Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Let There Be Peace

Richmond, Virginia

One hundred and eighty-nine Union veterans from Newark, New Jersey boarded a train in October 1883 heading for Richmond where they would attend a banquet. When I discovered a menu from this dinner, oddly printed on a Confederate banknote, I became curious about this unusual Civil War reunion in the former capital of the Confederacy.

The long and complicated process of reestablishing cordial relations between the North and South went through various phases. In March 1865, with the war nearing its completion and the Confederacy in shambles, President Lincoln set the tone for reuniting the country, counseling “malice toward none; with charity for all” in his second inaugural address. During the presidential campaign in 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant advanced the idea of reconciliation with the slogan “Let There Be Peace.” Still, it was not until the early 1880s that there was a growing awareness among veterans in the North that there had been two sides in the conflict. Reflecting this change in perception, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (responsible for erecting monuments and preserving the site) came to the conclusion in 1882 that it was meaningless to mark the Union lines without knowing the Rebel positions. Accordingly, they invited former Confederate officers to visit the field and show them where they had been positioned. In another gesture of reconciliation that year, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the largest national organization of Union veterans, marched together with Confederate veterans in a commemorative parade.

It was at about this time that the veterans of Lincoln Post No. 11 decided to embark on a goodwill mission to Richmond. As one of its members later recalled, “It had been eighteen years since the end of the war, yet, little had been done of a personal, practical character to heal up the old sores and make the body politic whole and healthy again.”1 It was with this in mind that the “brigade” marched down Market Street on the night of their departure, midst the cheers of well-wishers. They were guided to the railroad depot by a blaze of electric lights—a new technological development.2 The scene was further illuminated by Roman candles that were ignited from the rooftops, and colorful bonfires radiating red, white, and blue. It was not until the train pulled out of the station that the hubbub came to an end. After months of preparation, they were finally on their way.3

Pennsylvania & Potomac Station
Early the next morning, the men hurriedly devoured breakfast at the Pennsylvania & Potomac station in Washington, so they would have enough time to walk over and see the small brass star that marked the spot where President James Garfield had been shot and mortally wounded two years earlier.  In office for two hundred days, Gardield was deeply mourned by those who remembered him as a beloved public servant and major general in the war. After the veterans paid their respects, they resumed their journey southward, stopping next at the battlefield at Fredericksburg. When they finally arrived at Richmond that day, they were greeted by the mayor and escorted to Ford’s Hotel on the corner of Broad and Eleventh Streets, facing Capitol Square. It was there, while checking in, that the veterans noticed there was no American flag flying over the hotel. As the men grew agitated, the proprietor quickly found a flag and hoisted it over the establishment, much to the satisfaction of his newly-arrived guests. With the matter settled, they finished checking in, passing the word to eat lightly in order to be ready for the banquet that evening.

Ford's Hotel (ca. 1882)

Two local veterans' organizations, one Union and the other Confederate, co-hosted the visitors from New Jersey. Veterans of the Civil War typically harbored no feelings of animosity toward those who had fought on the other side. In fact, they would often go over and shake hands with their former enemies when visiting a battlefield at the same time. Still, the Northerners were surprised to see how closely these two groups in Richmond worked together, even to the point of holding their meetings in the same room which was randomly decorated with Confederate and Union flags.4

The banquet was held in Saenger Halle, a nearby meeting hall and saloon that was large enough to accommodate all three hundred of the participants. While they were resting and waiting for dinner, a quick look at the hotel’s bill of fare would have given the visitors a general idea of what they might expect that evening. Dating from the previous year, the menu below from Ford’s Hotel features local foods like corned pork and turnips, barbecued shoat (weaned young pig), ox heart stuffed with barbecue sauce, small patties of veal brains, and turkey “pinons” (wings) with oyster sauce. The baked chub, which could have been any one of a number of unrelated fish, was probably a tautog, a blackfish found off the coast of southeast Virginia.

At 9:00 PM, the visitors marched a few blocks over to the banquet hall where they found the entire room (including the stage at the end) filled with tables laden with food, and the unusual menus printed on old Confederate banknotes. Interestingly, the one shown below is printed on a ten-dollar bill, showing a unit of field artillery moving at full speed. It was the only Confederate note (of the seventy-two different types) that depicted soldiers. In what may have been another surprise, their hosts waited on the tables themselves—the Union men from the Phil Kearney Post No. 11 worked alongside the former Confederates from Robert E. Lee Camp No. 1, forming a corps of waiters that served their guests with “royal munificence.” The clatter of Army knives and forks died down an hour later when it came time for the speeches. In what was perhaps the biggest hit of the evening, a pair of saddlebags were returned after having been captured by Union forces at the Battle of Sayler's Creek in the final days of the war.5 After the presentations were completed, the “friends,” as they now called each other, finished the evening toasting one another with “bumpers of punch, lusty and toothsome,” while the band played “Dixie,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”

The bill of fare transcribed below features conventional dishes except for the shoat, or roasted young pig, which was a local specialty.

