On October 15, 1883, one hundred and eighty-nine Union veterans of the Civil War boarded a train in Newark, New Jersey, heading for Richmond, where they would attend a banquet with veterans of both sides. When I discovered a menu from this dinner, oddly printed on a Confederate banknote, I became curious about why they wanted to hold their 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.” By the early 1880s, 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 reports such as these that may have encouraged the Union veterans of Lincoln Post No. 11 to embark on their goodwill mission to Richmond in 1883. 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 On the night of their departure, the “brigade” marched down Market Street amidst the cheers of well-wishers, 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 and handshaking came to an end. After months of preparation, they were finally on their way.3
|Pennsylvania & Potomac Station|
|Ford's Hotel (ca. 1882)|
Two local veterans' organizations, one Union and the other Confederate, co-hosted the men 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 to shake hands when they spotted their former enemies visiting a battlefield at the same time. Still, the “Jerseymen” 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, randomly decorated with Confederate and Union flags.4
The banquet was to be 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 daily 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 on October 16, 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.” After about an hour, the clatter of Army knives and forks died down, for the time had come for the speeches and presentations. One of the biggest hits of the evening was the return of a pair of saddlebags that had been captured by Union forces at the Battle of Sayler's Creek in the final days of the war.5 After the formalities 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 perhaps for the shoat, the roasted young pigs being a local specialty.
The menus printed on Confederate currency were not as unique as they may have appeared to the visiting Yankees. In the years following the war, local entrepreneurs discovered that the old notes were an attention-grabbing novelty, as shown by this ten-dollar bill with an advertisement for Ford’s Hotel, similar in appearance to the menu.
All the same, 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 visit, the men from New Jersey toured the local sights, such as 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 small objects that were still scattered on the battlegrounds. However, these 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.
Nevertheless, by the time they were getting ready to leave Richmond, the veterans from New Jersey had grown disheartened, 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, even though 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 been able to stay one more day. Yet, it 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 the city. Despite their good intentions, the Union veterans wondered 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 did her part in the reconciliation effort, asking several Confederate generals to serve as pallbearers. Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the former president of the Confederacy, and by then a friend of Julia Grant’s, did her part too, writing a touching eulogy to Grant which was reprinted in Northern papers. The following year, during the Memorial Day observances, over twenty thousand people visited Grant’s tomb in New York. His burial site was covered by a mountain of flowers from all over the country.6 Standing next to an arrangement of white and red roses sent by a grammar school in Sacramento, one simple item attracted particular attention amidst the profusion of floral displays. It was a container with a small cypress tree surrounded by plants. Decorated with blue and gray ribbons, the inscription on it 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.