Artist Thomas Nast's desire to accurately depict Lincoln's Richmond visit prompted a letter to eyewitness Charles Coffin.image courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2009, marking the 200th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's birth. Since this story was published, historian Mike Gorman has fleshed out more details of the day Lincoln visited Richmond. In addition to this story, you can read about Gorman's updated findings here.
Abraham Lincoln's rowboat put in at 17th and Dock streets. The president began striding in the general direction of Union headquarters as he held the left hand of his youngest son, Tad.
This simple walk through the still-smoldering ruins of downtown, writes Battle Cry of Freedom historian James McPherson, produced the "most unforgettable scenes of this unforgettable war."
But the story of April 4, 1865, has come down to us as if by a game of historic telephone.
John G. Nicolay and John Hay, both close associates of the president, published the first biography of Lincoln in 1890. They assert their own account of his time in Richmond because available sources didn't jibe.
Mike Gorman, historian for the Richmond National Battlefield Parks and builder of a massive online resource, Civil War Richmond (mdgorman.com), studied the details of that singular afternoon for six years.
Gorman explains, "When I first started working on this, I thought there'd never be any way to iron out the differences."
A breakthrough came in 2006, when a friend of Gorman's, while looking for something else in University of Michigan archives, turned up a letter that artist Thomas Nast sent to Charles Coffin, a wartime Boston Herald reporter.
Nast requested that Coffin, an eyewitness, assure the accuracy of his depiction of crowds surrounding Lincoln. Coffin replied with a detailed description. "He even sketched a map of the procession," Gorman says.
In early 1865, the war seemed near an end that refused to come. Lincoln left Washington to be near what he had hoped would be the conclusive operations in Virginia.
‘I'll take care of myself.'
Lincoln; his wife, Mary, and their son Tad arrived at the command and depot center of City Point, near Hopewell, on March 24, 1865. This visit also functioned as a reunion because their eldest son, Robert, was serving there on Grant's staff.
The next day, Robert E. Lee made a last, futile attempt to break the Union grip around Petersburg. Lincoln witnessed the carnage of the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Then on March 26, a strange scene transpired during a military review on Malvern Hill in Henrico County.
Lincoln was to walk among the troops with his wife, but circumstances delayed Mary's carriage. Lincoln proceeded with the event. A general's wife took his arm. When Mary arrived, Gorman describes, "She freaks. She absolutely tweaks. In front of the officers and enlisted men, she yells at Abe, beats on his chest, and all he can do is stand there, head lowered, embarrassed and sad."
Mary was either sent away or chose to leave, but a few days later, she telegraphed from Washington about missing her husband and Tad.
On April 3, Lincoln ambled through Petersburg streets almost in the dust of evacuating Confederates. He congratulated Grant.
That evening, Richmond's business and waterfront districts were consumed by fire as Southern forces left the city.
Lincoln telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about going to Richmond. "I'll take care of myself," Lincoln told the nervous Stanton.
Lincoln's rocky arrival
Lincoln wanted to see Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, who'd claimed Richmond for the Union and established headquarters at the former Confederate White House. Jefferson Davis' housekeeper Mary O'Melia remained to manage the house.
Admiral David Dixon Porter scrambled to clear a path through the obstacles and mines in the James River. His plan for a flag-flying flotilla of victory ran aground, he'd later say, for the best.
Weitzel assumed Lincoln was going to arrive with great fanfare at Rocketts, the city's port, so he went to meet the president at the docks.
Meanwhile, Admiral David "Damn the torpedoes!" Farragut, who came to Richmond alongside Federal troops, commandeered an abandoned Confederate vessel to join Porter's group, but in his zeal, he ran aground on a sandbar near Drewry's Bluff. Coming up from City Point, Porter's flagship Malvern, carrying Lincoln and Tad, could not negotiate the Dewry's Bluff obstructions.
Porter used a steam launch to push Farragut off, and instead the launch got stuck. Porter, with Lincoln, Tad and at least a dozen Marines, transferred into a rowboat. This was taken almost nine miles to Mayo's Island near 14th Street where clustered rocks prevented passage. Lincoln quipped to Porter that the Army might have to come to the Navy's assistance.
