Biographies & Memoirs




Abraham Lincoln has never fought in battle. During his short three-month enlistment during the Black Hawk War in 1832, he was, somewhat oddly, both a captain and a private—but never a fighter. He is a politician, and politicians are seldom given the chance to play the role of conquering hero. It could be said that General Grant deserved the honor more than President Lincoln, for it was his strategy and concentrated movements of manpower that brought down the Confederate government. But it is Lincoln’s war. It always has been. To Lincoln goes the honor of conquering hero—and the hatred of those who have been conquered.

No one knows this more than the freed slaves of Richmond. They throng to Lincoln’s side, so alarming the sailors who rowed him ashore that they form a protective ring around the president, using their bayonets to push the slaves away. The sailors maintain this ring around Lincoln as he marches through the city, even as his admiring entourage grows from mere dozens to hundreds.

The white citizens of Richmond, tight-lipped and hollow-eyed, take it all in. Abraham Lincoln is their enemy no more. As the citizens of Petersburg came to realize yesterday, he is something even more despicable: their president. These people never thought they’d see the day Abraham Lincoln would be strolling down the streets of Richmond as if it were his home. They make no move, no gesture, no cry, no sound to welcome him. “Every window was crowded with heads,” one sailor will remember. “But it was a silent crowd. There was something oppressive in those thousands of watchers without a sound, either of welcome or hatred. I think we would have welcomed a yell of defiance.”

Lincoln’s extraordinary height means that he towers over the crowd, providing an ideal moment for an outraged southerner to make an attempt on his life.

But no one takes a shot. No drunken, saddened, addled, enraged citizens of Richmond so much as attacks Lincoln with their fists. Instead, Lincoln receives the jubilant welcome of former slaves reveling in their first moments of freedom.

The president keeps walking until he is a mile from the wharf. Soon Lincoln finds himself on the corner of Twelfth and Clay Streets, staring at the former home of Jefferson Davis.

When first built, in 1818, the house was owned by the president of the Bank of Virginia, John Brockenbrough. But Brockenbrough is now long dead. A merchant by the name of Lewis Crenshaw owned the property when war broke out, and he had just added a third floor and redecorated the interior with all the “modern conveniences,” including gaslights and a flush toilet, when he was persuaded to sell it, furnished, to Richmond authorities for the generous sum of $43,000—in Confederate dollars, of course.

The authorities, in turn, rented it to the Confederate government, which was in need of an executive mansion. It was August 1861 when Jefferson Davis, his much younger second wife, Varina, and their three young children moved in. Now they have all fled, and Lincoln steps past the sentry boxes, grasps the wrought iron railing, and marches up the steps into the Confederate White House.

He is shown into a small room with floor-to-ceiling windows and crossed cavalry swords over the door. “This was President Davis’s office,” a housekeeper says respectfully.

Lincoln’s eyes roam over the elegant dark wood desk, which Davis had so thoughtfully tidied before running off two days earlier. “Then this must be President Davis’s chair,” he says with a grin, sinking into its burgundy padding. He crosses his legs and leans back.

That’s when the weight of the moment hits him. Lincoln asks for a glass of water, which is promptly delivered by Davis’s former butler—a slave—along with a bottle of whiskey.

Where Davis has gone, Lincoln does not know. He has no plans to hunt him down. Reunification, however painful it might be to southerners, is within Lincoln’s grasp. There will be no manhunt for the Confederate president, nor a trial for war crimes. As for the people of Richmond, many of whom actively conspired against Lincoln and the United States, Lincoln has ordered that the Union army command the citizenry with a gentle hand. Or, in Lincoln’s typically folksy parlance: “Let ’em up easy.”

He can afford to relax. Lincoln has Richmond. The Confederacy is doomed. All the president needs now is for Grant to finish the rest of the job, and then he can get to work. Lincoln still has miles to go before he sleeps.

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