March 26, 1865 – An ugly incident occurred at a military review as President Abraham Lincoln continued his visit with the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg.
President and Mrs. Lincoln were quartered on the steamboat River Queen near the headquarters of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Their son Robert, who was serving on Grant’s staff, came aboard to have breakfast with his parents on the morning of the 25th. They could hear the fight at Fort Stedman taking place just eight miles away, and after Robert explained what was happening, Lincoln telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Robert just now tells me there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began.”
Although the fight was an easy Federal victory, Robert informed his father that the military review scheduled for that morning had to be postponed. Lincoln instead went to Grant’s headquarters and asked to visit the Fort Stedman battlefield. Grant initially refused to allow the president to be exposed to enemy fire, but he quickly reconsidered. The men took the military railroad to the headquarters of Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.
Meade and his staff greeted Lincoln and took him on a tour of the battlefield, where men were still attending to the dead and wounded. Lincoln and Grant rode together on horseback and watched Federal troops from VI Corps drive off Confederate pickets.
The next morning, the presidential party took a steamboat up the James River to review part of Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James at Malvern Hill. Lincoln watched Federal cavalry cross the James en route to fighting at Petersburg and told their commander, “Little Phil” Sheridan, that “when this peculiar war began I thought a cavalryman should be at least six feet four inches high, but I have changed my mind. Five feet four will do in a pinch.”
When the steamboat docked, Lincoln and most of the men rode to the review on horseback while Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant shared an ambulance. The rutted, muddy roads made the ride very uncomfortable; one bump even caused the passengers to hit their heads on the carriage ceiling. Mrs. Lincoln complained about the ride to Colonel Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff assigned to accompany the ladies.
The first lady was in a foul mood, possibly because she was out of her element among all the generals’ wives who had been living near headquarters and knew each other well. When Mrs. Lincoln arrived at the review, it had already started and she was enraged to see Mrs. Ord riding on horseback beside the president. Mrs. Grant tried calming the first lady, who snapped at her: “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”
When Mrs. Ord tried joining the ladies, Mrs. Lincoln berated her until she cried. The first lady continued her tirade that night at a dinner for Grant and his staff aboard the River Queen. She scolded her husband and demanded that he remove Ord from command. Mrs. Lincoln spent most of the rest of the trip in her cabin before returning to Washington. Lincoln stayed behind to witness what would become the final phase of the war in Virginia.
Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 338; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 434-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12206-17, 12228-38; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17549-69, 17706-56, 17875-95; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 709-10; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 211