Chapter XXXII. The Head of the Nation
While Lee was passing the closing years of his life in tranquility, Grant was entering upon a stormy career in politics. But before he had any thought of the honors that lay before him he proved himself a good friend to the South and a really great American. Toward his late adversaries he maintained that the true policy was "to make friends of enemies," and by word and deed he earnestly strove to accomplish that result, never losing an opportunity to protect the people of the South from humiliation and injustice. Indeed, if he and some of the other Union commanders had been given complete authority directly after the war, the South would have been spared much suffering and the nation would have escaped some of the evils which inflict it to this day. But Grant's service to the country, as a whole, was far greater than that which he undertook on behalf of any particular section, for at a critical moment he held the destiny of the nation in the hollow of his hand and a word from him would have subjected the people to a military control from which they might never have recovered.
At the time of Lee's surrender the United States had probably the most powerful and the most perfectly equipped army in the world. It was absolutely at Grant's disposal and there were plenty of excuses for employing it in the field, had he been ambitious for military glory. An attack on the French in Mexico or the English in Canada would have been regarded by many people as perfectly justified by their treatment of the United States during the Civil War. But no idea of perpetuating his own power or of making his country a military nation entered Grant's mind. On the contrary, his first thought was to hasten by every possible means the disbanding of the mighty army which hailed him as its chief.
At the close of the war that army numbered over a million men. Six months later only 183,000 remained in the service, and in eight months more the whole force of volunteers had disappeared. No other great commander in the history of the world ever strove thus to deprive himself of power, or with a gigantic instrument of war under his control thought only of peace. Grant was not the greatest military genius of the ages, or even of his own time, but when, with a million bayonets responsive to his nod, he uttered the benediction, "Let us have peace," he took a place apart among those Americans whose fame will never die.
One great triumphant pageant marked the success of the Union cause when the returning armies were reviewed by the President in Washington, cavalry, infantry and artillery by the tens of thousands passing down Pennsylvania Avenue for two whole days, presenting a magnificent spectacle never surpassed in the military annals of any land. But the same spirit which had actuated Grant in refusing to visit Richmond caused him to shun any part of this historic parade, and those who expected to see him on a prancing horse at the head of his veteran troops had little knowledge of his character. He had never made an exhibition of himself at any time during the war, and though he was present on this occasion, he kept in the background and few people caught even a glimpse of him as the well-nigh endless ranks of blue swept by in proud array.
For a time the work of disbanding the army obliged him to remain at Washington, but at the first opportunity he started west to revisit Galena, Georgetown and the scenes of his boyhood days. But, if he hoped to renew his acquaintance with old friends without public recognition and acclaim he was speedily disillusioned, for the whole countryside turned out to welcome him with processions, banners and triumphal arches, hailing as a hero the man who had lived among them almost unnoticed and somewhat despised. Many people had already declared that he would be the next President of the United States, but when some prophecy of this kind had been repeated to him, he had laughingly replied that he did not want any political office, though he would like to be Mayor of Galena long enough to have a sidewalk laid near his home, and this rumor had reached the town. The first sight that greeted his eyes, therefore, as he entered Galena was an arch bearing the words "General, the sidewalk is laid!" and his fellow townsmen straightway carried him off to inspect this improvement, at the same time showing him a new house built and furnished by his neighbors for his use and in which they begged that he would make himself at home.