‘You Can Cast Off the Name of Slave and Trample Upon It’ – Lincoln Enters Richmond

April 4, 1865 (Tuesday)

“Thank God, that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.” – Abraham Lincoln

Richmond, April 1865
Richmond, April 1865

William H. Crook, Lincoln’s bodyguard:

The shore for some distance before we reached Richmond was black with negroes. They had heard that President Lincoln was on his way—-they had some sort of an underground telegraph, I am sure. They were wild with excitement and yelling like so many wild men: ‘There comes Massa Lincoln, the -Savior of the land — we is so glad to see him!’ We landed at the Rocketts, over a hundred yards back of Libbey Prison. By the time we were on shore hundreds of black hands were outstretched to the President, and he shook some of them and thanked the darkies for their welcome.


David Dixon Porter, Admiral, US Navy:

Four minutes had passed since the party had landed in apparently deserted streets; but, now that the hymn was sung.the streets seemed to be suddenly alive with the colored race, the crowd around the President became very oppressive, and it was necessary to order the boat’s crew to fix bayonets and surround him to keep him from being crushed. The negroes, in their ecstasy, could not be made to understand that they were detaining the President, and would not feel that they were free unless they heard it from his own lips.

“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.”


The crowd shouted and screeched as if they would split the firmament, though while the President was speaking you might have heard a pin drop. I don’t think anyone could do justice to that scene; it would be necessary to photograph it to understand it.

Passing the Libby Prison, the President paused for a moment to look at the place where so many Union soldiers had dragged out a dreadful existence. “We will pull it down!” shouted the crowd of poor whites and negroes. “No,” said the President, “leave it as a monument.”

As the party slowly reached the city, the sidewalks were lined with people, white and black, but there was no anger on any face. It was like a gala-day, and no man was ever accorded a warmer welcome. The heat of the weather was suffocating; the President towered a head and shoulders above the crowd, fanning himself with his hat, and looking as if he would give the Presidency for a glass of water. Now the windows flew up, and eager, peering faces seemed to ask: “Is this man, with soft eyes and kind face, the one that has been held up to us as the incarnation of wickedness, the destroyer of the South?” The city was still on fire, and the smoke almost choked the Presidential party.

Libby Prison
Libby Prison

Thomas Thatcher Graves, aide to General Weitzel:

The next day after our entry into the city, on passing out from Clay street, from Jefferson Davis’s house, I saw a crowd coming along, headed by President Lincoln, who was walking with his usual long careless stride, looking about with an interested air and taking in everything. Upon my saluting, he said: “Is it far to President Davis’s house?” I accompanied him to the house which was occupied by General Weitzel as his headquarters. […]

At the Davis house he was shown into the reception room, with the remark that the housekeeper had said that that room was President Davis’s office. As he seated himself he said: “This must have been President Davis’s chair,” and, crossing his legs, he looked far off with a serious, dreamy expression. At length he asked me if the housekeeper was in the house. Upon learning that she had left, he jumped up and said in a boyish manner: “Come, let us look at the house.” We went pretty much all over it. I retailed all that the housekeeper had told me, and he seemed interested in everything.

Davis' Confederate White House
Davis’ Confederate White House

John S. Barnes, United State Navy, told a different version of Lincoln in Davis’ house:

The President entered by the front door that opened into a small square hall with steps leading to the second story. He was then led into the room on the right, which had been Mr. Davis’s reception room and office. It was plainly but comfortably furnished—a large desk on one side, a table or two against the walls, a few chairs, and one large leather-covered arm or easy chair. The walls were decorated with prints and photographs, one or two of Confederate ironclads—one of the Sumter, that excited my covetousness.

Mr. Lincoln walked across the room to the easy chair and sank down in it. He was pale and haggard, and seemed utterly worn out with fatigue and the excitement of the past hour. A few of us were gathered about the door; little was said by anyone. It was a supreme moment—the home of the fleeing President of the Confederacy invaded by his opponents after years of bloody contests for its possession, and now occupied by the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, seated in the chair almost warm from the pressure of the body of Jefferson Davis!

What thoughts were coursing through the mind of this great man no one can tell. He did not live to relate his own impressions; what he said remained fixed in my memory – the first expression of a natural want – “I wonder if I could get a drink of water.” He did not appeal to any particular person for it. I can see the tired look out of those kind blue eyes over which the lids half drooped; his voice was gentle and soft. There was no triumph in his gesture or attitude. He lay back in the chair like a tired man whose nerves had carried him beyond his strength. All he wanted was rest and a drink of water.

Monument to George Washington, Richmond, April 1865
Monument to George Washington, Richmond, April 1865

And still another by journalist Charles Coffin:

The procession reached Weitzel’s head-quarters— the mansion from which Jefferson Davis had taken his quick departure the previous Sunday.

President Lincoln wearily ascended the steps, and by chance dropped into the very chair usually occupied by Mr. Davis when at his writing-table.

Such was the entrance of the Chief of the Republic into the capital of the late Confederacy. There was no sign of exultation, no elation of spirit, but, on the contrary, a look of unutterable weariness, as if his spirit, energy and animating force were wholly exhausted.

Ruins of the Southern Express Office, April 1865
Ruins of the Southern Express Office, April 1865

Thomas Thatcher Graves:

I accompanied President Lincoln and General Weitzel to Libby prison and Castle Thunder, and heard General Weitzel ask the President what he (General Weitzel) should do in regard to the conquered people. President Lincoln replied that he did not wish to give any orders on that subject, but, as he expressed it, “If I were in your place I’d let “em up easy, let ’em up easy.”

((Sources: “Lincoln’s Last Day: New Facts Now Told for the First Time” by William H. Crook; The Naval History of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter; History of the Twelfth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers by Asa W. Bartlett; “President Lincoln’s Entry into Richmond” by David Dixon Porter; “With Lincoln” by John S. Barnes; “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln” by Charles Coffin.))


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