Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Grand Review of Union army 'positively beggars description'

(Mathew Brady | Library of Congress)
A cropped version of a lithograph showing presidential viewing stand in front of White House.
(Library of Congress collection)
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Although the photograph above of the presidential reviewing stand at the Grand Review of the Union army has been dissected many times, it remains tantalizing. On May 23, 1865, an estimated 80,000 soldiers in General George Meade's Army of the Potomac marched through the streets of Washington before thousands of spectators. The next day, nearly 65,000 soldiers in General William Sherman's Army of Georgia and Army of Tennessee repeated the feat -- a fitting exclamation point after four years of a brutal civil war. Each day, the armies marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and past the White House, where reviewing stands were set up nearby for dignitaries and others to watch the historic event. Not surprisingly, the presidential reviewing stand in front of the mansion was a popular photographic subject.

Of the images of the presidential stand on the excellent LOC site, the photograph attributed to Mathew Brady at the top of this post includes the greatest detail. In the uncropped original, the blurred forms of soldiers and horses appear at right on the dirt road while a huge U.S. flag hangs limp above a packed reviewing stand. Behind the blurred figures, a detachment of soldiers stands guard in front of a massive U.S. banner.

Scrutiny of digitized versions of Civil War photographs on the Library of Congress site often reveals fascinating details. In these photo enlargements, check out the reclining man reading a papersnoozing Yankees and soldiers' names etched onto wooden markers in graveyards in South CarolinaFlorida and VirginiaIn this poignant photo of the burial of Union soldiers in war-torn Fredericksburg, Va., I discovered a name scrawled into a wooden headboard. Detective work led to soldier's identity: 6th Michigan Cavalry Sgt. Harvey Tucker, who was mortally wounded in the Wilderness.

Enlargements of the Grand Review image, taken May 23, 1865, reveal the leadership of the U.S. government and military and much more:

Easily recognized in the front row of the presidential reviewing stand are Union generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade and President Andrew Johnson, elevated to the highest office in the land 39 days earlier by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, only blocks from the White House. Less obvious is Edwin Stanton, the blurred figure with the long beard sitting next to Grant. A review of other images taken that day confirms this man is Johnnson's Secretary of War. Stanton, a key figure in the role of Secretary of War in Lincoln's administration, reportedly said after the president's assassination, "Now he belongs to the ages." Seated near President Johnson, Major General Wesley Merritt, a cavalry commander, appears to be conversing with Meade. The ghostly figure at the far right is Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, a Connecticut native and a major Lincoln supporter.

NEW YORK TIMES (May 24, 1865): "The President arrives in his carriage. Directly after, however, almost at the same moment, Gen. Grant and Staff walk briskly from their headquarters and assume their designated positions. Gen. Meade and Staff having passed, they now return dismounted, and soon the sharply-defined head of the Commander of the Army of the Potomac adds another to the group of distinguished persons, on whom the eyes, the opera-glasses, and even the photographers' lenses are resting."

Ely Parker, who's seated next to a large, potted plant, appears only steps away from his boss. A Native American who served as Grant's adjutant during the war, Parker helped draft the surrender documents signed 45 days earlier by Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Va.

PITTSBURGH DAILY POST (May 24, 1865): "Pennsylvania Avenue presents a scene which probably has never been paralleled in the country. Certainly not south of New York. Its whole vast extent and breadth is compactly lined with people from pavement to housetops. Innumerable flags and banners are displayed all along the Avenue, and the whole scene is one of the most brilliant and imposing ever witnessed, making the heart fill with emotion and the eyes fill with tears of joy. The whole affair positively beggars description."

General Sherman, wearing a white glove, visits with William Dennison, the U.S. Postmaster General. Is the young woman in the background listening in to the conversation? Perhaps they all had just witnessed flamboyant General George Custer's feat, described in one of the local newspapers later that day:

WASHINGTON EVENING STAR (May 23, 1865): "Suddenly a thrill ran through the vast assemblage as a magnificent stallion dashed madly past the President and his associates, the rider, General Custar [sic], with a large wreath hanging upon his arm, his scabbard empty, and his long hair waving in the wind, vainly striving to check him. On swept the horse, the throng rising from their seats in breathless suspense that changed to murmur or applause at the horsemanship of the rider, and finally giving place to a long loud cheer as the General checked his frightened steed, and gracefully rode back to the head of his column, the third cavalry division."

