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Commemorating Lincoln's Visit to Richmond

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of Richmond. On April 4th, 1865, the day after the Union took control of the city, President Lincoln made an impromptu visit to see the fallen Confederate Capitol with his own eyes. 88.9 WCVE producer Peter Solomon says the planning for Lincoln’s visit was bad, the execution even worse.

Learn More: The tour described in this story is part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the fall of Richmond. Learn more here. Mike Gorman has also published an exhaustive account of his research on President Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, published by the Virginia Historical Society.

Transcript:

MIKE GORMAN: Nobody expected him to show up when he did where he did and the military authorities in Richmond weren’t there.

Ranger Mike Gorman is a historian with Richmond National Battlefield Park. Having studied the story of Lincoln’s visit for more than a decade, Gorman will be leading two interpretive tours on Saturday tracing Lincoln’s path.

MIKE GORMAN: It starts off the idea being a big Naval entry into Richmond with flags flying and guns blazing and big ships rolling up on Richmond. It would have been quite a spectacle, That’s the way Admiral Porter wanted it.

Gorman is referring to Admiral David Dixon Porter who became the second man in the history of the US Navy to achieve the rank of Admiral. At the time of Lincoln’s visit he was the commander of the USS Malvern, charged with transporting the President and his eleven year-old son Tadd to Richmond. He ordered work crews from ten war ships to sweep the river for Confederate mines, just one of the challenges he faced navigating the James between City Point and Richmomd.

MIKE GORMAN: Due to the obstructions at Drewry’s bluff and the mines in the river, Porter was forced to put Lincoln in a rowboat that was towed behind a steam launch. As they’re puffing up the river, towing the President and his son behind them. When that launch runs aground. Its an offense that will ruin your career in the Navy to run your boat aground and here’s one of the Admirals of the Navy running his boat aground and with the President.

Ironically, Admiral Porter ran aground trying to rescue the highest ranking officer in the US Navy, David Glasgow Farragut, who himself had run aground.

Lincoln, his son Tadd, twelve sailors, Admiral Porter and a few other men made the rest of the trip to Richmond in a rowboat. Mike Gorman says the President disembarked at a very unusual place.

MIKE GORMAN: As it turned out he landed at a sandbar roughly where the waste treatment plant is. Now if drew a line from seventeenth street across the old canal, right there. The only people that were in the area when he landed were these former slaves.

At this point, the story gets picked up by war correspondent and abolitionist Charles Coffin. He was in the right place at the right time.

MIKE GORMAN: He was down by the waterfront, looking at Libbie Prison, taking note of the ruins. When here comes* Lincoln’s ridiculous little rowboat and he recognized him instantly.

Nearby, Coffin saw a crew of about 40 former slaves building a bridge across the canal.

MIKE GORMAN: He went up to one of them and he said “Have you ever seen the man that made you free – Abraham Lincoln?” The man replied “No sir” and he pointed and he replied “There he is.” This is what sets off this incredible event where all these newly freed slaves are rushing towards him.

News of Lincoln’s arrival spread as rapidly as the fire that devastated the city the previous day. The crowd swelled into the thousands. Lincoln made his way to the White House of the Confederacy, passing through the Farmer’s Market and near Lumpkin's Jail – what Gorman calls the slave trading heart of Richmond. Lincoln’s path skirted the area destroyed by the fire.

MIKE GORMAN: When Lincoln arrived, the Union troops were still putting out the fires, trying to restore order and rbing this under control. But the business district of town which you can roughly see today because its where all the tall buildings are today – that area was burned and in ruins as Lincoln walks into the city roughly by Franklin Street, it would have been right in front of him, it would have been very much alive in everyone’s nostrils. You can certainly imagine that burnt smell, that acrid smell, into the ruined Confederate Capitol.

The Fall of Richmond and the presence of the Union President in the burned out city was rich in symbolism in 1865. For Southerners, Lincoln’s walk through the smoldering city was an obvious sign that the capital was fallen, the government fled, and the war likely lost. Mike Gorman says for the former slaves, Lincoln’s arrival was their emancipation moment. There are other symbols less obvious today, which were distinctly understood in 1865.

MIKE GORMAN: One of the interesting things to me is how many things are still around that are visually symbolic. One of them I think are the statues of comedy and tragedy in the White House of the Confederacy. The other are the statues at Capitol Square-one of which being Washington’s Monument-which was used as the seal of the Confederacy. Talk about visual symbolism-that’s the seal of the Confederate Government and there’s Abraham Lincoln at the foot of this statue. Just down the hill was the other statue on Capitol Square of Henry Clay.

The great compromiser. The great Whig. Lincoln had known him. He’s seen Clay as his idol. And here’s Clay who had fought his entire political life to keep the Union together. Clay’s statue was looking right at the Capitol where secession had occurred where the Confederate Government had met and now its looking as Abraham Lincoln comes in to the former Confederate Capitol.

There’s hundreds of photographs of Richmond after the evacuation fire, there are no photographs of Lincoln in Richmond. The photographers arrived in Richmond a day late.

MIKE GORMAN: If they had been there one day earlier can you imagine the photograph they might have captured of Abraham Lincoln in front of the statue of Washington or on the capitol steps or in the White House of the Confederacy.

Dramatic and perhaps not entirely accurate engravings and paintings would have to suffice. Five days later, Lee surrendered. Ten days later, Lincoln was assassinated.

Over the years, Charles Coffin, the journalist who spotted Lincoln stepping off the rowboat, wrote prolifically and increasingly glowingly about the president and his visit. In each retelling the story grew more dramatic, and Lincoln’s image more glorified. On the tour, Mike Gorman reads from Coffin’s original dispatch which portrayed Lincoln as a much simpler, humbler person.

MIKE GORMAN: “He walked through the streets as if he were a private citizen and not the head of a mighty nation. He came not as a conqueror, not with bitterness in his heart but with kindness. He came as a friend to alleviate sorrow and suffereing. To rebuild what has been destroyed.”

Ranger Mike Gorman, historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park. “In the Footsteps of Abraham Lincoln” – a walking tour following the path of President Linoln’s journey to Richmond will be offered at 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Saturday April 4th. More information can be found at Richmond’s Journey.