would have considered it, and would not have “rejected it with the disdain” exhibited by the new President, Andrew Johnson, through his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
It seemed to be the policy of the Secretary of War to lose no opportunity to throw a stone at those who had made themselves prominent in the Rebellion. Even if Sherman had made a mistake, his great services entitled him to better treatment than he received at the hands of Mr. Stanton.
How deeply he felt this treatment was shown when he arrived in Washington with his troops, and was invited upon the platform whence the President and his Cabinet were reviewing them. He deliberately refused to take Stanton’s hand when the secretary stepped forward to greet him.
It is now twenty years since the interesting events referred to took place; most of the actors in those scenes have gone to their final resting places. The passions which animated men in high places have died out, but Grant and Sherman still live, and are gratefully remembered by their countrymen for the invaluable services they rendered during the most trying times of the Republic’s existence.
After the surrender of General Lee, the President, being satisfied that everything would be settled according to his wishes, determined to go to Washington, and I was only too glad to have him go. I had a strong feeling that something would happen to him if he remained longer at City Point. I was so anxious about him that I obtained his permission to send an officer up with him, who was never to leave his side. For this purpose I detailed Lieutenant-Commander John Barnes (the commander of the Bat) to go on board the River Queen, and never to leave the President’s side, even at meals. If I remember rightly, I also sent two ensigns, who were to keep watch over his state-room at night. Directions were given to have the River Queen thoroughly searched before she started, to see if there were any strange men on board, and to arrest and confine any strangers who might be found on the vessel during the passage up. In fact, no precaution was omitted that would insure the President against violence.
The Bat, as already stated, was a very fast vessel. I directed Lieutenant-Commander Barnes to have her run close alongside the River Queen all the way up to Washington, and to have her ready to render assistance in case of necessity. I had not forgotten how the Greyhound had burned up, and how near we had all come to being badly burned, or having to swim for it.
Barnes was further ordered to be armed at all times, night and day, and to hold his position of guard to the President until he landed him safe in the White House.
This duty was performed most effectually and agreeably to the President, who felt very much pleased to have Barnes about him, and made him sit near him at all his meals