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 with their former enemies in the Civil War. When I discovered a menu from this dinner, oddly printed on a Confederate banknote, I became curious about this unusual reunion in the former capital of the Confederacy.
It was at about this time that the veterans at Lincoln Post No. 11 decided to embark on a goodwill mission of their own. 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. Parading to 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 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 finally came to an end. After months of preparation, they were on their way.3
|Pennsylvania & Potomac Station|
|Ford's Hotel (ca. 1882)|
Two local organizations in Richmond, one Union and the other Confederate, hosted the visit. Veterans typically harbored no feelings of animosity toward those who had fought on the other side. Still, the men from New Jersey marveled how closely these two groups worked together, even to the point of holding their meetings in the same room that was randomly decorated with Confederate and Union flags.4
At 9:00 PM, the veterans marched over to Saenger Halle, a nearby meeting hall and saloon. In addition to unusual menus printed on old Confederate banknotes, the visitors were surprised that 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 to serve their guests. The clatter of Army knives and forks died down after about an hour when it came time for the speeches. The biggest hit of the evening was the return of a pair of saddlebags captured by Union forces at the Battle of Sayler's Creek in the final days of the war.5 After the presentations, the three hundred “friends,” as they now called each other, toasted one another while the band played “Dixie,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”
The $2 note below has a pink overprint and features a picture of Judah P. Benjamin, a lawyer from Louisiana who served as a Cabinet officer of the Confederate States. Since nothing was originally printed on the back of this 1864 note, it is easy to read the menu.
Interestingly, the menus were also reproduced on denominations that had printing on the back. This $10 bill shows a unit of field artillery moving at full speed. Of the seventy-two different types of Confederate notes, it was the only one that depicted soldiers.
Printing on Confederate currency may not have been as unique as it seemed, as shown by this bill advertising Ford’s Hotel.
Still, the old banknotes were symbolic mementos for these veterans. No longer legal tender (not that they ever were), the obsolete paper money could now be called ephemera, the minor historical documents that provide tangible evidence of everyday life. In this case, they represented the rebellion and the desperate struggle in which these men had been engaged. Even Abraham Lincoln seems to have found the currency strangely compelling. A $5 Confederate bill was found in his pocket after he was assassinated in April 1865. Lincoln may have acquired it during 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. 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 that it was not the local custom to display flags, nor was it part of southern etiquette to witness parades. Even their commander tried to reassure them, saying 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.