‘The ugliest man'
The 90th New York Infantry's regimental history states that the Lincoln party came ashore at 17th Street near Dock, behind today's Bottoms Up Pizza.
Coffin, the Boston Herald journalist, watching free blacks repair the bridge near the site, witnessed Lincoln's entourage clamber from the boat. The president wore a long black overcoat, a high silk hat and a black suit on a day that was turning summery warm.
Coffin told the workers that if they'd like to see their liberator, he was approaching.
"Then it's like the beginning of a concert when the lights go out," Gorman says. "People come swarming."
Ed Ayers, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Southern historian and University of Richmond president, observes, "His willingness to be out among the people is something we cannot wrap our heads around today. This is characteristic of Lincoln. This wasn't something stately with all the protocol, and not intended as a triumphal entry into a conquered city."
At First Market on 17th Street, the slow-moving party turned left on Main. Lincoln then halted and took a few moments to sit, perhaps overcome by the colossal weight of the moment, and/or the heat. There, a former slave either greeted him as a messiah, after which Lincoln eloquently rebuked him (Gorman believes this scene apocryphal), or the freedman knelt to pray — it's possible that Lincoln joined him.
By happenstance, near the Exchange Hotel at 14th and Franklin streets, two Union generals, George F. Shepley and August V. Kautz, saw Lincoln surrounded by blacks. Lincoln offhandedly asked one of the officers for directions to headquarters. They accompanied him to the former Confederate White House on Clay Street.
A woman later wrote of his old and worn appearance, and "with due respect to the President of the United States, I thought him the ugliest man I had ever seen."
Comedy and tragedy
Lincoln entered the foyer dominated by two life-sized bronzed gas lamps representing Comedy and Tragedy. Housekeeper O'Melia showed Lincoln into the library, off the entrance hall. Told that Davis received dignitaries there, he wearily sat, saying, "This must have been President Davis' chair."
Several members of Weitzel's staff were there, but not the general.
"So we're in this kind of strange limbo," Gorman explains. "Nobody knows quite what to do. The officers slap each other on the back. They drink from a bottle of whiskey in the room next to where Lincoln sits."
The teetotaler president asked for a glass of water. He did not play tourist. "He wouldn't have gone upstairs," Gorman says. "That would've been for the family, private."
Weitzel soon clattered up, and he offered effusive apologies for his delayed arrival.
After lunch, the president conferred with the highest-ranking civilian remaining in Richmond, former U.S. Supreme Court justice and Confederate secretary of war John A. Campbell. Campbell wanted to speed the unification process by recalling the Virginia Legislature, which had by then scattered. Campbell thought he could persuade them to rescind Virginia's secession.
Lincoln, tired and overwhelmed, the war not yet concluded, gave half-tacit approval to Campbell's plan and said they would talk more the next day.
During these audiences, birthday boy Tad wandered out among the gathering crowd and started shaking hands, like a future politician. Lincoln soon emerged to ready his son for a ride in Weitzel's buggy.
‘Let 'em up easy'
They viewed Libby Prison, which was once used for Northern captives but had become a holding place for Southerners who'd not yet received parole. At this point, Lincoln broke down. "He weeps," Gorman observes. "Here he says Libby should be preserved as a monument." (It's instead later dismantled and exhibited in conjunction with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.)
Ayers notes, "The surprise for [Lincoln] that day was to discover the power of his presence. An errand of utility turned into a moment of profound meaning he couldn't have foreseen."
Weitzel, not the most sensitive to this emotional moment, asked how to treat the defeated Confederates. The president replied, "If I were in your place, I'd let 'em up easy — let 'em up easy."
Lincoln visited the Virginia Capitol and wandered halls littered by Confederate money and drifting papers.
That evening he bunked aboard Porter's flagship. The next day, April 5, Lincoln again met with Judge Campbell and perhaps Brig. Gen. Joseph Reid Anderson, the Tredegar Iron Works supervisor.
Lincoln returned to City Point to find Mary there, too. She at some point that day came to Richmond with Tad and a few socialites. Gorman says, "If you think Lincoln's story is difficult to figure out, there's almost nothing about Mary coming here; we just know through newspaper accounts that she did."
When he returned to Washington on April 9, the president had been absent 17 days, and on his arrival, he first heard news of Lee's surrender.
Lincoln was shot five days later.