The End of It All

Grand Review of Union Troops

This image and others from the Civil War, can be found at The Civil War Photo Gallery.

The End of It All.

BY JAMES FRANKLIN FITTS.

Jame Franklin Fitts

(Image from Fitts link above.)

To one who was in active service almost four years, there was something in the closing scenes of the war, in and about Washington, that powerfully stirred the dramatic side of the soldier’s nature. Many thousands of the veterans who were there will read this sketch; and while it tells them nothing new, they may feel that their comrade has conferred a favor by reminding them of incidents, dimmed by distance of time, and perhaps forgotten, which attended the “wind-up at Washington.”

On the morning of April 15th, 1865, our division was at Summit Point, Virginia, midway between Harper’s Ferry and Winchester. The war seemed about over, and here were, perhaps, six thousand soldiers who felt that they had done their share, and were impatient to be released.

The spot was a magnificent one. The meadows and woodland sloped gently away from a high ridge, giving a prospect for miles. On the high ground was the mansion of Mr. Willis, an obstinate secessionist, where the General had taken up his quarters. Our staff-tents were in the yard, and the camps of the infantry dotted the slopes pleasantly with white tents. Near by was the railroad from Harper’s Ferry to Stevenson, near Winchester.

Old Willis — for I must affirm that even after the lapse of twenty-tow years I can’t speak with any respect of a man who had not learned through four years of war that the United States was just what God always meant it to be — one country — Old Willis, I say, was in a high state of mind during the two weeks that we occupied his property, and must have been thankful when we left him. The truth is, his farm was well-fenced, and a large flock of sheep was grazing in the meadows. Rails and mutton! He knew little about soldiers, if he thought they could be kept away from such things. Half a dozen times a day he came to the General, his fat face quivering with rage, to report that some Yankee soldier had carried off a fence-rail or a fat lamb; and then the General would issue stern orders against all such depredations, and not trouble himself very much about enforcing them.

On the morning of April 15 I walked over to my regiment and went into the Colonel’s tent. A group of officers stood and sat about, silent, sorrowful, some of them actually tearful.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Don’t you know? President Lincoln was assassinated last night at Washington.”

President Lincoln's Funeral Procession

There may be pens that could describe the woeful scenes in those camps during the next few days; mine cannot. The blow fell nowhere with more stunning force than in the army. The soldiers loved him; many of them had seen him and heard his kind, quaint speech. They mourned for him as for a father. They thronged the out-door religious services that were held to express the universal sorrow at the bereavement, and joined fervently in the prayers and hymns.

Soon after came the order for the division to proceed to Washington with all haste. We did not know what the occasion was, nor was it our place to know. As usual, we obeyed without asking.

Such dispatch did we make in getting to Washington that at the Relay House, below Baltimore, we met the funeral train of the illustrious martyr, and our train was run off on a siding while the other went by.

The great unfinished dome of the Capitol came in sight; the train halted, the soldiers poured out of the cars, the staff were busy, and soon our long column was treading the streets of Washington, arms at “right shoulder shift,” the banners proudly displayed, rent and torn by the havoc of real war, and the fifes and drums briskly filling the air with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.”

We marched out on the north side of the city in front of Fort Saratoga, and here we learned why we had been brought here. The division was to picket a long stretch between that fort and Fort Stevens. The orders were to let any citizen in, but to allow no one to pass out. For three or four days this duty was kept up, and a severe strain it was in the warm weather. Hundreds of people were turned back with the sole explanation: “You can’t go out; it is our orders.” There seemed to be at least a suspicion on the part of the military authorities at Washington that the assassin was still in the city. When it was positively known that he was not, the pickets were drawn in, and we had rest again, in a pleasant camp.

A few days later came the day when, by order of the War Department, a hundred guns were fired in memory of the illustrious dead. It was a deeply solemn ceremony. Washington was completely girdled by fortifications, and around the whole vast circle, in regular time and succession, the heavy guns boomed out a nation’s sorrow for the dead.

And now Washington was a gigantic camp. The armies of the East and West were concentrated there, preliminary to the final break-up, by rail, by steamer, some marching. Corps after corps, division after division, poured in, and were encamped everywhere in the suburbs, till the military population exceeded the civil at least thrice.

In those days the streets of the capital were thronged. It seemed as if the population of the country was being turned that way. With the others came the blacklegs, the sharpers, the disreputable classes, the whole making such a daily panorama as Pennsylvania avenue may not witness again. And it is unnecessary to say that the shopkeepers of Washington throve and fattened, and swindled the soldiers in the most barefaced manner.

The 23d and 24th days of May, 1865 — the grand review that fitly ended the great tragedy of four years’ war! It quickens the pulse to think of it.

Two hundred thousand veteran soldiers, the saviors of this country, marching from the Capitol past the President’s house, with burnished arms, proud banners, with one incessant and prolonged burst of military music! The firm tread of legions of infantry, the clatter of hoofs, the rumble of artillery! March, march, march! — mile after mile of those grand columns, hour after hour, for two entire days, passing in review before President, Cabinet, great General, and the Diplomatic Corps!

They passed in review before the people, too. They were there — the people — other hundreds of thousands of them. Along the avenue, from housetops to gutter, there was literally a mass of spectators, a glowing sea of faces. Flowers were thrown and scattered upon us by the ton. One rolling cheer, one roar of acclamations, which was not allowed to pause or fail, shook the air. It was the nation gathered to salute its soldiers. It was the last march of the armies; they proudly marched thence into history!

So it all ended; and we who had been mercifully spared saw home again.

One of the minor incidents of the grand review, which was told at the time, will bear repeating. A tall, broad-shouldered veteran, who for some reason was not on duty, had established himself in a good place to see the sight, and kept his footing while the crowd wedged about him.

“Sir,” said somebody behind him, “don’t you know you are directly in front of us?”

It was a dapper little clerk, who was striving to get a sight for himself and his girl.

The veteran turned his head, and contemplated him with cool disdain.

“Yes, I’m in front of you — just as I have been for four years!

There was nothing more to be said.

Carroll Sentinel (Carroll, Iowa) Oct 28, 1887

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