Rockfish Boiled, Egg sauce

Fried Virginia Style

Tenderloin of Beef

Cold Dishes
Beef Tongue
Spiced Beef
Virginia Ham
Roast Shoat

Sliced Tomatoes

Potato Salad
Cold Slaw
Cucumber Pickles
Beet Pickles

Assorted Fancy Cakes
Cream Puffs

The menus printed on Confederate currency were not as unique as they appeared.  After the war, local entrepreneurs used the old notes as attention-grabbing novelties The ten-dollar bill below has an advertisement for Ford’s Hotel.

Still, the old banknotes may have meant something more to the visiting veterans than just a mere souvenir. No longer legal tender (not that they ever were), the obsolete paper money was now ephemera—the minor historical documents of everyday life that provided tangible evidence of the rebellion and the desperate struggle in which they had been engaged. Even Abraham Lincoln seems to have found the currency strangely compelling. After he was assassinated in April 1865, a five-dollar Confederate bill was found in his pocket, perhaps a memento of his trip to Richmond ten days earlier, following the evacuation of the city by Confederate forces. (The saddlebags were picked up at Sayler's Creek the day after Lincoln’s visit.)

During their two-day stay, the Yankees from New Jersey toured the local sights like the tobacco warehouses, the Allan mansion where Edgar Allan Poe was “reared,” and St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.” They also walked around the former military prisons and battlefields looking for the small objects that were still scattered on the battlegrounds. However, the veterans mostly visited the cemeteries that ringed the city, taking time to honor the dead of both sides, for the experience of the war had not stopped for these men when the shooting ended. They continued to live with their war.

The veterans from New Jersey had grown disheartened by the time they were getting ready to depart, for they had seen no national flags during their visit (other than the one flying over their hotel), nor had the citizens come out to cheer their parades. Indeed, they came to believe that they were not really welcome in the city. The mayor tried to convince them otherwise, explaining in his welcoming speech that it was not the local custom to display flags, nor was it part of southern etiquette to witness parades. Even their commander attempted to reassure them, saying that they would have surely won over the local people if they had had more time. Yet, their perception was true. In contrast to the warm reception they received from their fellow veterans, the visitors had been shunned by much of the white population, representing about 58% of the 65,000 people who lived in Richmond. In the end, the Union veterans questioned whether their trip had done any good in helping bring the country back together. Only time would tell.

When Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885, his widow Julia Grant asked several Confederate generals to serve as pallbearers. Also helping the reconciliation effort, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the former president of the Confederacy and by then a friend of Julia Grant’s, wrote a touching eulogy that was reprinted in Northern papers. The following year, during the Memorial Day observances, over twenty thousand people visited Grant’s tomb in New York. The burial site was covered by a mountain of flowers from all over the country.6  One simple item, however, attracted particular attention in the profusion of floral displays. Standing next to white and red roses sent by a grammar school in Sacramento, a small cypress tree decorated with blue and gray ribbons bore an inscription that read, “Let us have peace. From R. E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans, Richmond, Va.”

1. Henry Benson, “Yank” and “Reb”; a history of a fraternal visit paid by Lincoln Post, No. 11, G. A. R., of Newark, N. J. to Robt. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans and Phil. Kearney Post No. 10, G. A. R. of Richmond, Va., October 15th, to October 18th, inclusive, Newark, New Jersey, 1884.
2. Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark before moving his home and laboratory to Menlo Park, twenty miles south of the city. After patenting a system for electricity distribution in 1880, he founded the Edison Illuminating Company, switching on its first generating station on September 4, 1882 to serve fifty-nine customers in lower Manhattan.
3. On the same day in October 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. Signed into law by President Grant in 1875, the act guaranteed that everyone, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, was entitled to “the full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations such as hotels, transportation, theaters, and other amusement places. It was rarely enforced, especially after the 1876 presidential election that resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending the Reconstruction era.
4. Robert E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans, was just getting started in 1883. Having met for the first time on April 18 of that year, the benevolent society was formed by veterans to aid their financially needy, often disabled, comrades. It was one of the first such veterans organizations formed in the South. After incorporating in 1884, they opened a soldiers’ home on an old farm in the west end of Richmond (now the corner of Grove Avenue and the Boulevard) on January 1, 1885.
5. The Battle of Sayler’s Creek (now also known as Sailor's Creek) was fought on April 6, 1865, southwest of Petersburg, Virginia, three days before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
6. New York Times, 1 June 1886. See Dry Monopole by Half a Length (11 April 2011) for another reference to the Memorial Day observances in New York City in 1886.


lostpastremembered said...

What an amazing story and gorgeous menu... money, who knew? It seems a shame to let all that lovely engraving go to waste!

jeanne said...

Incredible narrative, Henry, wholly unexpected and inspiring. Veterans, above all, know the costs of war and most cherish peace.

Faithlyn Robinson said...

I like the menu and photo of the Ford Hotel. Can I have permission to use these photos? I'm working on a book. - Faithlyn Robinson

Teresa Mulcahy Letteer said...

My 2x's great uncle Frank P. Mulcahy was the commander of the 11th Lincoln Newark NJ GAR Post at the time of this trip. Thank you for this article...it's wonderful reading about something a relative was part of.