Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, presaging the subsequent surrender of other Confederate forces in the West and the capture of Southern President Jefferson Davis a few weeks later, marked the triumphant end of the nation’s great sundering. It should have been a moment of great celebration. Instead, five days after Appomattox, the capital city of Washington, D.C., found itself trapped in a grief-stricken stupor, locked in a mixture of sorrow and rage at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by Confederate partisan John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s assassination took away not only the nation’s 16th president but also its hard-won sense of joy and relief after four years of bloody conflict and unimaginable sacrifice.
As news of Lincoln’s assassination spread, many Washingtonians took to the streets demanding Confederate blood. In a driving rainstorm, shocked and enraged Washingtonians shouted, “Shoot them! Hang them!” A mob gathered outside Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln had been fatally wounded, chanting, “Burn the theater!” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, for several hours filling the role of chief executive until Vice President Andrew Johnson could be sworn in, flooded the streets with Federal troops and cordoned off the city. Eventually tempers simmered down, leaving Washington cloaked in mourning. For five weeks the American flag on the White House grounds flew at half-staff and the great columns of the portico were swathed in black. Windows and doors throughout Washington showed black curtains and black wreaths. Citizens walked about town in a daze, dressed in black or at least wearing black armbands.
As the weeks passed, the grief slowly subsided. On May 10, with most Confederate forces having surrendered and the men in butternut and gray heading home, President Johnson declared hostilities “virtually at an end.” Six days earlier, the New York Times had urged that “before Sherman’s and Meade’s armies are broken up, arrangements will be made for a great military display when the public could express its obligations to these great and famous armies in some striking and worthy manner to both their soldiers and their leaders.” The new president, in one of the few shrewd political moves of his controversial and doomed tenure as chief executive, decreed that a Grand Review of the victorious Union armies should take place near the end of May. Preparations immediately got underway. After five weeks of mourning, the nation finally intended to celebrate its great victory.
Washington’s Population Swells
The capital had never seen anything like it. The town was still bristling with military personnel, a common sight after five years of war, but now tens of thousands of civilians thronged into Washington from across the Union. The New York Times estimated the number of people in the streets at 200,000. (Other estimates added another 50,000 to that number.) So severe was the sudden population influx that the capital’s hoteliers reluctantly turned away thousands seeking accommodations. Many simply slept in the open or stayed up all night partying—a task made harder, but not impossible, owing to the fact that the city’s saloons were closed for three days by official sanction to minimize the threat of brawling between soldiers and civilians. Numerous speakeasies gladly took up the slack. For those with milder tastes, street corner entrepreneurs offered purple lemonade. All drank with impunity, since law enforcement officers were too busy arresting pickpockets, prostitutes, thieves, muggers and counterfeiters to pay any attention to illegal drinking.
Some 150,000 Union soldiers descended on the capital—90,000 in the eastern theater’s Army of the Potomac, 60,000 in the Army of the West, compring the combined Army of Georgia and Army of the Tennessee. With them they brought 25,000 horses, whose daily mounds of manure were a logistical nightmare for city workers to cart away. Despite the overcrowding, the Times reported, the mood of the city was “gay and jovial with the good feeling that prevails, for the occasion is one of such grand import and true rejoicing that small vexations sink out of sight.” Poet Walt Whitman, then working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saw the city positively jammed with soldiers as he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. “The city is full of soldiers, running around loose,” he wrote. “Officers everywhere, of all grades. All have the weather-beaten look of practical service. It is a sight I never tire of. All the armies are now here (or portions of them) for tomorrow’s review. You see them swarming like bees everywhere.”
Crowds of Spectators
Massive crowds gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue. People hung out the windows of buildings along the parade route. Atop each building dozens of onlookers waved banners proclaiming victory and giving thanks to the Union Army. A giant banner stretched across the front of the Treasury Building proclaimed in all caps: “The only national dept we can never pay is the dept we owe to the victorious Union soldiers.” Many placards simply listed the great Union victories—Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg—almost as though they were political slogans. Church choirs and children’s choruses took positions along Pennsylvania Avenue, where a wreath of flowers stretched across the roadway. Thousands of onlookers held their own bouquets, wreaths, and garlands to throw at the feet of passing soldiers.
