On this date of April 8, 1863, President Lincoln was in the midst of a visit to the Army of the Potomac and General Hooker. This first of two posts will talk about the pageantry side of the visit, while the next post – tomorrow – will talk about the military/political material associated with the event.
There is no shortage of colorful reports in Civil War writings relative to the grandeur of this visit of the President and the pageantry of reviewing the huge Army of the Potomac. Hooker had called it the finest army on the planet, and in that nobody had ever seen anything quite like it, we could forgive his hyperbole – perhaps.
Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that it “was a gala day … with a grand review of the infantry and artillery of four corps of the Army of the Potomac … After the usual Presidential salute and cavalcade through the lines, the troops were set in regiments and brigades. It was a splendid sight to witness these 60,000 men all in martial array with colors flying, drums beating, and bayonets gleaming in the struggling sunlight.”
Like this year’s late winter/early spring, 1863 had been a year that was slow to warm, along with an abundance of precipitation. The nicer weather likely also added to the high spirits of many on this occasion.
Thomas Gawley of the 8th Ohio wrote: “I have never before seen the army in such good physical condition. The men are all fat, healthy, well-uniformed, thoroughly equipped; the horses are prancing, the guns shining; and everything indicates an army in splendid fighting order.”
Frederick Hitchcock (of the 132nd PA – book, War from the Inside) was especially effusive and colorful in text about the event, calling it, “from a military, spectacular point of view, the chief event of our army experience. It included the whole of the great Army of the Potomac, now numbering upward of one hundred and thirty thousand men, probably its greatest numerical strength of the whole war … there were present for the review, it is safe to say, ninety thousand to one hundred thousand men. It was a remarkable event historically, because so far as I can learn it was the only time this great army was ever paraded in line so that it could be seen all together … far exceeding in its impressive grandeur what has passed into history as the ‘great review,’ which preceded the final ‘muster out’ at the close of the war in the city of Washington. At the latter not more than ten thousand men could have been seen at one time …”
Hitchcock continued …
“How can words describe the scene? This is that magnificent old battered Army of the Potomac. Look upon it; you shall never behold its like again. There have been and may yet be many armies greater in numbers, and possibly, in all the paraphernalia of war, more showy. There can never be another Army of the Potomac, with such a history. As I gazed up and down those massive lines of living men, felt that I was one of them, and saw those battle-scarred flags kissed by the loving breeze, my blood tingled to my very finger-tips, my hair seemed almost to raise straight up, and I said a thousand Confederacies can’t whip us. And here I think I grasped the main purpose of this review. It was not simply to give the President a sight of his ‘strong right arm’ as he fondly called the Army of the Potomac, nor General Hooker, its new commander, an opportunity to see his men and them a chance to see their new chief—though both of these were included—but it was to give the army a square look at its mighty self, see how large and how strong it really was, that every man might thereby get the same enthusiasm and inspiration that I did, and know that it simply could not be beaten. The enemy, it is not strange to say, were intensely interested spectators of this whole scene, for the review was held in full view of the whole of their army. No place could have been chosen that would better have accommodated their enjoyment of the picture, if such it was, than that open plain, exactly in their front. And we could see them swarming over Marye’s Heights and the lines to the south of it, intently gazing upon us. A scene more resplendent with military pageantry and the soul-stirring accessories of war they will never see again. But did it stir their blood? Yes; but with bitterness only, for they must have seen that the task before them of successfully resisting the onslaughts of this army was impossible. Here was disclosed, undoubtedly, another purpose of this grand review, viz., to let the enemy see with their own eyes how powerful the army was with which they had to contend.”
Many of the writers also commented about how Lincoln looked “haggard, tired, gaunt, bent over, downcast, weary” etc. These comments are not actually unusual among those writing their initial opinions of the President. More often than not, he was not seen as a striking figure on a horse – as his size went against the notion of what was becoming in equestrian deportment. As well, it must have indeed been tiring to sit there in a saddle for hours watching the thousands parade past… lost in thoughts of all sorts.