Just a week and a half before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln spent a whirlwind two days visiting Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. He’d already been enjoying himself for over a week at City Point, General Grant’s headquarters on the James River — cruising on the water with his son Tad, brushing shoulders with the troops, crafting telegrams on the state of the fighting, and cabling them back to the War Department. But the side trips to Petersburg and Richmond seem to have given him a special thrill.
Unfortunately for us, he never got the chance to reflect on what those visits of April 3 and 4, 1865, meant to him, or to disclose exactly why he went. We’re left with a few journalists’ dispatches and some later recollections of people who made the trips with him. Those sources are not all equally reliable, but taken together they affirm an undeniable fact: in both cities Lincoln encountered exuberant throngs of African Americans, and the experience moved him deeply.
Imagine the moment for them: this was the first full day of their de facto emancipation. Union troops had retaken Petersburg on April 2 and Richmond on April 3, putting an end to slavery on the ground, though legal emancipation would come later. Many slaves had cherished Lincoln’s name since 1863, if not earlier, turning him into an icon years before most northerners did. And in Petersburg and Richmond, as thousands of slaves rejoiced over the end of their bondage, who should show up in the flesh but the liberator himself! They didn’t hide their euphoria. Northern soldiers and correspondents got to witness an infectious, delirious outpouring of dance and song.
And imagine the moment for Lincoln: having always abhorred slavery, while tolerating it where it was constitutionally protected, he got to savor the sights and sounds of emancipation as an event unfolding in real time. For years he’d been preoccupied with emancipation as a political and military matter, but now it was exploding all around him, with jubilant slaves praising him and Jesus for ending their oppression.
In Petersburg, 15 miles southwest of City Point and 30 miles south of Richmond, the streets were “alive with negroes,” Admiral David Porter later remembered, “crazy to see their savior, as they called the president.” In Richmond, Charles Coffin of the Boston Journal was accidentally standing on the very dock where Lincoln ended up stepping ashore. “There was a sudden shout” from black people nearby, as Coffin wrote that night. “They crowded round the President … Such a hurly-burly — such wild, indescribable ecstatic joy I [had] never witnessed.”
Coffin is a more reliable witness than Porter, since his report was filed immediately, while Porter’s memories were published two decades later. Coffin, too, wrote later accounts, inflating his closeness to the president as the years went by. In his 1865 dispatch he said “a coloured man acted as guide” for the president when Lincoln left the dock on foot for Union army headquarters (in the former Confederate White House, now the Museum of the Confederacy).
But in an 1881 book, Coffin claimed that he was the one who showed Lincoln the path to “Jeff Davis’s mansion.” And in 1885 he went even further: now he said Lincoln yelled out to him before reaching shore, asking Coffin to kindly lead the way. Memory plays tricks as time passes, and the tricks in memories of Lincoln usually magnify the importance of the person doing the remembering.
Admiral David Porter accompanied Lincoln to both Petersburg and Richmond in 1865, and in his 1886 memoir (after he had become an aspiring fiction writer), he couldn’t resist concocting a dramatic scene, complete with detailed dialogue. He remembered a group of 12 black laborers who had knelt before Lincoln on the dock “to kiss the hem of his garments.” Porter played that memory into a carefully scripted and staged event, with Lincoln lecturing the black workers on the proper behavior for citizens of a republic.
“Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln scolds. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument; but you may rest assured that as long as I live no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”
If Lincoln did deliver such a sermonette just after completing an arduous river journey, Porter couldn’t possibly have remembered the exact language of it. But there’s good reason to doubt Lincoln made any lofty, well-crafted remarks at this point in his day. He would have had to quiet the dockside uproar of whooping and hollering. And if the African Americans on the dock had gotten to hear such a polished and memorable reflection, Charles Coffin would likely have noticed it, too, and reported it.
Lincoln may have given a short speech to some African Americans later that afternoon at Capitol Square — during his jaunt around town in a “carriage-and-four” — and those remarks may have resembled Porter’s “Don’t kneel to me” speech. A southern white girl named Lelian Cook didn’t hear what Lincoln said at the square, but she wrote in her diary on that day that he had addressed “the colored people” there, “telling them they were free, and had no master now but God.”
This recently colorized image in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library shows Lincoln riding off on his city tour (he was escorted by a detail of African-American troops). As a black-and-white engraving it first appeared on the front page of the weekly Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper’s issue of April 22, 1865.
Note the well-dressed white southerners on the right, suggesting to us a universal welcome for Lincoln from everyone in Richmond. But reports in 1865 emphasized that the whites in the crowd (one-third of the whole, said Coffin) were people of modest means. Well-heeled Richmond whites stayed home. By and large, wrote Thomas Morris Chester, an African-American reporter for the Philadelphia Press, the whites either “stood motionless upon their steps” or “peeped through the window-blinds.”
We’re left wondering why Lincoln went to Richmond at all, one day after his grueling round trip to Petersburg by train and on horseback. There are many possible reasons. One of them stands out when Coffin’s dispatch and Porter’s memoir are combined. Lincoln had likely been bowled over by witnessing the moment of emancipation in Petersburg. This life-long hater of slavery may have wanted to re-create that experience on a larger scale in Richmond the following day. If so, he got his wish.
His three-quarter-mile walk from the dock to Union army headquarters amounted to a mass movement of emancipated humanity, with Lincoln towering over the other marchers in his tall, silk hat. The ecstatic throng that swept him up from Governor to Broad, and out Twelfth to Marshall, included, by Coffin’s later guess, about 2,000 African Americans.
It was a dusty trek, and Lincoln perspired freely under the baking sun. At one point he stopped to rest, and an old black man approached him. The man bowed, doffed his hat, and said, “May the good Lord bless you, President Lincoln.” Lincoln bowed and doffed his hat in return. Coffin was floored by the president’s simple act of reciprocity. “A death-blow to chivalry,” Coffin called it, “and a mortal wound to caste.”
One hopes that Lincoln overheard some of the other comments being made about him that afternoon. “I know that I am free,” an old black woman said in Chester’s presence, “for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.”
Another “good old colored female” offered her hero a giddily protective bit of advice as the day came to a close. She was standing on the wharf when Lincoln boarded a cutter to take him out to David Porter’s flagship on the James River, where he would spend the night. The cutter pushed off, the crowd cheered, and she hollered, “Don’t drown, Massa Abe, for God’s sake!”
In his dispatch composed that night, Coffin said Lincoln had indeed been listening to the words that filled the air that day. He told his readers to remember “the jubilant cries, the countenances beaming with unspeakable joy, the tossing up of caps … free men henceforth and forever, their bonds cut asunder in an hour — men from whose limbs the chains fell yesterday morning.” No wonder that Lincoln “felt his soul stirred; that the tears almost came to his eyes as he heard the thanksgivings to God and Jesus, and the blessings uttered for him from thankful hearts.”
The Boston Journal published those words on April 10, 1865 (afterwards they were widely reprinted). Five days later Lincoln was dead, primed for a fame that drew on warm memories of his afternoon trek in Richmond.
– Thanks to historian Mike Gorman of the National Park Service for sharing with me his fine research on Lincoln’s day in Richmond.