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.