History isn't etched in stone ― even when it is ― as new information comes to light or fresh interpretation of older understandings makes better sense. Since 2009, local historian Mike Gorman's understanding of the events of April 4, 1865, has gotten more complicated.
"Virtually my entire interpretation of this event has changed," he says. "And I fully expect it to change again, though not on as a fundamental level. I think the tree that I've shook has borne the big fruit, getting big details about little parts of the story is where it's going."
Of importance to this story is Lincoln's actual route from the 17th and Dock streets landing place. Boston Herald reporter Charles Coffin acted as Lincoln's informal guide at least past the First Market (now 17th Street Market). Coffin a little more familiarity with Richmond than Lincoln. The president came knowing nothing except that he wanted to see the city. Coffin may not have known some exact street names.
That Lincoln strode directly into the middle of what until a few days earlier had been the slave-trading hub of Confederate Richmond is dramatic enough, but that clamoring of newly freed blacks to see and touch him is remarkable. Lincoln seems to have stopped to sit and rested somewhere near the market, and an older woman may have knelt and asked to pray with him. How much of this is true isn't clear.
Gorman thinks it unlikely that Lincoln went west on Main Street before turning north. Photographs of the shattered, scorched and tottering brick remnants in the Burnt District show this as a dangerous route. Coffin speaks of the "Market Road." Gorman believes the safer and more direct way would've been to proceed up 17th Street to Franklin Street, which in those days would've taken the group west toward Capitol Square. "You have to erase Main Street Station in your mind, and imagine that there's a neighborhood here." This was Council Chamber Hill with row houses, churches, Temple Beth Ahaba and several public buildings.
Accounts by two separate generals, who don't acknowledge each other in their reports, say that they both found Lincoln at about 14th and Franklin streets, near the present Monroe Tower. August Kautz, a cavalry commander with the rank of major general of volunteers, writes of a great noise drawing him to the window of his headquarters made in the Richmond House, a nearby hostelry. He "recognized Mr. Lincoln and his son Tad and Admiral [Fitz-John] Porter coming up the landing followed by a large crowd of enthusiastic Negroes. I conducted him to General Weitzel's headquarters at the Davis House. Soon the street in front was black with Negroes."
George Foster Shepley, chief of staff of Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel's corps, remembers the incident in a more amusing way. Lincoln sees Shepley and says, "Hello, is that you, general?" Lincoln says he's walking around in search of the Union headquarters.
"I dispatched an orderly to report the facts to General Weitzel," Shepley wrote, "and we walked together to the Executive Mansion. When we arrived, I presented him to the people, and he acknowledged their hearty cheers with a few simple, sensible and kindly words."
Weitzel's field office was in the Capitol and his formal headquarters at the former Confederate White House. That Weitzel didn't hustle down to meet Lincoln is important. The general expected to hear deck guns announcing the grand arrival of the president as the steamer approached Rocketts. Everyone assumed that's where the victorious entry would occur. Instead, the presence of obstacles and the grounding of one vessel after another put Lincoln and his group in the rowboat. Weitzel, unaware of these mitigating circumstances, was in the Capitol tending to administrative duties. It was Weitzel who took Richmond, and not, as the old saying goes, Grant. He'd not hustled to Rocketts to wait on the president, either. The general had an occupying army to sort out.
The fact that Weitzel needed to receive word of Lincoln's presence in Richmond indicates to Gorman that some accounts of Lincoln proceeding up Governor Street are probably mistaken. "Weitzel would've heard the commotion and come out," Gorman says.
The Lincoln party would've climbed the steep 14th Street hill to Broad and turning north on 12th Street, which then went straight through to the White House. To follow in Lincoln's ― or Jefferson Davis' footsteps ― one must cross through the lobby of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems building.
Gorman doubts that Lincoln spoke at the steps of the White House. He observes that the president had walked up that hill to the house a warm afternoon in his high hat and long black coat. He had confronted an emotional afternoon, The notion that Lincoln would talk to onlookers sounds dubious. After all, the president didn't come to Richmond intending to make a speech.
After conferring with the last representatives of Confederate authority in Richmond, Lincoln got into a carriage alongside the now present Weitzel that whisked him off to the statehouse where the Confederate legislature had met.
The carriage rolled through the Ninth Street entrance and up to the Washington equestrian statue. Lincoln probably did not, as some recount, speak there, either. The scene at the Capitol would have presented powerful symbolism: the Washington statue, whose image was emblazoned on the Confederate seal; the Capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson; and between the entrance and the Capitol, a gazebo where stood a statue of the "Great Compromiser," Henry Clay.
Lincoln was a great admirer of Clay, although the Great Compromise of 1850 that he engineered postponed the war into Lincoln's presidency. On a conveyance around the Capitol, the president's carriage took the turn on the southeastern curve at such a high speed that Lincoln reached for the seat in front of him to keep his balance for fear of the buggy tipping over and pitching everyone down the hill. A similar incident had injured his wife, Mary Todd. She most likely experienced head trauma in July 1863 when her carriage driver's seat became detached, throwing him off, and sending the wagon rushing without a driver. Mary jumped to avoid a wreck. She sustained cuts and bruises and hit the back of her head against a stone. Plagued with migraines all her life, this injury did nothing to improve her condition, and probably made it worse.
From the Capitol, Lincoln's ride seems to have proceeded down Ninth Street, along Cary Street and past the Libby Prison. The sight of the place, on top of all else he'd experienced, overwhelmed Lincoln ― according to Weitzel. Gorman can see how the enormity of the day, and of the past four years, may have crashed on Lincoln all at once there before the stark walls of a former warehouse that had held Federal captives. Then it served as a holding tank for Southerners awaiting parole.
The general chose this awkward time to spring the question on the president of the way to treat those living in occupied Richmond. Lincoln couldn't give a direct order but Weitzel reports him saying, "I'd let 'em up easy."
From there, Lincoln was brought to the steamer Malvern that had by then made it to Rocketts. Lincoln spent the night there, conferred with Confederate representatives again in the morning, then began his return to Washington.
One of the frustrations for Gorman in piecing together Lincoln's hours in Richmond is that, of the likely thousands who viewed him that day, most of them African-American, the historian has yet to see a memoir or letter about an individual experience. Part of the reason is that a number of the spectators may have been functionally illiterate, as slaves weren't allowed an education. "But many of them learned," Gorman says. "And I have to think, somebody wrote down a recollection of what would've been one of the most important days of his or her life to pass on through the family. I'm waiting for that to turn up in a trunk in an attic. These things happen in history."