On May 23, 1865, the city of Washington was aflutter. Only weeks earlier, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered, bringing an end to the long and bloody civil nightmare. Now, the Nation prepared to celebrate. On this day and the next, more then 200,000 men in blue would march in a Grand Review, and receive a final salute and a long good-bye from thousands of grateful citizens.
Tuesday, the first day of the review, was cloudless, the sky a brilliant blue, and the weather “sent from Heaven.” Bleachers lined Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the reviewing stand in front of the President’s House.
General Meade Lead the Way as the Civil War Grand Review Began
At 9:00 a.m. the Grand Review began as General George Gordon Meade lead the Army of the Potomac out onto the Avenue. The tumult of “sound and motion” swept over the city as children sang patriotic songs, flags waved and young girls threw flowers at the passing heroes. “Almost all the officers in the army had their hands filled with roses, and many had wreaths around their horses’ necks,” wrote Mrs. Henry Adams.
Citizens, who were dressed in their Sunday best, hurrahed as the army marched by. Mrs. Adams wrote, “we sang out as each regiment passed. ‘What regiment are you?’ ‘Michigan!’ ‘Wisconsin!’”
As Meade reached the reviewing stand, the band struck up “John Brown”. After saluting President Andy Johnson and General Grant, Meade dismounted to review his troops. The reviewing stand was crowded with dignitaries and decorated with pots of azaleas and cactus in full bloom. Above the President and members of the Cabinet, hung great American flags inscribed with the names of Union victories—Petersburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Wilderness, Antietam, Gettysburg and Richmond.
Over the President’s House, the Stars and Stripes flew at full mast-—the first time in the nearly six weeks since Lincoln’s assassination.
The Hero of Little Round Top Remembered the Day
Back on the Avenue, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain turned as the parade neared the Treasury. Chamberlain, a scholar from Maine’s Bowdoin College and the hero of Little Round Top, took a backward glance at the “mighty spectacle: the broad Avenue for more than a mile solid full, and more, from wall to wall, from door to roof, with straining forms and outwelling hearts. In the midst, onpressing that darker stream, with arms and colors resplendent in the noon-day sun, an army of tested manhood, clothed with power, crowned with glory, marched to its dissolution!”
For six full hours came the Army of the Potomac, its soldiers spit and polished, their bayonets freshly polished and gleaming in the sun. General Chamberlain noted that the “new uniforms, sashes, epaulettes, saddle housings and other gay trappings almost disguised some of our hardiest veterans.”
The Zouave regiments wore “red bag trousers, pale sea-green sashes, dark blue jackets braided with red, and red fezzes on their heads with yellow tassels”. Irish units wore sprigs of greenery in their caps. On came the artillery, ambulances, wagons, pontoon bridges and seven unbroken miles of cavalry.
The formal majesty of the occasion was broken only once when 25-year-old General George Custer bolted past the reviewing stand, his horse spooked by a wreath thrown from the curb. With his golden curls flying in the wind, and his scarlet scarf whipping behind, the young general regained control of his horse and returned to pass the reviewing stand at a more stately pace.
During the Civil War Grand Review, Soldiers Remembered Lincoln
As each regiment passed the President’s House, their thoughts must have turned to the unseen presence of the late President. Chamberlain wrote “we miss the deep, sad eyes of Lincoln coming to review us after each sore trial. Something is lacking in our hearts now, –even in this supreme hour.” Mrs. Adams wrote to a friend “It was a strange feeling to be so intensely happy and triumphant, and yet to feel like crying.”
On the reviewing stand, General William Sherman, commander of the western armies kept a sharp eye on the Potomac boys. The red-haired Ohioan wondered how his rough and tumble plowboys, who were to march the next day, would measure up to this “bandbox” Army? He turned to Meade and said “I am afraid my poor tatterdemalion corps will make a poor appearance tomorrow when contrasted with yours.” Sherman noted, to himself however, that the Potomac men “turned their heads around like country gawks to look at the big people on the stand”, and warned his officers that the westerners had better “keep their eyes fifteen feet to the front”. Sherman needn’t have worried.
Day Two of the Civil War Grand Review, May 24, 1865
The next day, May 24, 1865, dawned cool and clear as the western armies crossed the Potomac like the “uncoiling of a tremendous python”. At 9:00 am. a cannon boomed and the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner”. William Tecumseh Sherman, his battered slouch hat in hand, led his rag-tag Army out into the sea of adoring citizens.
