A Medal Ceremony (March 11, 1865)

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

There will be time for fighting before the month is up, but for now the Army of the Potomac is functioning more like a social club—at least at the headquarters level. In today’s letter, Theodore Lyman details another such occasion, this time to give General Grant a medal for his capture of Vicksburg in 1863.  (David W. Lowe reports that the medal is now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) “Daddy” Washburn[e] is Grant’s political patron, Illinois congressman Eli Washburne. He had been with Grant at the start of the Overland Campaign—and Meade suspected that it had been Washburne who told reporter Edward Crapsey that Meade had wanted to retreat after the first day in the Wilderness. Lyman’s Harvard friend, Henry Abbott, had been mortally wounded in the Wildnerness while in command of the 20th Massachusetts.

From Grant we got a despatch that he would come up, with some ladies and gentlemen, to see our left and to review a few troops. The General rode down to the terminus of the railroad (which is not very far from Hatcher’s Run), and soon after came the train, with Grant and his party. Among them was our old friend Daddy Washburn, the same who came to the Rapid Ann, last May, to behold Grant swallow Lee at a mouthful, and—didn’t see it! Two divisions of the 2d Corps were turned out under the eye of the redoubtable Humphreys. They made a fine appearance, marching past; but I could have cried to see the Massachusetts 20th with only a hundred muskets or so, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis, whom I used to see at Culpeper with a lieutenant’s shoulderstraps. How changed from last spring, when they passed in review with full ranks, and led by Abbot! . . .

That evening we were invited to City Point, to see a medal given to General Grant. This medal had been voted by Congress in honor of him and his soldiers, after the battle and capture of Vicksburg. And you now see the rationale of the Hon. Washburn’s presence. He was to present it. The Corps commanders with a few aides, and some division commanders, were all the General took with him in the special train. We arrived about 8.30 p.m. and at 9 the ceremony began, in the upper saloon of the steamer Martyn, lying at the wharf. The solemnities were these: General Grant stood on one side of a small table, with an expression as if about to courageously have a large tooth out. On the other stood Washburn, with what seemed an ornamental cigar-box. Whereupon W., with few words, remarked that the Congress of the United States of Amerikay had resolved to present him a medal, and a copy of their resolutions engrossed on parchment. “General” (unrolling a scroll), “this is the copy of the resolutions, and I now hand it to you.” (Grant looked at the parchment, as much as to say, “That seems all right,” rolled it up, in a practical manner, and put it on the table.) “This, General” (opening the ornamental cigar-box, taking out a wooden bonbonniere and opening that), “is the medal, which I also hand to you, together with an autograph letter from President Lincoln.” The “all-right” expression repeated itself on Grant’s face, as he put down the bonbonniere beside the scroll. Then he looked very fixedly at Mr. Washburn and slowly drew a sheet of paper from his pocket. Everyone was hushed, and there then burst forth the following florid eloquence: “Sir! I accept the medal. I shall take an early opportunity of writing a proper reply to the President. I shall publish an order, containing these resolutions, to the troops that were under my command before Vicksburg.” As he stopped, Major Pell drew a long breath and said: “I thought we were sure of a speech this time, but now we never shall get one out of him.” The medal was of gold, three pounds in weight; on one side a bad likeness of Grant; on the reverse a goddess, in an impossible position, who, as General Meade remarked, “seemed to keep a general furnishing shop of guns and sabres.” “What is the meaning of the allegory?” he enquired of the Lieutenant-General. “I don’t know,” replied Grant, with entire simplicity, “I don’t know, but I am going to learn, so as to be able to explain it to people!” Then the distinguished militaries crowded round to gaze. Major-General Ord, who can’t get over his Irish blood, said: “I believe, sir, you are the first man who medalled with his battalion.” To which Grant, not taking the point in the faintest degree, replied gravely: “I don’t know but I was.” There was a heavy crowd of Hectors, I can tell you. Generals Meade, Warren, Wright, Parke, Humphreys, Ord, Gibbon, Ayres, Griffin, Rawlins, Ingalls, etc., etc. Very few ladies. After this a moderate collation, and so home to bed.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 318-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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