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When Lincoln Entered Richmond as a Leader, Not a Conqueror


When Lincoln Entered Richmond as a Leader, Not a Conqueror

April 4, 1865

Abraham Lincoln walked into the burning Confederate capital, uphill from the river, passing abandoned slave markets on his right, holding his son Tad’s hand on the boy’s twelfth birthday.

After four years of civil war, the president of the United States was in Richmond. Now he knew all the suffering had not been in vain: liberty and union would defeat slavery and secession.

He did not stride into the city like a conquering hero, flanked by a vast army. Instead, he arrived on a longboat with a small crew including an admiral, a bodyguard, and a dozen sailors, who acted as oarsmen. There was no military escort waiting to greet them as they scraped ashore. They were strangers in a strange land, wandering past burned-out buildings that jutted up like tombstones as smoke billowed against a blue sky.

A low murmur rose among the ruins at the sight of the six-foot-four man in black, slightly stooped, topped by his signature stovepipe hat. It was the sound of rumor turning to revelation. A crowd of liberated slaves gathered around Lincoln. They grabbed at his clothes and fell at his feet. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln gently rebuked them. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy.”

Thomas Morris Chester, a pioneering black war correspondent for The Philadelphia Press, was among the first journalists to see Lincoln enter the rebel capital and he scribbled down the celebration. “Old men thanked God in a very boisterous manner, and old women shouted upon the pavement as high as they had ever done at a religious revival,” he wrote. “There were many whites in the crowd, but they were lost in the great concourse of American citizens of African descent. Those who lived in the finest houses either stood motionless upon their steps or merely peeped through the window blinds.”

It seemed that the meek would finally inherit the earth, or at least Richmond.

Death hovered over his shoulder. Surrounded by rowdy crowds, Lincoln’s bodyguard thought he spied a sharpshooter in a second-floor window point a rifle at the president and trace his path…

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