Loudly applauding crowds of people filled the “gaily decorated” streets of Des Moines on September 29, 1875, as President Ulysses S. Grant arrived for the reunion of the Army of the Tennessee, according to the Union (Missouri) Record.
The Army of the Tennessee was a band of men during the Civil War under the command of then-Major General Grant and named for the Tennessee River. About 200 veterans filled the Hotel Savery the next night for the festivities. In addition to the president, General W. T. Sherman was on hand to take part in the annual reunion—this one honoring the 10th anniversary of the group.
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The men were welcomed by several politicians who spoke on behalf of the people of Iowa. Next, toasts and responses were made. The first was “The Army of the Cumberland,” with a response by Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America. The toast “The March to the Sea—happy in its conception, fortunate in its leader, glorious in its results,” was met with a response by General Sherman. The toast made to honor the president “The President of the United States, drank standing,” elicited a response from the president himself.
““It has always been understood that this toast was to be drank standing, and in silence, and no response was to be expected. But I thank the Society of the Army of the Tennessee very gratefully for the reception which they have given to this toast, and I will beg of you to excuse me from making any further remarks,” the president said.
After the toasts, the speeches began. They were to continue well past midnight.
General Sherman talked “at length” about his march to the sea. Frequently referring to his book on the topic, the general said he wanted to give an account while his men were still alive and able to “correct its errors—if any.”
When it came time for the president’s speech, he started by telling the crowd that he had decided “to disappoint” those who had come “in anticipation of hearing a short speech.” And he embarked on a long talk that some said was simply a “bid for the nomination for a third term.”
The president hit on several topics. He assured those who had fought against the Union that they would continue to enjoy all the privileges “we claim for ourselves.” However, he said that he was not “prepared to apologize for the past.”
He reminded his audience that it was important for everyone to continue to strengthen the foundation laid down by the nation’s forefathers. He echoed their support of free thought, speech and press, as well as equal rights for all “irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.” The president emphasized the need for separation of church and state. He said no school should be appropriated “one dollar” for the support of any sectarian ideas. “Leave the matter of religious teachings to the family; keep the Church and State forever separate,” he said. Newspapers reported his words were greeted with applause, “which was repeated again and again.”
• “Current Topics,” (Missouri) Record, Oct 7, 1875.
• “Domestic,” Boston Post, Oct. 1, 1875.
• “End of the Army Reunion at Des Moines,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 1, 1875.
• “Grant Speaks,” Reading (PA) Times, Oct. 1, 1875.
• The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: 1875, edited by John Y. Simon, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.
• “Speech From President Grant,” Arizona Sentinel, Oct. 9, 1875.
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