This month’s letter is written by a civilian, not a soldier. It was penned by Charles M. Heaton, a prewar surveyor and justice of the peace, who worked as a wartime government clerk in the Land Office Department that had its offices in the Patent Office. In 1860, Heaton, from South Bend, Ind., was able to land a job in Washington, D.C., due to his friendship with and political support of Congressman Schuyler Colfax, a fellow South Bend resident who was the Speaker of the House of representatives. Heaton would live and work in D.C. for the next 20 years.
In the following letter, Heaton provides a fascinating eyewitness description of the March 1864 incident when General Ulysses S. Grant, newly arrived Washington, appeared at a reception in the East Room of the White House. Grant was there to take on his new role as General-in-Chief, and when the gathered crowd recognized the commander from the West, they rushed toward him with abandon. Letter-writer Heaton came to the rescue, helping Grant up on a sofa, where the officer stood with his muddy boots and shook the hand of well-wishers.
This letter is one of thousands of letters transcribed by William Griffing as part of his online repository of Civil War letters, Shared & Spared. For more of the compelling letters he makes available to read, visit the Spared & Shared Facebook page.
March 11, 1864
Washington D. C.
March 11th 1864
When I wrote you last evening I fully intended to have written you again before this Friday evening but every evening something was in the way. Tuesday evening I went to the President’s Levee—the first I have attended this winter. The evening was pleasant and the walking good. James Sample and myself went together, but notwithstanding we went early, we found the East Room & halls pretty well filled. It had been announced during the day that Gen. Grant was to be there. This called out an immense crowd. There were a good many Ladies there, yet the Gents outnumbered them five to one.
I met Mrs. Green there, the lady who keeps the boarding house on 9th Street—not the one that boarded at Mr. Finney’s. She introduced me to a Mrs. Wait from New York State. I offered her my arm and we, with many others promenaded once around the East Room, and just as we got to one of those large sofas right opposite the Green Room entrance, a loud clapping of hands commenced and it was soon discovered that Gen. Grant was about entering the East Room. We saw that he was just entering along with Secretary Seward. The crowd pressed toward him very heavy but he pressed his way through and crossed the room directly where we were. They came right up to where we stood. We shook hands with him but the crowd pressed stronger and stronger to shake him by the hand. I spoke to him & Mr. Seward & told them to mount upon the sofa or they would be overwhelmed. Mr. Seward thanked me for the suggestion and up they mounted with their boots on the elegant sofa.
The rush in that direction was terrible and was impossible to get away from it and I told Mrs. Wait to get on the sofa. She done so and I put my hand against the wall but the pressure on me was so great, I could not stand under it, and I also mounted the sofa. By this time, Secretary Stanton got there and he also mounted the sofa. There was no controlling the crowd. They rushed from every direction & those that had shaken hands with the General could not get away. I took it on myself to speak to the crowd and urged them to open the way on one side so that those who had shaken hands could pass off. Some was pressed to the floor & they placed their feet against the sofa and pushed the crowd back and in this way run their feet through the silk covering of the sofa & about ruined it—tore it full of holes large enough to run my head through. But we finally succeeded in opening a way for them to pass off.
Mr. Seward spoke several times and so did Mr. Stanton of how fortunate it was that they accidentally came to that sofa or the crowd would have overwhelmed them. Their position was fine for the crowd to see them. I was taken by hundreds for Secretary Wells and it was generally remarked that Gen. Grant was accompanied with three of the cabinet. Now don’t you think I felt very much flattered over that? General Grant stood there near one hour with both hands extended, shaking hands with everyone he could reach. At first the Ladies could not get near but after a half hour or more they began to come forward and at the end of near an hour, the most of the crowd had succeeded in taking the General by the hand and the press slacked off when Secretary Seward and General Grant left the room arm in arm. 1 I then had a promenade with Mrs. Sturgis and a sister of Mrs. Sturgis who is now there on a visit, and then I retired and went home somewhat fatigued with my evening excursion. Mr. Haynes did not go to the levee and instead, I believe, he went to the office or to church, I forget which.
It has been raining some this afternoon but Hattie and Frank & Mira and myself are going to Mr. [Schuyler] Colfax’s levee. It is rather muddy but as they have fixed themselves up to go, they are inclined not to give it up.
Dr. Dayton & wife has not arrived yet but are expected tomorrow evening. Major Wade could not wait for them and suppose by this time he is in South Bend. You and Mary must all and see him sure. Mr. Wade has leave of absence for 30 days from the time he left here last Tuesday & the Dr. will be home in time to see him.
It has just begun to rain again & I rather guess it will break up our going to the levee tonight. Well, if we don’t go tonight, we will go next Friday night. I here send you Carrie Matthews’ photograph. It was taken before she came here. She says if she gets any taken here, she will give me one.
We have not finished up the presentation to Mr. Colfax yet. Expect to by the last of the month. I want you to ask Mr. Van Doren to write me and tell me how much to put down for him, should it be necessary to close it up before he returns. Tell him not to fail to write and that he must do the best he can as it will crowd us hard to do as well as we wish to.
Love to all. Your affectionate husband, — Charles M. Heaton
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