How U.S. Soldiers Threatened to Beat Up the Secretary of War
As plans for President Donald Trump’s big military parade are slowly beginning to take shape, it is worthwhile recalling an incident that occurred during the biggest military parade in U.S. history—the Grand Review of the Armies in May 1865 at the end of the U.S. Civil War—which may have impacted the subsequent role of the U.S. military in American politics and society.
As the victorious 60,000-strong Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia, commanded by eccentric and willful Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on the second day of the colossal military spectacle on May 24, onlookers were not merely interested in the battle-hardened, rough-looking soldiers that had smashed Confederate forces in the West and cut a path of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas. Rather, they were anxiously awaiting what would happen when Sherman met U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on the reviewing stand.
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As many contemporary observers noted, once Sherman reached the reviewing stand, he dismounted and went up the platform to greet the dignitaries, including U.S. President Andrew Johnson and his old friend Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of all U.S. forces. The historian William Marvel in his book Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton recounts what happened next:
[W]hen a hopeful Stanton extended his hand Sherman let him grasp the air with it, clapping his own hand to his side and merely nodding or bowing slightly. Across the avenue sat others who had been waiting for this very moment, many of whom had trained binoculars or opera glasses on the tall, florid general and the squat, grey bureaucrat.
One observer noted: “Sherman’s face was scarlet, and his red hair seemed to stand on end.” Julia, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant wrote: “What a defiant and angry glance he shot at Stanton.”
Sherman proudly recalled in later life: “As I approached Mr. Stanton, he offered me his hand, but I declined it publicly and the fact was universally noticed.” Rumors even circulated after the parade that Sherman had called Stanton “nothing but a damned clerk”, which, however, turned out to be false.
What had caused this public rift between one of the Union’s most respected generals and an iconic member of Lincoln’s wartime government on a day dedicated to celebrating the end of a war that killed over 750,000 Americans and that the former called “the happiest and most satisfactory moment of my life”?
The short answer: bruised egos and personal ambitions. Among other things, Stanton thought Sherman was fishing for the “Copperhead nomination for President.” A longer exposé, nonetheless, would need to emphasize the secretary of war’s (unfounded) fear of a military takeover of the government in 1865 by an officer who may have become too powerful as a result of the conflict to be reined in by civilian authorities. In April 1865, Stanton was the driving force in convincing the government and the North’s public that Sherman had overstepped his authority when he negotiated a surrender agreement with Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina, directly accusing him of insubordination and indirectly—via leaks to the press of government bulletins—of treason. The results were predictable. Sherman felt publicly humiliated, willfully maligned and double-crossed by Stanton.