May 23, 1865 – The “Grand Armies of the Republic” staged a triumphant review through Washington to celebrate the Federal victory and end of the war.
Based on the recommendation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, President Andrew Johnson directed the adjutant general to issue Special Order No. 239, mandating a review of the victorious Federal armies in Washington. The troops would march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House in a two-day procession designed for spectators to watch and cheer the heroes who won the war.
Men from the Army of the Potomac were already stationed at or near Washington, while Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals marched north from North Carolina through Virginia to get there. As in their march to the sea and then through the Carolinas, the army moved in two wings, with the left (west) wing passing through Culpeper Court House and Manassas Junction and the right (east) wing moving up the main road from Fredericksburg. Sherman moved between the wings to visit as many northern Virginia battlefields as possible along the way.
Sherman’s troops camped at Alexandria, while the troops under Major General George G. Meade camped at Washington and Georgetown. On the morning of the 23rd, the White House flag flew at full mast for the first time since Abraham Lincoln’s death, though the Capitol was still draped in black to mourn Lincoln and all those who died in the war. A reviewing stand was erected on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, where President Andrew Johnson sat with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, and Stanton. Troops from the Veteran Reserve Corps guarded the stand.
Thousands of spectators lined the street as the Army of the Potomac began the review on the 23rd. These were the veterans of such battles as Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Richmond, Sayler’s Creek, and Appomattox.
Meade led his troops down the avenue, then stopped at the presidential reviewing stand to join the dignitaries in watching his men march by. It took several hours for all 80,000 cavalrymen, infantrymen, artillerymen, engineers, pioneers, and other military personnel to pass. Women and children showered the troops with flowers as the crowd sung patriotic songs.
According to the New York Times:
“Every circumstance has combined to make it a complete success. The weather has been magnificent; the air, delightfully tempered by the rains of the past week, is cool and fragrant, and dust is for the time subdued… Washington has been filled as it never was filled before; the hotel-keepers assert that the pressure upon their resources never was so great, and thousands of people have been nightly turned away to seek a place of rest where best they might…”
Sherman was invited to join the dignitaries at the presidential reviewing stand. He later wrote:
“The day was beautiful, and the pageant was superb. Washington was full of strangers, who filled the streets in holiday-dress, and every house was decorated with flags. The army marched by divisions in close column around the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue, past Johnson and cabinet, who occupied a large stand prepared for the occasion, directly in front of the White House.”
The precision and discipline of these eastern soldiers caused Sherman concern. His westerners were not as well-equipped or disciplined, and he told Meade, “I’m afraid my poor taddermalion corps will make a poor appearance tomorrow when contrasted with yours.” Grant later wrote in his memoirs: “Sherman’s troops had been in camp on the south side of the Potomac. During the night of the 23d he crossed over and bivouacked not far from the Capitol.”
The signal gun fired at 9 a.m. on the 24th, and Sherman put his 65,000 men in motion. These were the veterans of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth, Perryville, Stones River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Resaca, Peachtree Creek, Jonesboro, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, Savannah, Columbia, Wilmington, Averasboro, Bentonville, and Raleigh.
This western army was looser and leaner than Meade’s precise easterners, and it sparked “something almost fierce in the fever of enthusiasm” among the spectators. Former slaves followed Sherman’s “bummers,” who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with southern prizes such as dogs, goats, mules, raccoons, gamecocks, and even a monkey. The men wore ragged uniforms and hung chickens and hams from their bayonets to the crowd’s delight. The bands played the same songs they had played when they began the march to the sea, including “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Marching through Georgia,” and “John Brown’s Body.” Sherman wrote in his memoirs:
“When I reached the Treasury-building, and looked back, the sight was simply magnificent. The column was compact, and the glittering muskets looked like a solid mass of steel, moving with a regularity of a pendulum… we rode on steadily past the President, saluting with our swords. All on his stand arose and acknowledged the salute. Then, turning into the gate of the presidential grounds, we left our horses with orderlies… I shook hands with the President, General Grant, and each member of the cabinet. As I approached Mr. Stanton, he offered me his hand, but I declined it publicly, and the fact was universally noticed.”
Stanton had enraged Sherman by suggesting he was a traitor for offering what he considered overly generous surrender terms to Joseph E. Johnston last month. Sherman’s troops proceeded in review until the last regiment finally passed the presidential reviewing stand at 4:30 p.m. Sherman wrote:
“It was, in my judgment, the most magnificent army in existence–sixty-five thousand men, in splendid physique, who had just completed a march of nearly two thousand miles in a hostile country, in good drill, and who realized that they were being closely scrutinized by thousands of their fellow-countrymen and by foreigners… when the rear of the column had passed by, thousands of spectators still lingered to express their sense of confidence in the strength of a Government which could claim such an army.”
The mustering-out process began the next day, as army units quickly began dispersing and soldiers began heading home. The Army of the Potomac passed out of existence on the 28th, and on the 30th Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 76 disbanding his army:
“The general commanding announces to the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia that the time has come for us to part. Our work is done, and armed enemies no longer defy us… Your general now bids you farewell, with the full belief that, as in war you have been good soldiers, so in peace you will make good citizens; and if, unfortunately, new war should arise in our country, ‘Sherman’s army’ will be the first to buckle on its old armor, and come forth to defend and maintain the Government of our inheritance.”
A newspaper correspondent wrote: “In a few weeks this army of two or three hundred thousand men melted back into the heart of the people from whence it came, and the great spectacle of the Grand Army of the Republic on review disappeared from sight.”
The war was over.
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