March 8, 1864 (Tuesday)
It had been brewing for some time now. General Grant had been ordered to Washington on March 3rd, two days after the Senate reinstated the rank of Lieutenant-General. Rather than simply promiting him in the field, President Lincoln wanted to meet his new general, whose rank would hand him command of all the Federal armies.
Leaving the morning after his summons, it took four days to wander his way by rail from Nashville to Louisville, Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg to Baltimore, and finally to Washington. He traveled simply, taking with him the essentials, as well as “Baldy” Smith, and his son, Fred. Grant had promised Smith a position in the Army of the Potomac, and Fred, who had just recovered from a life-threatening illness.
When his small party arrived at the depot, not a soul was there to meet him. This was in stark contrast to the throngs who greeted him at every stop along the way. They made their way to Willard’s Hotel, staying in one of the cheap rooms up in the attic. At dinner, however, he was recognized and apparently descended upon. Frustrated and a little shy, he left before finishing his meal.
Rumor of Grant’s arrival spread quickly – with the help of the press, of course. Soon, a few of President Lincoln’s aides found the general and carted him off to the White House, where a reception was already under way.
Around 9:30pm, Grant made his appearance. As he made his awkward way through the crowd, the revelers were abuzz and soon the room was awash with cheering and salutations. Hearing the commotion, Lincoln knew it must be Grant, and found his way to the portico by following the huzzahs.
Lincoln immediately recognized Grant and eschewed the formal introductions, even though neither man had ever before met the other. The throngs parted, stepped back and fell to relative silence.
“This is General Grant, is it?” spoke Lincoln. “Yes it is,” came Grant’s reply. The two exchanged some polite pleasantries, before the call went out for Secretary of State William Seward, who had been part of the crowd, standing beside Mary Todd Lincoln and immediately behind Naval Secretary Gideon Welles.
Seward hurried over, took Grant by the hand, leading him over to Mrs. Lincoln for an introduction. From the First Lady, Grant was introduced to anyone who was anyone in Washington. Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, was told to find Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
With the formal introductions out of the way, Grant was taken by Seward to the East Room, where the assembled crowds hurled cheer after cheer upon the timid celebrity. In his diary, the overtly-proper Secretary Welles described the whole ordeal as “rowdy and unseemly.”
Grant was, by nature, a reserved fellow and awkward in social situations. Ignoring such reservations, the President ordered him to step atop a sofa for all to get a better look. No doubt holding back a sigh, Grant shuffled across the room and rose above the crowd. “The little, scared-looking man who stood on the crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour,” wrote one reporter. Another added that Grant “blushed like a schoolgirl.”
The crowd, now set free by their new hero upon a cushy stage, rushed close to shake hands with the general. For a full hour, this went on, taking much less time than that for Grant to grow incredibly weary of the reception.
Secretary Seward then returned with Stanton and, after introducing Grant to Gideon Welles, ushered him into the Blue Room, where Lincoln was waiting.
“Tomorrow,” said Lincoln, “at such time as you may arrange with the Secretary of War, I desire to make to you a formal presentation of your commission as Lieutenant-General.” Lincoln explained that he wanted Grant to make some sort of reply and highlighted two points he wanted him to address.
“First,” began the President, “to say something which shall prevent or obviate any jealousy of you from any of the other general in the service, and secondly, something which shall put you on as good terms as possible with this Army of the Potomac.” Though little had been expressed in this regard, when Grant asked him if he would be coming east to oversee General Meade’s Army, Lincoln admitted that it would probably happen. The meeting was set for 1pm the followin day.
Grant returned to the Willard late that night and began to compose his response to Lincoln’s questions. It would be typical Grant – brief, to the point, and unsuspectingly eloquent.1
- Sources: Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 8 by John George Nicolay and John Hay; Diary by Gideon Welles; With Lincoln in the White House by John Nicolay; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The True Abraham Lincoln by William Curtis; Grant by Jean Edward Smith. [↩]