Wednesday, April 1, 2015

River Queen: Ark of a Civil War Covenant

He was mystically, sincerely, but most discreetly religious.
Life of George P.A. Healy by His Daughter Mary (Mme. Charles Bigot), 1912

Entitled, The Peacemakers, it is an extraordinary painting of an extraordinary meeting near Hampton Roads; the only face-to-face strategy session between four men who were by this time 150 years ago deciding not only how best to finish a period of war, but how to begin an era of peace.
The Scene: Arguably the greatest military leaders of the American Civil War meet with their Commander-in-Chief in what appears to be a cozy parlor.  William T. Sherman, fresh from leading the greatest punitive expedition of the war, seems to give advice to the President.  His friend Ulysses S. Grant at Lincoln’s right listens, yet seems nonplussed.  David D. Porter, seated at Lincoln’s left after his recent return from waging a successful military campaign against Wilmington, North Carolina, followed by blunting Benjamin Butler’s political campaign against him before Congress, listens as well.
The painter George P.A. Healy's rendering of the meeting of President Abraham Lincoln, Major General William T. Sherman, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and Rear Admiral David Porter aboard the steamer River Queen at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia.  Less than two weeks later, Robert E. Lee would surrender. Lincoln himself would be assassinated the week after that.  One of the original copies of the painting now hangs in the Oval Office dining room. (

There is something more than a little allegorical about the scene rendered by the prolific artist George P.A. Healy in 1868.  With their symmetrical gestures, Lt. Gen. Grant and Rear Adm. Porter seem to be holding back an invisible curtain or veil revealing Lincoln, who has borne the responsibility for deciding nearly every major strategic decision of the war.   Note that the four windows behind them seem to progress, beginning on the left with curtains and shades drawn, to the rainbow’s appearance followed by the parting of the clouds.  The destructive flood of war that swept the nation is subsiding, Healy seems to say, and it seems that one merely has to open the doors located directly behind the president and step out into the light.   

But of course, life after great drama and trauma is never that simple for an individual, much less a nation.  Important decisions must be made about how to proceed, and that is why Lincoln pensively listens behind the closed doors, seemingly lost in thought, his mind far beyond the contemplation of tactics to bring the swiftest defeat to General Robert E. Lee's remaining forces.  There were weightier strategic issues to contemplate.  
As depicted by William R. McGrath, River Queen (at the far left) would have hardly been noticeable among the throngs of cargo vessels in the teeming logistical center of City Point, Virginia, at the end of March 1865. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)  

The setting for The Peacemakers was the steamer River Queen, then moored near Lt. Gen Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia.  River Queen was also the setting for a very different conference held near Fort Monroe just a few days after the fall of Fort Fisher in January.  Perhaps within the very cabin depicted in the painting, Lincoln had received three other high-ranking visitors, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, who had traveled under a flag of truce from Richmond to propose an armistice and joint expedition against Mexico.

Probably preoccupied with more profound thoughts than the three Confederate emissaries could possibly fathom, Lincoln stated flatly during the February 3 meeting that only the disbandment of the Confederate armies and the restoration of the union would bring the peace they supposedly sought; not a mere redirection of the fighting.        

In the conference with Sherman, Grant, and Porter on March 28,  Lincoln still seemed deep in thought, yet above the fray.  Much of the discussions revolved around whether or not Gen. Lee's forces could somehow escape Central Virginia and unite with those of General Joseph E. Johnston, which Sherman's forces had bottled up in North Carolina. 
According to Adm. David Porter's account of the meeting, Maj. Gen. Sherman "took a military view of the situation.  He had made a long toilsome march and desired to reap the honors due a victorious general." 
Thanks to Sherman’s account of his meeting with Healy while his painting was still in the planning stages, we have a pretty good insight into precisely what he was actually telling the President during this reconstructed moment. 
“In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening,” Sherman wrote to Lincoln’s friend and early biographer Isaac Newton Arnold.  “Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter's letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that ‘if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,’ suiting the action to the word.”
According to Porter, Lincoln's response might not have been what some of his officers were hoping to hear, yet it was consistent with the higher goal he had elucidated within his second inaugural address earlier that month, with intentions to "bind the wounds of the nation...[w]ith malice towards none, with charity for all....". 
"All very well," said the President, "but we must make no mistakes, and my way is a sure one: Offer General Johnston the same terms that will be offered Lee; then, if he will not accept them, try your plan; but as long as the Confederates lay down their arms I don't think it matters much how they do it.  Don't let us have any more bloodshed if it can be avoided.  General Grant is in favor of giving General Lee the most favorable terms."
And that is precisely what Grant did 12 days later at the village of Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865.
Porter concluded:
General Grant shared in the President's desire for the most liberal arrangements that could be entered into for the surrender of the confederate armies; and while Mr. Lincoln had implicit confidence in Grant's military abilities, he relied no less on his good judgment and kind feeling, and it is fortunate that the last act in the bloody drama of the civil war[sic] was under the direction of the two men acting in perfect accord, whose names will be handed down to posterity with increase of honor as the years roll by.

The steamer River Queen in a detail from a larger photo made by the photography studio of Charles H. Shute and Son of Nantucket after the war.  Despite the length of time President Lincoln spent aboard the vessel and his obvious preference for her above the plethora of Union Navy steamers available to him, she was not retained by the War Department nor was her historic significance ever recognized.  River Queen went back to plying standard ferry routes around New England for another half-century, finally succumbing to fire in 1911. (

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