When studying the past one of the primary rules is to remember how different one time is from another. This rule comes jarringly to mind when we recall Lincoln’s visit to Richmond the day after it fell. Lincoln was at City Point on the James River, so he was quite close to Richmond. Lincoln was curious to see the city that had eluded Union armies for such a long time. Since he wanted to see it, he did, almost with no security. I cannot possibly imagine any chief of state today taking an informal tour of an enemy capital the day after it fell! Any chief of security would have a stroke at the time. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, did note after the trip, that anyone who wanted to take a shot at Lincoln in Richmond could have. Yes, the past is a different country!
Admiral David Dixon Porter who accompanied Lincoln in his journey into Richmond later wrote about it in his memoirs:
I had never been to Richmond before by that route, and did not know where the landing was; neither did the coxswain, nor any of the barge’s crew. We pulled on, hoping to see some one of whom we could inquire, but no one was in sight.
The street along the river-front was as deserted as if this had been a city of the dead. The troops had been in possession some hours, but not a soldier was to be seen.
The current was now rushing past us over and among rocks, on one of which we finally stuck.
‘Send for Colonel Bailey,’ said the President; ‘he will get you out of this.’
‘No, sir, we don’t want Colonel Bailey this time. I can manage it.’ So I backed out and pointed for the nearest landing.
There was a small house on this landing, and behind it were some twelve negroes digging with spades. The leader of them was an old man sixty years of age. He raised himself to an upright position as we landed, and put his hands up to his eyes. Then he dropped his spade and sprang forward. ‘Bress de Lord,’ he said. ‘Dere is de great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s bin in my hear fo’ long yeahs, an’ he’s cum at las’ to free his chillun from deir bondage! Glory, Hallelujah!’ And he fell upon his knees before the President and kissed his feet. The others followed his example, and in a minute Mr. Lincoln was surrounded by these people, who had treasured up the recollection of him caught from a photograph, and had looked up to him for four years as the one who was to lead them out of captivity.
It was a touching sight – that aged negro kneeling at the feet of the tall, gaunt-looking man who seemed in himself to be bearing all the grief of the nation, and whose sad face seemed to say, “I suffer for you all, but will do all I can to help you.’
Mr. Lincoln looked down on the poor creatures at his feet; he was much embarrassed at his position. ‘Don’t kneel to me,’ he said. ‘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.’
His face was lit up with a divine look as he uttered these words. Though not a handsome man, and ungainly in his person, yet in his enthusiasm he seemed the personification of manly beauty, and that sad face of his looked down in kindness upon these ignorant blacks with a grace that could not be excelled. He really seemed of another world.
All this scene of brief duration, but, though a simple and humble affair, it impressed me more than anything of the kind I ever witnessed. What a fine picture that would have made – Mr. Lincoln landing from a ship-of-war’s boat, an aged negro on his knees at his feet, and a dozen more trying to reach him to kiss the hem of his garments! In the foreground should be the shackles he had broken when he issued his proclamation giving liberty to the slave.
Twenty years have passed since that event; it is almost too new in history to make a great impression, but the time will come when it will loom up as one of the greatest of man’s achievements, and the name of Abraham Lincoln – who of his own will struck the shackles from the limbs of four millions of people – will be honored thousands of years from now as man’s name was never honored before.
It was a minute or two before I could get the negroes to rise and leave the President. The scene was so touching I hated to disturb it, yet we could not stay there all day; we had to move one; so I requested the patriarch to withdraw from about the President with his companions and let us pass on.
‘Yes, Massa,’ said the old man, ‘but after bein’ so many years in de desert widout water, it’s mighty pleasant to be lookin’ at las’ on our spring of life. ‘Scuse us, sir; we means no disrespec’ to Mass’ Lincoln; we means all love and gratitude.’ And then, joining hands together in a ring, the negroes sang the following hymn with melodious and touching voices only possessed by the negroes of the South:
‘Oh, all ye people clap your hands,
And with triumphant voices sing;
No force the mighty power withstands
Of God, the universal King.’
The President and all of us listened respectfully while the hymn was being sung. Four minutes at most had passed away since we first landed at a point where, as far as the eye could reach, the streets were entirely deserted, but now what a different scene appeared as that hymn went forth from the negroes’ lips! The streets seemed to be suddenly alive with the colored race. They seemed to spring from the earth. They came, tumbling and shouting, from over the hills and from the water-side, where no one was seen as we had passed.
The crowd immediately became very oppressive. We needed our marines to keep them off.
I ordered twelve of the boat’s crew to fix bayonets to their rifles and to surround the President, all of which was quickly done; but the crowd poured in so fearfully that I thought we all stood a chance of being crushed to death.16
I now realized the imprudence of landing without a large body of marines; and yet this seemed to me, after all, the fittest way for Mr. Lincoln to come among the people he had redeemed from bondage.
What an ovation he had, to be sure, from those so-called ignorant beings. They all had their souls in their eyes, and I don’t think I ever looked upon a scene where there were so many passionately happy faces.
While some were rushing forward to try and touch the man they had talked of and dreamed of for four long years, others stood off a little way and looked on in awe and wonder. Others turned somersaults, and many yelled for joy. Half of them acted as though demented, and could find no way of testifying their delight.
They had been made to believe that they never would gain their liberty, and here they were brought face to face with it when least expected. It was as a beautiful toy unexpectedly given to a child after months of hopeless longing on its part; it was such joy as never kills, but animates the dullest class of humanity.
But we could not stay there all day looking at this happy mass of people; the crowds and their yells were increasing, and in a short time we would be unable to move at all. The negroes, in their ecstasy, could not be made to understand that they were detaining the President; they looked upon him as belonging to them, and that he had come to put the crowning at to the great work he had commenced. They would not feel they were free in reality until they heard from his own lips.
Lincoln spoke briefly to the former slaves and summed up what their new freedom meant:
‘My poor friends,’ he said, ‘you are free – free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it; it will come to you no more. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years. But you must try to deserve this priceless boon. Let the world see that you merit it, and are able to maintain it by your good works. Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them; obey God’s commandments and thank him for giving you liberty, for to him you owe all things. There, now, let me pass on; I have but little time to spare. I want to see the capital, and must return at once to Washington to secure to you that liberty which you seem to prize so highly.”