Abe in Va.: Quiet rides and sad sojourn deserve note

About 20 years ago, I saw an illustration of Abraham Lincoln entering Richmond, the familiar Jefferson-designed Capitol building looming in the background. I figured the drawing was Union propaganda; I had never heard of Lincoln in Virginia during the Civil War.

Eventually, I learn that the picture had accompanied a Harper’s Weekly story reporting Lincoln’s visit with his son Tad April 4, 1865, the day after Union troops occupied Richmond, five days before Appomattox, and 10 days before Lincoln is assassinated on Good Friday.

Emancipated slaves and black laborers greet the President, falling on their knees. “Don’t kneel to me," Lincoln allegedly tells them. "You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”   

With further research, I find that Lincoln had in fact visited Virginia at least nine times during the War.

I query friends from Virginia and elsewhere: “Lincoln in Virginia during the War?  No, I never heard that.”

Like most Americans, I learned in childhood about Lincoln’s humble birth in a Kentucky log cabin; his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves, and the simple eloquence of the address delivered in the cemetery in Gettysburg. 

As a Virginian, I visited many Civil War battle sites and cemeteries dotting the Commonwealth and observed numerous silver roadside historic markers noting every campsite and bivouac of various southern generals, as well as the ubiquitous statues of Rebel soldiers in court house squares.

Union General Custer crossed the Rivanna, and Sheridan burned Scottsville. But Lincoln– what did I know of the Great Emancipator in the Old Dominion? How did so many of us miss the presence of Lincoln in our landscape? 

Virginia and the South secede from the Union to preserve slavery. For Lincoln, the war’s purpose is to preserve the Union. This war isn’t in a foreign country like Afghanistan or Iraq or even Mother England. Virginia is part of the nation Lincoln wants to endure. A civil war, a family war: Lincoln’s forbears were from Virginia and the slave state of Kentucky. Mary Lincoln’s family is Southern. Fittingly, when Lincoln travels to Virginia to meet his generals and review his troops, he is frequently accompanied by family.

But first, shortly after the Union loses the Battle of Bull Run, he alone visits troops at Bailey’s Cross Roads in Northern Virginia. Next, in May 1862, he travels with two cabinet members by boat to Fort Monroe (our newest National Monument) at Hampton Roads. With his General George McClellan 20 miles away, Lincoln decides federal troops should attack the Rebels in Norfolk, a strategic site on the Chesapeake Bay. At night, Lincoln and his party row across the water to examine the attack site; meanwhile, the Rebels evacuate, and Norfolk becomes and remains Union territory throughout the War.

Barely returned from Ft. Monroe, Lincoln departs for a six-day coastal trip with Mary and three cabinet members and their wives to visit Union-occupied coastal towns and General McClellan’s camp on the York River.  A few days after this, he makes a sudden trip to Fredericksburg to confer with his command and inspect the troops.

Other trips would follow:

July 1862: Lincoln travels by boat to Harrison’s Landing on the James east of Richmond to boost the morale of the weary soldiers of the Peninsula Campaign, and he is met with cheers as he reviews the troops.

April 1863: Traveling by boat and train, Lincoln and family arrive at Army headquarters in Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. By horseback, Lincoln and Tad, celebrating his 10th birthday, review the cheering troops stretching for miles.   

May 1863: A month later, Lincoln has a more somber task of returning to Fredericksburg after the Union has been defeated.

June 1864: With Tad again in tow, the President travels by steamer to visit General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, aka Hopewell, on the James. Without bodyguards, Lincoln rides horseback 10 miles to the Petersburg front. On his return, he passes a brigade of black soldiers who cheer him as “liberator.” The next day, Lincoln and Grant travel by boat up the James to visit other Union generals.

August 1864: After a devastating Union loss of life in the Battle of the Crater (Petersburg), Lincoln returns to Fort Monroe to confer with Grant. 

January 1865: Lincoln meets with a Confederate peace delegation at Fort Monroe. The bottom line: Lincoln will not revoke the Emancipation Proclamation, and restoration of the Union is an imperative for peace. Negotiations fail.

April 4, 1865:  A day after the devastating Evacuation Fire and the Union occupation of  Richmond, Lincoln (whose journey began the last week of March), arrives in the fallen Confederate capital with Tad on the youngster's 12th birthday. Newly liberated slaves in the burnt-out city express enthusiasm and gratitude. From Richmond, Lincoln travels downstream where Mary joins him to comfort the dying and wounded in City Point and Petersburg.

In honor of that sad sojourn, in 2003 a Richmond-based historical society dedicated a bronze statue, located behind the Tredegar Ironworks on the James River, of the President and his son. Perhaps the Commonwealth could find other suitable commemorations. We have a state-sponsored Civil War Trail. How about adding a Lincoln Trail?

In addition to the federal holiday known as Presidents Day, why not re-name a state holiday to honor The Great Emancipator? Options could include: Jubilee Day, January 1, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863; or Virginia's mid-January Friday holiday could be renamed Lincoln-Lee-Jackson Day.

