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Lincoln's Visit

Newly freed slaves were among the first Richmonders to greet a worn-out president in the beaten, Confederate capital.


In the 21st century, when a presidential visit even to a friendly city involves weeks of preparation, hundreds of security personnel, and an enormous press corps, it is difficult to comprehend that Lincoln came ashore with only his son Tad and a small guard of six sailors armed with rifles. The party landed just beside the infamous Libby Prison, at 20th and Cary streets (the building has long since been torn down). The prison had held Union officers, but by the time Lincoln arrived, these had been freed and local prisoners arrested by Union forces were in the cells. The prisoners must have been astonished to see the tall figure of the Union president, complete with his trademark stovepipe hat, striding up the street beside the jail.

Fittingly enough, the first Richmonders to recognize Lincoln were newly freed slaves, who clustered around him in excitement. Some knelt in an attempt to kiss Lincoln's hands, but the president told them that from now on, they must "kneel to God only."

The presidential party, surrounded by former slaves, passed up Capitol Hill to the Confederate White House, which was now the headquarters of the occupying force. According to eyewitness accounts, Lincoln entered the house, greeted the federal troops, and then sat in what had been Jefferson Davis' study. One onlooker remembered his face as "pale and utterly worn out." Offered refreshment, Lincoln asked only for a glass of water.

From the White House, Lincoln rode in a carriage to Capitol Square. There, at the base of the Washington statue, he spoke quietly to a small crowd of black Richmonders. Regrettably, no one took down his words. He told one of his party that he was "sorely tempted" to climb atop the Capitol and raise an American flag himself. One witness remembered that Confederate $1,000 bonds were littered across the Capitol grounds; no one even paused to pick them up.

After the Capitol visit, Lincoln rode his carriage through the white residential areas of the city to the east. The white inhabitants remained indoors; many of them stood silently at their upstairs windows, watching the ungainly figure who had been the object of Confederate hatred since 1861. One member of Lincoln's party recalled that "there was something oppressive in those thousands of watchers without a sound, either of welcome or hatred."

Then it was back to the barge to prepare for his trip back to City Point. After he had boarded, a few suspicious strangers tried to come aboard. Only one was on a legitimate errand: John A. Campbell, who had been assistant secretary of war for the C.S.A. (and before secession an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), had met Lincoln before, during failed peace negotiations the previous month. He now discussed a plan to call the Virginia General Assembly into session to withdraw Virginia from the Confederacy. After he left, one of the military escort warned Lincoln that he might be in danger. The president demurred. "I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me harm," he said. S

Garrett Epps is a Richmond native who teaches constitutional law at the University of Oregon. He is the author of three books and is working on a fourth about Reconstruction and the adoption of the 14th Amendment.

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