April 4, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln visited the former Confederate capital of Richmond the day after its fall.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, arranged for Lincoln to go to Richmond via the James River. The party traveled aboard Porter’s flagship U.S.S. Malvern, accompanied by the gunboat U.S.S. Bat. There were too many torpedoes and obstructions in the river past Chaffin’s Bluff, so the party finished their journey to Rockett’s Wharf on a small barge.
The party landed near the former Federal prisoner of war camp at Libby Prison. Lincoln came ashore with his son Tad, White House guard William H. Crook, and Porter, who assigned 10 of the barge’s oarsmen to serve as presidential bodyguards. Porter then spotted a Federal cavalryman and sent him to arrange an escort. In the meantime, Lincoln began walking into town. Black residents quickly caught sight of the president and flocked to him. According to Crook:
“The shore for some distance before we reached Richmond was black with negroes… They were wild with excitement and yelling like so many wild men: ‘There comes Massa Lincoln, the Savior of the land–we is so glad to see him!’… By the time we were on shore hundreds of black hands were outstretched to the President, and he shook some of them and thanked the darkies for their welcome.”
Porter later wrote:
“Four minutes had passed since the party had landed in apparently deserted streets; but, now that the hymn was sung, the streets seemed to be suddenly alive with the colored race, the crowd around the President became very oppressive, and it was necessary to order the boat’s crew to fix bayonets and surround him to keep him from being crushed. The negroes, in their ecstasy, could not be made to understand that they were detaining the President, and would not feel that they were free unless they heard it from his own lips.”
The jubilant blacks cheered, prayed, and wept with joy as they tried touching Lincoln. One woman cried, “I know I am free, for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.” Others shouted, “Glory to God! Bless the Lord! Glory, Hallelujah!” When some kneeled before him, Lincoln told them, “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”
The party continued on into the former Confederate capital, which still smoldered from the raging fires. Porter recalled, “Passing the Libby Prison, the President paused for a moment to look at the place where so many Union soldiers had dragged out a dreadful existence. ‘We will pull it down!’ shouted the crowd of poor whites and negroes. ‘No,’ said the President, ‘leave it as a monument.’”
Lincoln walked about two miles under the eyes of disheartened residents until he reached the former Confederate White House. It had been the home of Jefferson Davis 40 hours before, but it was now Federal headquarters, with Major General Godfrey Weitzel commanding. Lincoln took a tour of the residence, with journalist Charles Coffin writing of the scene:
“The procession reached Weitzel’s head-quarters–the mansion from which Jefferson Davis had taken his quick departure the previous Sunday.
“President Lincoln wearily ascended the steps, and by chance dropped into the very chair usually occupied by Mr. Davis when at his writing-table.
“Such was the entrance of the Chief of the Republic into the capital of the late Confederacy. There was no sign of exultation, no elation of spirit, but, on the contrary, a look of unutterable weariness, as if his spirit, energy and animating force were wholly exhausted.”
Spectators outside the mansion cheered when Lincoln came out. The president joined General Weitzel on a tour of the ruined city in an open carriage, escorted by Federal cavalry. They passed St. Paul’s Church and visited the Capitol, where Confederate congressmen had overturned desks and scattered documents before fleeing. The party moved through the upper and working-class neighborhoods before stopping at Libby Prison. According to one of Weitzel’s aides, Thomas T. Graves:
“I accompanied President Lincoln and General Weitzel to Libby prison and Castle Thunder, and heard General Weitzel ask the President what he should do in regard to the conquered people. President Lincoln replied that he did not wish to give any orders on that subject, but, as he expressed it, ‘If I were in your place I’d let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy.’”
Lincoln would next turn his attention to restoring Virginia to the Union. To do this, he enlisted the help of a prominent former Confederate statesman.
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