Opposite the White House, planners erected a roofed review stand decked out in stars-and-stripes bunting for the president, his cabinet, congressional leaders, generals, and foreign dignitaries. A line of placards running along the front listed the Federals’ great victories. The front row was reserved for the president, his cabinet and Generals Grant and Sherman. Two special reviewing stands were erected by private citizens, including a wealthy Boston financier, one for wounded and sick soldiers, the other for deaf children. A separate stand was also erected across the avenue in Lafayette Square for lesser notables—congressmen, public officials, and members of the press.
State governors found their places elsewhere. Reuben E. Fenton, whose home state of New York had contributed dozens of regiments and suffered nearly 40,000 dead, watched the parade from a balcony of the Metropolitan Hotel. Fenton was not the only governor so exiled from the review stand. A few blocks west at the Hotel Willard waited Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania, whose state had suffered more than 26,000 killed in the war. As the Army of the Potomac had the honor of marching first, on the first day Sherman sat in the review stand. Joining Sherman were his wife and son Tommy and his frail father-in-law, Senator Thomas Ewing. A line of soldiers stood guard at the base, bayonet tipped rifles at the ready for any sign of trouble.
“Pass, Pass, Ye Proud Brigades”
Across the Potomac River in Alexandria encamped the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg. Meade and his staff meticulously planned the march and issued orders mandating the correct route and order. Meade slated IX Corps to lead the army down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by II Corps and V Corps. In preparation for the review, IX Corps had marched into Washington the night before, their route taking them toward the city’s famous Long Bridge. After crossing the bridge into the city, the corps had marched up Maryland Avenue and then turned east past Capitol Hill, going into camp 1½ miles east of the Capitol building. Nearby the Union Cavalry Corps also made camp, while just across the river II Corps waited to cross Long Bridge the next day.
At 9 am a cannon shot signaled the beginning of the Grand Review, and the Army of the Potomac began its march west down Pennsylvania Avenue. Walt Whitman was in the crowd near Capitol Hill as the parade began. He captured the moment in his poem, “The Heroes Return”: “Pass, pass, ye proud brigades, with your tramping sinewy legs,/With your shoulders young and strong, with your knapsacks and your muskets;/How elate I stood and watch’d you, where starting off you march’d.” Whitman was particularly eager to catch a sight of his brother, George Washington Whitman, who was marching in the ranks of the 51st New York Infantry.
The army’s ranks were filled mostly by men from the East, although some Midwestern regiments were also in the Review. Soldiers from the farms of Pennsylvania joined Connecticut factory workers and clerks from the tree-lined boulevards of Massachusetts. These were regiments that had endured defeat after defeat on the Virginia Peninsula, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, only to keep going back into battle again and again. Even their victories were hard won—bloodbaths at the Wilderness and wearying trench warfare at Petersburg. For all their hardship, they remained spit-and-polish soldiers, splendid in shined boots, gleaming belt buckles, and forward-sloping kepis. Behind each infantry brigade came six mule-drawn army ambulances, their bloodstained stretchers strapped to their sides in graphic, if mute, recognition of the human cost underlying the Union triumph being celebrated that day.
Since they would not march until the next day, many thousands of men from Sherman’s army were in the crowd as the Army of the Potomac passed in review. One such soldier was Private Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana Regiment. Upson was a farm boy who had enlisted in 1862 and had seen action in many of the great battles of the war. He and the 100th Indiana marched all the way from Atlanta through the Carolinas to Washington. He pronounced himself impressed with the easterners. “Their marching was machine like,” he wrote. “They carried their guns most of the time at ‘Shoulder Arms,’ their officers were dressed in their finest uniforms, and their non-commissioned officers had their swords which our boys soon got tired of and long since discarded.”