June 21, 1864 (Tuesday)
“I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg,” wrote General Grant the night previous from his headquarters at City Point, “so as to have the left of the Army of the Potomac rest on the Appomattox above the city. This would string the army in a ring around the city, stretching from Appomattox to Appomattox. It wouldn’t quite be a full envelopment, but the seeds were planted, and it seemed like an achievable reality. The largest share of this date was spent in preparation.
The main of the thrust would come from Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, with Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps as support. Their objective, apart from the river itself, was the Weldon Railroad, running just before it.
As the soldiers of the two corps filed into the positions, they saw before them nothing but open spaces. But what might come the following day was anybody’s guess.
They were not merely idle – not all of them. A division was cast forward into the open spaces west of the Jerusalem Plank Road. As skirmishers and almost coyly they crouched forward, a mixed array of infantry and cavalry. They came at once against the Rebels, cavalry to a man, who put up a stout fight until the Union artillery spoke up, and they retired. Not yet to the railroad, and only then as reconnaissance, they were ordered back.
While General Meade finalized the minutia, General Grant stood at the wharf to welcome a white river-steamer delivering President Lincoln. Grant’s staff officer, Horace Porter remembered the meeting:
As the boat neared the shore, the general and several of us who were with him at the time walked down to the wharf, in order that the general-in-chief might meet his distinguished visitor and extend a greeting to him as soon as the boat made the landing. As our party
stepped aboard, the President came down from the upper deck, where he had been standing, to the aftergangway, and reaching out his long, angular arm, he wrung General Grant’s hand vigorously, and held it in his for some time, while he uttered in rapid words his congratulations and expressions of appreciation of the great task which had been accomplished since he and the general had parted in Washington. The group then went into the after-cabin.
General Grant said: “I hope you are very well, Mr. President.”
“Yes, I am in very good health,” Mr. Lincoln replied; “but I don’t feel very comfortable after my trip last night on the bay. It was rough, and I was considerably shaken up. My stomach has not yet entirely recovered from the effects.”
An officer of the party now saw that an opportunity had arisen to make this scene the supreme moment of his life, in giving him a chance to soothe the digestive organs of the Chief Magistrate of the nation. He said: “Try a glass of champagne, Mr. President. That is always a certain cure for seasickness.”
Mr. Lincoln looked at him for a moment, his face lighting up with a smile, and then remarked: “No, my friend; I have seen too many fellows seasick ashore from drinking that very stuff.” This was a knockdown for the officer, and in the laugh at his expense Mr. Lincoln and the general both joined heartily.
Lincoln was here, in part, to visit the troops, and Grant offered him his horse, Cincinnati, while the general rode another named Jeff Davis. “Like most men who had been brought up in the West,” continued Porter, “he had good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged that in appearance he was not a very dashing rider. On this occasion, by the time he had reached the troops he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. As he had no straps, his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.”
After visiting with the white regiments, Grant suggested they visit the black troops of the Eighteenth Corps. Lincoln was excited over the prospect, remembering that he had opposed the very idea of giving any black man a gun and a uniform. Now proven wrong, he wished to see for himself these very men.
Porter once more continued:
They beheld for the first time the liberator of their race — the man who by a stroke of his pen had struck the shackles from the limbs of their fellow-bondmen and proclaimed liberty to the enslaved. Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits. They cheered, laughed, cried, sang hymns of praise, and shouted in their negro dialect, “God bress Massa Linkum!” “De Lord save Fader Abraham!” “De day ob jubilee am come, shuah.”
They crowded about him and fondled his horse; some of them kissed his hands, while others ran off crying in triumph to their comrades that they had touched his clothes. The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.
Later that night, Lincoln stayed up with Grant and his staff, generally having a fine time, telling stories and cracking wise. It ran late into the night, but when it finally broke up, Horace Porter returned to his tent only to find that President Lincoln was following. He wished to see how the officers were quartered.
Porter, naturally, invited him, and Lincoln’s eyes immediately on a short length of chain used in the artillery lying on a desk. An inventor had dropped it off the day previous and Porter was giving it a once over.
“Why, what’s that?” asked the president.
“That is a trace,” came Porter’s reply.
“Oh,” remarked Mr. Lincoln, “that recalls what the poet wrote: ‘Sorrow had fled, but left her traces there.”1
- Sources: Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]