On March 27, 1865, and then again the following day, President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman (along with an admiral, David D. Porter) held talks aboard the president’s steamship in City Point, Virginia. Grant had worked closely with Lincoln ever since receiving command of all Union armies a year earlier, and he had developed a tight friendship with Sherman while serving alongside him in the western theater. Nonetheless, the three men—generally given credit for steering the Union to victory in the Civil War—had never before met all together. Part social call and part strategy session, they discussed, among other things, what to do with the South following its inevitable surrender.
With the Confederacy on its last legs, Grant invited Lincoln to visit his headquarters in City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia, situated along the James River just a few miles from the front. “I would like very much to see you,” the general wrote, “and I think the rest would do you good.” Lincoln immediately accepted the offer, arriving on March 24, 1865, with his wife, Mary Todd, and young son Tad. In addition to seeing his older son Robert, who served on Grant’s staff, Lincoln spent time in the hospital with wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate. He also witnessed the Battle of Fort Stedman, in which Southern troops launched a desperate and ultimately failed bid to break the long-running siege of Petersburg, Virginia, a major supply hub. Coming across dead and wounded men, the president was overheard remarking that “he had seen enough of the horrors of war” and “that he hoped this was the beginning of the end.”
At the same time, Sherman was coincidentally planning his own trip to City Point. Fresh off his “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, he had continued his slash-and-burn tactics up through the Carolinas and now appeared on the verge of linking up with Grant. Desiring a parley with his boss, Sherman wrote to Grant that he might visit “for a day or two, before diving into the bowels of the country again,” and that “in one more move” they could “checkmate” Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He then traveled nearly 100 miles to the North Carolina coast, where he hopped on a captured Confederate blockade runner that whisked him up to City Point by the afternoon of March 27. His old friend Grant was there to welcome him, and after trading stories for an hour or so, the duo called on Lincoln aboard his steamship, the River Queen. Porter, another of Sherman and Grant’s friends who commanded the Union fleet on the James River, also may have been present (he later said he attended both days’ meetings, whereas Sherman said he only attended the second).
Either way, Sherman would call this first encounter a “good, long, social visit,” in which Lincoln asked questions about his “great march” and about how the troops would hold up in his absence. “When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard,” Sherman wrote of the president, “but the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship.” Saving more serious discussions for the following day, the two generals took their leave of Lincoln before dinner. They then spent the rest of the evening cracking jokes with other high-ranking military officials and with Grant’s wife, Julia, who gently chided them for forgetting to greet Mrs. Lincoln. Debates over strategy also took place, such as whether a cavalry unit should remain in Virginia or join Sherman in North Carolina.
After meeting with additional high-ranking military officials the next morning, Sherman, Grant and Porter once again boarded the River Queen for what one Union officer described as an “informal interchange of views between the four men who … held the destiny of the nation in their hands.” This time around, Grant briefed the president on his latest military maneuvers and expressed his desire to prevent Lee from uniting with a separate Confederate army in North Carolina. According to Sherman and Porter (the only two of the four to leave a written account of the conference), the generals expected at least one more major battle, much to the consternation of Lincoln, who reiterated that there had been “blood enough shed.” Sherman next turned the conversation to Reconstruction of the South, with Lincoln responding that rebel soldiers would be allowed to return to their homes as soon as they laid down their arms. He even implied that he wouldn’t punish Jefferson Davis, provided the Confederate president left the country.
That very afternoon, Sherman departed for North Carolina, but not before the president purportedly told him and Grant that he liked them because they “never found fault with me.” Sherman responded in kind, writing, “Of all the men I have met, [Lincoln] seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” Within days of their historic get-together, Grant finally finished cutting the roads and rail lines into Petersburg, prompting the Confederates to abandon both it and Richmond, their capital. Lincoln visited Petersburg on April 3 and Richmond on April 4, despite a warning from his secretary of war that snipers might be about. Newly freed blacks apparently thronged around him in the streets. The president then returned to Washington, D.C., on April 9, the same day as Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.