Chapter XXV. Lieutenant-General Grant
Until he arrived in Washington Lincoln had never met the man to whom he had entrusted the supreme command of the army, and the new General was a very different individual from those who had been previously appointed to high rank. Some of his predecessors had possessed undoubted ability, but most of them had soon acquired an exaggerated idea of their own importance, surrounding themselves with showy staffs in gorgeous attire, delighting in military pomp and etiquette of every kind, and generally displaying a great weakness for popular admiration and applause. Moreover, all of them, with the exception of Meade, had talked too much for their own good and that of the army, so that many of their plans had become known in Richmond almost as soon as they had been formed. Indeed, they not only talked, but wrote too much, and in discussions with their superiors and wrangling with their fellow officers more than one proved far mightier with the pen than with the sword. All this, to a very large extent, was the fault of the public, for it had made an idol of each new General, deluging him with praise, flattering his vanity and fawning on him until he came to regard the war as a sort of background for his own greatness. Thus, for almost three years, the war was conducted more like a great game than a grim business, and not until it began visibly to sap the life blood and resources of the nation did the people, as a whole, realize the awful task confronting them.
Both sides had begun the conflict in much the same careless fashion, but the South had immediately become the battle ground, and the horrors of war actually seen and felt by its people quickly sobered even the most irresponsible. But from the very first Lee had taken a serious view of the whole situation. Every word he spoke or wrote concerning it was distinctly tinged with solemnity, if not sadness, and his sense of responsibility had a marked influence upon the whole Confederacy. It had taken the North almost three years to respond in a similar spirit, but by that time it was ready for a leader who knew what war really meant and for whom it had no glory, and such a leader had undoubtedly been found in Grant.
In the evening of March 8, 1864, the new commander arrived in Washington and made his way, without attracting any attention, to one of the hotels. There was nothing in his presence or manner to indicate that he was a person of any importance. Indeed, he presented a decidedly commonplace appearance, for he walked with an awkward lurch and bore himself in a slouchy fashion which made him even shorter than he was. Moreover, his uniform was faded and travel-stained, his close-cropped beard and hair were unkempt, and his attire was careless to the point of slovenliness. There was, however, something in the man's clear-cut features, firm mouth and chin and resolute blue eyes which suggested strength, and while his face, as a whole, would not have attracted any particular notice in a crowd, no one in glancing at it would have been inclined to take any liberties with its owner.
But though Grant had arrived unheralded and unrecognized at the national capital, he had barely given his name to the hotel clerk before the whole city was surging about him eager to catch a glimpse of the new hero and cheer him to the echo. But however much notoriety of this sort had pleased some of his predecessors, Grant soon showed that he wanted no applauding mob to greet him in the streets, for he quickly escaped to the seclusion of his own room. But the same public that had cheered itself hoarse for McClellan, Pope and Hooker, and then hissed them all in turn, had found another hero and was not to be cheated of its prey. Indeed, the newcomer was not even allowed to eat his dinner in peace, for a crowd of gaping and congratulating enthusiasts descended upon him the moment he reappeared and soon drove him from the dining room in sheer disgust.
Possibly the fate of the fallen idols had warned Grant against making a public exhibition of himself or encouraging the hysterical acclamations of the crowd, but he was naturally a man of sound, common sense, entirely free from conceit, and he had no idea of allowing the idle or curious mob to amuse itself at his expense. He, therefore, quickly made it plain that he had serious work to do and that he intended to do it without nonsense of any kind.
Ceremonies and forms with such a man would have been impossible, and on March 9, 1864, President Lincoln handed him his commission as a Lieutenant-General, with a few earnest words to which he made a modest reply, and then, with the same calmness he had displayed in assuming the colonelcy of the 21st Illinois, he turned to the duties involved in the command of half a million men.