Washington, D.C., January-February 1868: The War Department office of Ulysses S. Grant, who then wore two hats, one as interim secretary of war and the other as the commanding general of the United States Army. Grant, the most popular living American by far, at least outside the ex-Rebel states, had a visitor, his most popular contemporary, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant had learned that President Andrew Johnson was trying to entice Sherman into cooperating in a scheme by which Johnson apparently hoped to create, without constitutional or legislative sanction, a new army department under Sherman’s command. It was to number perhaps ten thousand men, be directly linked to the White House, and would be stationed near Baltimore. Evidently Johnson envisaged this new military department as being wholly under his own authority and outside the chain of command going through the War Department, as statutes pursuant to the Constitution required. Johnson apprehended impeachment. His efforts to deflect the Army in the South away from obedience to statutes favoring racial equality had become increasingly frantic. Now Johnson was willing to risk Balkanizing the regular army into a President’s force and a congressional one. And Sherman, deeply conservative on matters of race equality, was willing at least to entertain the notion of cooperating with the President in this risky enterprise.
Sherman and Grant were old friends and combat comrades. Grant invited Sherman, recently in from the field, to his War Department office for what became an hours-long, closed-door, off-the-record session. The usual rumor experts of army headquarters and the War Department were frustrated as, at times, the voices of the two generals penetrated the heavy doors to Grant’s rooms, but so dimly that the most acute ears bent that way could make out few words. Finally Sherman emerged. He looked shaken. Soon after this meeting he took the train out of Washington to St. Louis and, except for brief ceremonial occasions, did not return to Washington’s dangers for almost twenty years.
What, I dearly want to know, did Grant tell Sherman? How did the latter respond? Sherman’s decision not to play the President s hazardous game and to listen to his immediate superior officer—who was soon to be his commander in chief—helped to keep the American army subservient to all its constitutional masters, not to one alone.