The Grand Review

Detail of a photograph of the reviewing stand in front of the White House shows a number of VIPS, including (left to right) Ulysses S. Grant, the blurred figure of Edwiin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (as commander of the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan's absence, he sat next to the president as his corps passed), Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Postmaster William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quatermaster General Montgomery Meigs (Library of Congress).

Detail of a photograph of the reviewing stand in front of the White House shows a number of VIPs, including (left to right) Ulysses S. Grant, the blurred figure of Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (as commander of the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan’s absence, he sat next to the president as his corps passed), George Gordon Meade, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Postmaster William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs (Library of Congress. Thanks to Garry Adelman for discovering this detail.).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, a triumphant Army of the Potomac marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. Here’s how I described the event in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

May 23 dawned with the promise of perfect weather, with just enough rain early in the morning to keep the dust down. The Army of the Potomac began forming around the Capitol building in the early hours. At 9:00 a cannon shot from Capitol Hill announced the parade’s start, and the long blue lines of men began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol toward the White House, Meade astride his horse Blackie proudly at their head. “The plaudits of the multitude followed him along the entire line of march; flowers were strewn in his path, and garlands decked his person and his horse,” wrote Horace Porter. His staff—minus Theodore Lyman, who was back in Boston—followed behind him. When he reached the reviewing stand in front of the White House, Meade turned, drew his sword, and saluted. He then joined the dignitaries to watch his army pass.

An artist's conception of the reviewing stand (Library of Congress).

An artist’s conception of the reviewing stand (Library of Congress).

Sheridan was absent. Grant had sent him west to deal with matters there. However, Charles Wainwright suspected that Sheridan had left early because he did not want to appear in the Grand Review under Meade. Wesley Merritt led the cavalry in Sheridan’s absence. When Custer passed the reviewing stand, a spectator tossed him a wreath, which made his horse bolt. Custer went galloping past before he could regain control and wheel back into position. Some people suspected that Custer was showing off for the crowd.

The photograph of the reviewing stand from which the top image was taken. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The photograph of the reviewing stand from which the top image was taken. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The cavalry followed Meade, then the IX, V, and II Corps. Cannons rumbled down Pennsylvania Avenue, and engineers hauled pontoon boats along the parade route. “The men preserved their alinement and distances with an ease which showed their years of training in the field,” Porter noted with satisfaction. “Their movements were unfettered, their step was elastic, and the swaying of their bodies and the swinging of their arms were as measured as the vibrations of a pendulum. Their muskets shone like a wall of steel. The cannon rumbled peacefully over the paved street, banks of flowers almost concealing them.” No African American soldiers were in the parade, as the black units were going west with Sheridan. The entire VI Corps was still in Virginia and unable to attend. But even with these absences, it took six hours for the eighty thousand men from the Army of the Potomac to pass in review.

Washington’s residents had draped the buildings along the parade route with flags and banners, replacing the black symbols of mourning that had gone up following Lincoln’s assassination. Charles Wainwright noticed one banner in particular: “The only debt we can never repay,” it read; “what we owe to our gallant defenders.” Wainwright eyed it cynically. “I could not help wondering whether, having made up their minds that they can never pay the debt, they will think it useless to try.”

But this was not a day for cynicism. “Everything went off to perfection,” said Wainwright, who had his men shine their artillery until it gleamed and paid particular attention to the appearance of the horses. Of all the brigades in the army, Wainwright thought his artillery looked best.

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Butler (February 5, 1864)

Another letter from Theodore Lyman, while Meade remains ill in Philadelphia. In this missive Lyman mentions Major General Benjamin Butler, who commanded the Army of the James. Butler was one of the Union’s political generals, promoted not because of military experience but because of his political influence. He had aroused Southern ire for his heavy-handed military rule in New Orleans (where he earned the nickname of “Spoons” for allegedly looting the town. Southerners also called him “Beast” Butler.) During Grant’s spring  campaign, the cockeyed Butler and his army were supposed to form one part of Grant’s multipronged campaign against the Confederacy. Instead, Butler had gotten his army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred with his back against the James River, where it remained, impotent and useless until it was too late for them to do any good. Here Lyman describes a plan by Butler and the opinions about it expressed by the non-political generals of the Army of the Potomac.

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

General [Andrew] Humphreys sent for me and showed me a cipher correspondence between Butler and [Henry] Halleck, and Halleck and [John] Sedgwick. B. telegraphed that large reinforcements had been sent from the Rapid Ann to North Carolina, and that he wished a demonstration to “draw their forces from Richmond.” S. replied that, with the exception of some two or three brigades, nobody had been sent to that place from the army in our front. B. then said he was going to move on Richmond, or something of the sort, and would like a demonstration not later than Saturday (to-morrow). S. said it was too short a time to make any great show and that it would spoil our chances for a surprise on their works, in future. H. then telegraphed to do, at any rate, what we could. So [Judson] Kilpatrick has been sent to their right via Mine Ford, and [Wesley] Merritt is to threaten Barnett’s Ford; and to threaten Raccoon Ford, while the 2d will make a stronger demonstration at Morton’s Ford. Old Sedgwick and General Humphreys are cross at the whole thing, looking on it as childish.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 68. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.