Honoring Lincoln in Virginia would be one small step toward healing the racial and regional divisions of the Civil War as well as honoring the emancipation of the slaves and the eventual desegregation of schools and public facilities in Virginia. Perhaps in this age of dissension and disunion such an act could inspire us and future generations to continue Lincoln’s emphasis on the Union– a nation indivisible– and with liberty and justice for all.
Kay Slaughter is a lifelong Virginian, a retired environmental attorney, and former mayor of Charlottesville. Many of the dates in this essay are from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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Actually, corrected history shows that Lincoln was born in western North Carolina, not Kentucky or Illinois as is commonly believed, to biological father Abraham Enloe. And, before the age of political correctness took over, Virginia actually DID celebrate Lincoln's birthday, along with George Washington's, in February. Back in those days, when elementary students in Virginia were taught Virginia's history, we even got the day off of school to celebrate our two great presidents: usually after a week or so of the teacher giving lessons on these great leaders and the things they accomplished ~~~ back in the day when accurate history really mattered, and was respected. Nowadays, half of the graduating students couldn't tell you who George Washington was, or what he ever did. Very sad.
Homer Barnswallow
Nelson County

Probably not on the SOL's so it doesn't count.

Why this awkward use of the present tense? "10 days before Lincoln is assassinated..."?? Why not write about things that happened in the past in the past tense? This is an annoying affectation that makes your ideas hard to follow.

nothing wrong with the tense...read the whole paragraph again. and how about a comment on the contents of the article and not how it was written. get off the computer and go for a walk. you need to get out more.

I loved Margaret Thatcher, as played by Ms. Streep, in the recent movie " Iron Lady ", saying, perhaps if you listened to the content of what I am saying instead of the way I am saying it you would learn something .

I agree with Desdemona, the use of the present tense is an irritating affectation. Unfortunately, it is all too common when history is narrated. I'm not sure, but I think this trend may have started with Ken Burns.
As for the content, I'm glad Kay Slaughter is bringing attention to Lincoln's role in Civil War Virginia. Lincoln's visit to Richmond, as the city was still smouldering and the remnants of Lee's army fled west, was one of the most dramatic moments in the whole Civil War era.

Thank you, Ms. Slaughter, for this terrific article and it's suggestions.

Thanks for the essay. The information was new to me and, I would guess, to many others.

Stilted writing to be sure, but what I think is more worthy of note is the author's unpublicized role as lobbyist using her influence to wreck the compromise Mayor Norris worked out with his plan for the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.

I think it's odd that the newspaper responsible for exposing much of the misinformation and behind the scenes shenanigans associated with that project and its proponents would give her a platform for any purpose.

Amazing that anyone would consider a day for a man who worked so hard towards the destruction of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and who is not a Virginian. Especially considering that personages such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, & John Marshall -- all Virginians who worked towards the goodwill and fortune of Virginia, are denied that honor.

I don't think so. Virginia's fight for slavery and human property was ghastly- shameful. On the other hand,Virginia preceded the Union and had every right to leave it. Lincoln was great; Lincoln was also responsible for ravaging the state and killing thousands of it citizens. No state holiday for Abe.

I think that Lincoln's trip to Richmond is fairly well remembered. He supposedly asked that "Dixie" be played, given that Union forces had "captured" that as well.

"Perhaps in this age of dissension and disunion such an act could inspire us and future generations to continue Lincoln’s emphasis on the Union– a nation indivisible– and with liberty and justice for all." I think its a great idea it should bring about emphasis on Lincoln's election which divided the nation his responsibility for leading a nation to war, an invasion of Virginia, and the South. The murder of its citizens, the rapine of its women, the impoverishment of its children, the pillage and arson of Virginia, and Southern citizens property and country. All in order to have usurpation of the nation, in the myth of ennobling it.

It was a war and he didn't start it. Get over yourselves and your interpretation of revisionist history. Those refusing to recognize the mistakes of the past are condemned to relive them.

Yes, that piece of shit was in Virginia. Too bad that niggerlover wasn't shot two years earlier.

In 30 years we could stamp out this degenerate bloodline if someone would just pull down their monuments.

No, Virginia did not secede to preserve slavery. Nor did Lincoln wage war on his fellow Americans to end slavery or so Lincoln himself said many times. The historical record on these two points is undeniable.
When Virginia ratified the Constitution, she did so with the Resolution/Proviso that she could withdraw voluntarily if she deemed it necessary, and her resolution explaining her conditional ratification was accepted by the Congress, intact. This right of people to dissolve the bonds to a government no longer serving her interest was, afterall, the central theme of the Declaration of Independence, as written by Thomas Jefferson.
Virginians believed that all states had this right. When Lincoln called for war to coerce South Carolina and other states back into the subservient, burdensome arrangement from which they had declared their independence, THEN and ONLY THEN did Virginia secede. Up to the point of Lincoln's unconstitutional demand for war on her sister states, Virginia was decidedly pro-Union.
One can not say that "Lincoln preserved the Union". Actually, he changed the Union from voluntary to involuntary and coercive; from subject to the consent of the governed to perpetual and regardless of the governed's consent; from a republic in which the Federal government's powers were delegated to it by the states, to one in which the brute power of the Federal government trumps the sovereignty of the states and the will of the people. (This is recently manifest in the passage of Obamacare, which is opposed by 70% of the people and more than half of the states.)
WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS by Charles Francis Adams, is a good beginning source for anyone wanting to get beyond the shameless mythology now being taught on the general subject of the causes of the War.