In September 2007 my wife, Ginny, and I took a “busman’s holiday” to Richmond, Virginia. Our plan was to trace Lincoln’s 1865 visit to Richmond and to travel the route of V Corps, Army of the Potomac, from Petersburg to Appomattox Court House. Let me discuss the Richmond visit first.
James W. Loewen in his splendid book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (Simon & Schuster: New York), 1999, describes President Lincoln’s walking tour of Richmond, Virginia, 4 April 1865 (pp. 310-317).
Five days later, General Lee would surrender at Appomattox Court House. Ten days after his walk, President Lincoln would be dead from assassination.
Loewen provides a detailed account of the walk including a map, which we used to re-trace Lincoln’s steps (p. 311).
In his book Loewen also noted that there were no historical markers indicating the landing site on the James River or the walk itself. Moreover, he was unable to find a brochure or a map that gave a self-guided tour of the walk. When he asked a local expert why that was so, she replied that Lincoln’s walk was not a part of “Confederate history” (p. 310).
Was this still the case?
According to Loewen, Lincoln came ashore at Rocket’s Landing, which he had clearly marked on his map. Today, that part of the James River shore line is under construction for a major urban renewal project of upscale condominiums and offices. Because of the construction, it was impossible to reach the shoreline, but if there were a marker, it had been removed.
Nevertheless, we traced Lincoln’s walk and arrived at two of Richmond’s major tourist attractions: the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy. On 4 April Lincoln visited Jefferson Davis’ White House, sat at his desk, and toured the building. He then visited the State Capitol where he gave an impromptu speech to the African American crowd who had been following him re-affirming their freedom. “You are now as free as I am,” Lincoln said (p. 315).
At the Museum of the Confederacy I spoke to two docents asking if they could direct me to Rocket’s Landing. The poured over their museum map looking for Rocket’s Landing. One of the docents drew a large oval along the James River and said he thought it was in that area.
I said that I thought so too, but had just driven through that area and it seemed to be under construction. I then asked did they know what happened at Rocket’s Landing? After a second or two, one of them asked, “What year?”
“4 April 1865,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said, “Is that where Lincoln landed?”
I told him that it was and that I was looking for a map or markers that would identify the walking route Lincoln took from Rocket’s Landing to Davis’ White House. At the point, one of the docents looked at me for a moment and walked away. The other one said he recalls hearing something about the Lincoln visit but the museum did not have a map nor did he know of any historical markers commemorating the event.
As Loewen argued eight years ago, the failure to mark or commemorate Lincoln’s walk is unfortunate. “His trip is one of the great walks in American history, full of little incidents rich with larger meaning. Richmond needs to recognize it on its landscape” (p. 310).
The next day we headed west in pursuit of V Corps’ march to Appomattox Court House.