Sherman’s farmers and plowboys were a sharp contrast to their Eastern cousins. Their uniforms, according to a New England soldier, had weathered to a “cross between Regulation blue and Southern gray. Their hair and beards were uncut and uncombed; huge slouched hats, black and gray, adorned their heads; their boots were covered with the mud they had brought up from Georgia.”
But to Mrs. Henry Adams, Sherman’s Army “in physique and marching surpass decidedly the Potomac Army”. A reporter noted the soldiers to be “all bone and muscle and skin under their tattered battle flags”. Their rolling swagger caused a spectator to proclaim “they march like the lords of the world!” Sherman turned to admire the sight. “It was “simply magnificent.”
As the sunburned Westerners marched with their eyes fifteen feet to the front, one of them, a 5’-8-1/2” tall, blue-eyed, blond haired Missouri farm boy must have been flooded with memories. He’d seen it all, from the opening days of the war, to bloody Shiloh, his father’s death in Atlanta and now the Grand Review.
Of the 900 men who signed up with him in 1861, only 187 remained. He was my great-great-grandfather, Corporal James Knox, 18th Missouri Infantry.
For two full days, the Grand Army of the Republic marched the streets of Washington, their regimental flags flying, bullet torn and blood-stained battle flags held proudly aloft. The battle flags, presented to regiments by their communities, represented home and family. Even though flagbearers were the first targets of enemy marksmen, carrying the colors was an honor.
Mrs. Adams wrote “the colors told a sad history. Some regiments with nothing but a bare pole, a little bit of rag only; hanging a few inches, to show where their flag had been. Others that had been the Stars and Stripes, with one or two stripes hanging, all the rest shot away.” Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, rally once again, shouting the battle cry of freedom!
As the armies marched, it must have felt as if their cadence echoed the names of the dead and the places they fell: Antietam. . . Malvern Hill. . . Gaines’ Mill . . . Chancellorsville . . . Gettysburg . . . The Wilderness . . . Spottsylvania . . . Lone Jack. . . Cold Harbor . . . Chickahominy . . . Fredericksburg . . . Sailor’s Creek . . . Shiloh . . . Atlanta . . . Five Forks . . . Corinth . . . Vicksburg . . . Chickamauga . . . Chattanooga.
Marching With Ghosts
In the four years of war, almost two million Union men joined the fight. Of those, over 110,000 died in battle and hundreds of thousands more of disease. Boyhood friends lay in shallow graves in thousands of battlefields across America. Historian Shelby Foote wrote, for every two men who marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, the ghost of a third marched with them. In a letter home, spectator Ellen Hooper said “It was a sad day too—you felt as if there were another army—larger and finer—marching above them.”
In a few weeks this army would disappear forever, the men paid and mustered out and the army officially disbanded. But today was theirs. Flowers paved their steps, the Stars and Stripes fluttered over a cheering city, and against the field of blue, each star remained intact, as did the Nation.
Long after the armies passed and the footsteps of the Grand Army of the Republic faded into history, the Union—their Union—remains preserved.
I wish I had been there.
Was Your Civil War Soldier at the Grand Review?
If you know which regiment your Civil War soldier served in, google the name of the regiment and look for their history. For example, the NPS (National Park Service) history of Civil War regiments, had this information for the 18th Missouri Infantry:
“March to Washington, D. C. via Richmond, Va., April 29-May 20. Grand Review May 24. Moved to Louisville, Ky., June, and duty there till July. Mustered out July 18, 1865.”
The history clearly tells if the regiment was in the Civil War Grand Review.
First find your Civil War soldiers’s regiment, and then search for a regimental history. I suggest beginning with the NPS site, and if you don’t have any luck, do a broad Google search, looking for a phrase such as “18th Missouri regimental history” (replacing 18th Missouri with the name of your soldier’s regiment).
It’s also possible that you can find a copy of a regimental history on Amazon or in Google Books. For example, I was able to track down a copy of Giants in the Cornfield: The 27th Indiana Infantry.
If your soldier was in the Grand Review, that’s something really special to record in your genealogy software, website, or book.
Interested in Reading More?
If this is a period of history that interests you, I highly recommend the Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams. It’s available on Amazon for about $10 used. It’s a fascinating first-hand look at someone who lived through the war and beyond.