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, among the most able men in the Union army, also sits in the front row, apparently staring straight ahead. "... without the services of this eminent soldier," Secretary of State William Seward reportedly said of Meigs' Civil War service, "the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled." Seward, whose face was severely disfigured in a knife attack by John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator Lewis Powell the night Lincoln was assassinated, watched Day 2 of the Grand Review from the nearby Blair House. Do you recognize anyone else in the image?

SYRACUSE DAILY COURIER AND UNION (MAY 24, 1865): "In front of the President's house an immense stand has been erected on the south side of the street, for the President and Cabinet, and for the gallant soldiers, Grant and Sherman, who are to review the troops. Another stand on the north side is for the accommodation of Congress, the foreign ministers, and others. A stand is also erected on the square for wounded soldiers. The houses in the vicinity of the President's house are tastefully adorned with flags and evergreens. The route of the march is packed with people, all eager to give the gallant heroes of the war a hearty welcome on their march home."

Sewn into the massive patriotic banner above the reviewing stand are the names of the Union army's greatest triumphs, including Petersburg, Richmond and ....

... and, of course, Gettysburg.

PITTSBURGH DAILY POST (May 24, 1865) "Never has Washington witnessed a more august occasion or presented a more beautiful or animated spectacle. The whole population of the city is in the streets, swollen by many thousands of strangers which have been pouring in here for days past from all points of the compass, and by every imaginable mode of conveyance. Those from abroad are estimated at fully fifty or sixty thousand, a large proportion of whom are ladies. Where they all found shelter and accommodations is a mystery."

We can't help but wonder if this guard detachment of the Veteran Reserve Corps, apparently led by the aged officer at left, was extra-vigilant given the recent, tragic event in the capital. President Johnson, members of his cabinet and some of the most important generals in the Union army are just behind these soldiers. The day, one of the grandest in Washington's history, went off without a major incident. Most of the soldiers who marched during the historic, two-day event were soon mustered out of the army.

NEW YORK TIMES (May 24, 1865): "Though the city is so crowded, it is yet 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. With many it is the greatest epoch of their lives; with the soldier it is the last act in the drama; with the nation it is the triumphant exhibition of the resources and valor which have saved it from disruption and placed it first upon earth.

"So the scene of to-day (and that of to-morrow) will never be forgotten, and he who is privileged to be a witness will mark it as a white day in the calendar, from which to gather hope and courage for the future."

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Very well done John. In the photo with the Gettysburg banner, the soldier on the far right looks a whole lot like Myles Keogh, who served on Buford's staff and later under Custer. See his images on line for comparison

    1. Yah. Will do, Greg. Thanks!

    2. Hi John. That's definitely Irishman, Myles Walter Keogh, under the Gettysburg banner. He was just newly promoted to the rank of brevet Lt. Col. He served on the staff of John Buford from early 1863, including that 1st day at Gettysburg, up to Buford's death from typhoid in December of that year. Reputed to Buford's closest aide, Keogh cradled the dying general when he passed away in the Washington home of General George Stoneman. Later KIA with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. After studying Keogh for over two decades, I'd never seen this image. Thanks!

  2. Interesting post, John. There are more great things to see if you similarly zoom in on the LOC pictures of the troops marching in the review (I did this for a monograph I wrote before the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review. Also, the soldiers in the last picture are members of the Veteran Reserve Corps (formerly the Invalid Corps). You can tell by their distinctive jackets and the fact that they weren't permitted to march (even though they were all veterans) and were instead used for security for the parade.

    1. Ah, very cool. Shall add that details. I am sure many others can be ID'd in the photo. Go find William Seward for me. :)

  3. Dear Mr. Banks,

    I shared your blog with some friends over at civilwartalk.com, and we have been having a great time with these pictures. The labeling is fabulous! My friend Peter has pointed out what we believe to be Winfield Scott Hancock on the far left under the Gettysburg banner -- what do you think? Bee

    1. Quite possible, Bee. Will look at contemporary newspaper accounts to see if there is mention that he was there.

    2. I just found this NYT newspaper article http://www.nytimes.com/1865/06/09/news/closing-pageant-war-grand-review-sixth-corps-president-gen-meade-war-worn.html?pagewanted=all that mentions not only the presence of Hancock, but of others labeled in the pictures, above:

      "the indomitable HANCOCK, who was present today, and again looked upon the fragments of the brigade that he so vigorously disciplined at Camp Griffin, in the Winter of 1861-2;"

  4. Sure looks like Hancock on the left under the Gettysburg picture!!!