The Bridge Between Lincoln and His Soldiers

William Underhill’s “self portrait”

William Underhill, a volunteer with the Friends of Grant Cottage and a curator of all things Ulysses S. Grant on the internet, passed along an interesting piece the other day about a Grant memorial bridge in Washington, D.C.—a bridge that was never built.

The blurb came from an online Smithsonian Magazine article, published in 2011, that highlighting “unfinished” Washington:

photo courtesy LOC, with thanks to William Underhill
photo courtesy LOC, with thanks to William Underhill

In 1887, just three years after a similar design by another architect was accepted for London’s Tower Bridge, the architectural firm Smithmeyer and Pelz, in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, proposed a Memorial Bridge honoring Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The bridge, connecting Washington to Arlington, Virginia, was medieval-looking, with two, tall stone towers near its center and pairs of round turrets at other points along it. Talk of actually building the bridge, though, soon fizzled out. Instead, 45 years later, a low-rise Memorial Bridge was built in approximately the same location, extending from the backside of the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington Cemetery. Towerless, it does not obstruct any views.

As have many of you, I’ve driven across Memorial Bridge dozens of times, either toward Arlington National Cemetery on the southwest bank of the Potomac or the Lincoln Memorial on the northeast.

Thinking of a Grant memorial bridge in that same spot gives me pause to consider the connection between Lincoln and those soldiers buried in Arlington.

As commander-in-chief, Lincoln had a connection to the soldiers anyway, something he was fully cognizant of as evidenced by his many trips to visit wounded men in army hospitals. [T]he large hearted and noble President moved softly between beds, his face shining with sympathy and his voice often low with emotion,” newspaper reporter Noah Brooks reported of one such visit.

He also reviewed troops on many occasions, perhaps most importantly in Stafford County in early April, 1863. Historian Al Conner has called it “immensely significant” and among Lincoln’s most important work in the war. “It solidified his relationship with the soldiers . . . no doubt verified in thousands of positive homeward-bound letters,” Conner writes. “By visibly and tangibly contacting virtually every possible soldier, Lincoln forged an impenetrable bond.”

In his role as commander-in-chief, Lincoln communicated regularly with the armies but seldom with the soldiers themselves. He communicated directly with various generals, and he also used Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as a conduit. He used, too, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, but Halleck’s own personal and political agendas, his propensity for covering his own butt and avoiding decision-making, and his Byzantine communication style made him a less-than-ideal point of contact.

Grant’s ascension to general-in-chief changed all that. Lincoln felt a personal investment in Grant that he’d not before felt with the fading Winfield Scott, the imperious George C. McClellan, or the clerkish Halleck. “Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war,” Lincoln vowed shortly before the fall of Vicksburg (a vow he made contingent on the city’s fall).

Similarly, Grant, as a soldier’s soldier, represented the armies in a way none of the other generals had.

As Grant settled into his role as general-in-chief, he and Lincoln corresponded regularly, and a strong bond of trust developed between them. Lincoln set the tone in one of his earliest notes to his new commanding general, sent April 30, 1864: “I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. . . .”

In closing the letter, Lincoln reinforced the link between Grant and his men: “with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.”

It was Grant’s army now, even if Lincoln was its overall commander.

A Grant memorial bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery would have reflected perfectly the literal link Grant served as between Lincoln and the soldiers. I can’t imagine such a Victorian-looking structure blotting out the view of the cemetery, though. Arlington always looks so beautiful as I drive across the modern bridge.

But perhaps even that might have been fitting. Robert E. Lee’s mansion still sits atop the hill. The proposed Grant Memorial Bridge would have eclipsed it just as Grant, after all, eclipsed Lee.

8 Responses to The Bridge Between Lincoln and His Soldiers

  1. I liked the article very much, a part of the war we seldom think about. Could someone in your group do an article or series on the aftermath of the war for the average soldier: What he brought home with him? Difficulties in adjusting to family and work? Lack of understanding from friends? Political involvement through the GAR et al.? Changes in the American culture because of the war, like the spread of guns?

    1. Thanks. As far as some of your questions, there is an outstanding book I would recommend by Brian Matthew Jordan called “Marching Home: Union Veterans and their Unending Civil War.” He answers most of the questions you ask. It’s a fantastic book.

  2. Wow — now this is some fabulous public history thinking and interpretation … i have driven, ran or biked across the Memorial Bridge more times than i can count, was at the Lincoln Memorial last week, and Arlington yesterday, but I never made the Commander-in-Chief, Memorial Bridge and Arlington connection …but i will now. thanks for a great post.

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