Recently I read William Tecumseh Sherman’s account of his meeting with Abraham Lincoln on March 28, 1865, not long before the surrender of the Confederate armies and Lincoln’s assassination. I found myself touched by the account.
While on a brief visit to army headquarters, Gen. Sherman met with President Lincoln along with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Adm. David Dixon Porter aboard the steamship River Queen at City Point, Virginia, to discuss the apparently imminent conclusion of the Civil War.
Sherman had met Lincoln previously in 1861, just before the outbreak of the war, when his brother John introduced him to the new president. Sherman admitted in his memoirs that he was little impressed:
John then turned to me, and said, “Mr. President, this is my brother, Colonel Sherman, who is just up from Louisiana, he may give you some information you want.” “Ah!” said Mr. Lincoln, “how are they getting along down there?” I said, “They think they are getting along swimmingly—they are preparing for war.” “Oh, well!” said he, “I guess we’ll manage to keep house.” I was silenced, said no more to him, and we soon left. I was sadly disappointed, and remember that I broke out on John, d—ning the politicians generally, saying, “You have got things in a hell of a fix, and you may get them out as you best can,” adding that the country was sleeping on a volcano that might burst forth at any minute, but that I was going to St. Louis to take care of my family, and would have no more to do with it.
(Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 2nd ed., vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1889. Page 196.)
By the time of the 1865 meeting on the River Queen, something had changed, whether it was Lincoln or Sherman himself or the world-shaking events of the past four years. Sherman came away from the meeting with a wholly different impression of America’s war president:
I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes. In the language of his second inaugural address, he seemed to have “charity for all, malice toward none,” and, above all, an absolute faith in the courage, manliness, and integrity of the armies in the field. When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but, the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship. The last words I recall as addressed to me were that he would feel better when I was back at Goldsboro. We parted at the gangway of the River Queen, about noon of March 28th, and I never saw him again. Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.
(Ibid., vol 2. Pages 327-328.)
ARB — 20 Oct. 2020