It was the great gathering. The celebration of the end of four years of bloody conflict. The celebration of the preservation of the Union.
With the Civil War coming to an end (only the formal surrender of Confederate forces in the trans-Mississippi region remained), at Secretary of War Stanton's suggestion, it was decided to honor the soldiers and lift the glum mood of the capital in the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln by holding a formal review of the armies which it scheduled for May 23 and 24, 1865. The armies participating were the Army of the Potomac which arrived in the capital on May 12, General Sherman's Army, marching up from North Carolina, about 150,000 troops in all (the Union had more than one million soldiers serving as of the end of the war).
Presidential Reviewing Stand (from Library of Congress)
The Army of the Potomac marched for seven hours on the first day. The second day saw Sherman's troops parade for six hours.
In May 1919, The Literary Digest ran an article on the review:
Four stands were erected in front of the White House . . . On the principal stand were President Andrew Johnson and his Cabinet, diplomats and envoys of foreign nations and Governors of States. Lieutenant-General Grant occupied a position near the President.In something that would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the individual (see Custer's First Stand), the Digest also reported on the sensation created by General George Armstrong Custer:
All the school-children of the city, the girls dressed in white and boys in black jackets and white trousers were massed on the terraces and balconies of the Capitol and sang patriotic songs as the soldiers passed.
The soldiers presented a kaleidoscopic picture. Their uniforms were soiled and faded. There had been no brushing up for the occasion - they marched in the uniforms they had worn in the field. . . there were the pet animals of every description, dogs, donkeys, goats, pet wolves and even eagles that had been adopted by regiments as mascots . . . Freed Negro slaves who had been picked up in the field added motley color to the scene.
And General Custer furnished an unlooked-for thrill to the occasion. His horse ran away and plunged wildly down the avenue through the scattering throngs, Custer's long yellow hair streaming in the wind, while women screamed and men shouted, expecting the General to be dashed to his death. But he suddenly brought his horse to its haunches, leaned over, and picked up his hat from the ground and rode back to the head of his column amid the plaudits of the crowd.
In his Memoirs, Ulysses S Grant focused on the second day, perhaps because of his abiding affection for the men he'd led in the West before coming to Washington for the 1864 campaign:
Sherman’s troops had been in camp on the south side of the Potomac. During the night of the 23d he crossed over and bivouacked not far from the Capitol. Promptly at ten o’clock on the morning of the 24th, his troops commenced to pass in review. Sherman’s army made a different appearance from that of the Army of the Potomac. The latter had been operating where they received directly from the North full supplies of food and clothing regularly: the review of this army therefore was the review of a body of 65,000 well-drilled, well-disciplined and orderly soldiers inured to hardship and fit for any duty, but without the experience of gathering their own food and supplies in an enemy’s country, and of being ever on the watch.
Sherman’s army was not so well-dressed as the Army of the Potomac, but their marching could not be excelled; they gave the appearance of men who had been thoroughly drilled to endure hardships, either by long and continuous marches or through exposure to any climate, without the ordinary shelter of a camp. They exhibited also some of the order of march through Georgia where the “sweet potatoes sprung up from the ground” as Sherman’s army went marching through. In the rear of a company there would be a captured horse or mule loaded with small cooking utensils, captured chickens and other food picked up for the use of the men. Negro families who had followed the army would sometimes come along in the rear of a company, with three or four children packed upon a single mule, and the mother leading it.
The sight was varied and grand: nearly all day for two successive days, from the Capitol to the Treasury Building, could be seen a mass of orderly soldiers marching in columns of companies. The National flag was flying from almost every house and store; the windows were filled with spectators; the door-steps and side-walks were crowded with colored people and poor whites who did not succeed in securing better quarters from which to get a view of the grand armies. The city was about as full of strangers who had come to see the sights as it usually is on inauguration day when a new President takes his seat.
Spectators at Capitol
Within days, the discharges began and the soldiers began returning home.