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Lincoln at Petersburg

By Robert Wilson
6/6/2017 • American History Magazine

The 16th president had an emotional real-life encounter with black soldiers you won’t see in Spielberg’s Lincoln.

When Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln appeared last year, we were urged to learn from it the value of compromise. The movie’s action centers  on the horse-trading that led to the House of Representatives passing the 13th Amendment, which when ratified would outlaw slavery. Today’s leaders would do well to heed the example of President Lincoln and the House members disinclined to vote for the amendment, who were willing to soften their positions and act for the greater good. But did the movie underplay an important part of the story, namely Lincoln’s true feelings about the issue of race?

We know that Abraham Lincoln was willing to do almost anything to preserve the Union before the Civil War began and to hold the border states in the war’s first years. As the fighting dragged on, his greatest goal was ending the war; ending slavery was not his abiding passion. In 1862, in one of the best known of his letters, Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, professing, “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Lincoln’s historical pragmatism, taken together with Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal in the Spielberg film, in which the president is relentlessly either winsome or contemplative, might persuade us that he lacked real feeling with regard to race. Even the president’s few outbursts of emotion in the film seem more strategic than heartfelt.

But in June 1864, on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Va., and to the black troops among the larger Union force arrayed outside Petersburg—some 20 miles south of the Confederate capital in Richmond—the president showed a depth of emotion that thus might seem unfamiliar. It’s hard to resist beginning this story the night before he left for City Point. With Mary Lincoln in New York with their son Tad, the president went to a concert at Ford’s Theatre with John Hay, his young private secretary. The next day Hay wrote a jocular letter about the evening to his fellow White House secretary, John Nicolay, which begins, “I went last night to a Sacred Concert of profane music at Ford’s.” Hay and Nicolay had pet names for others in the White House, and one of Hay’s for what we would now call the POTUS was “the Tycoon.” Hay reported, “The Tycoon and I occupied a private box, and both of us carried on a hefty flirtation with the M. girls in the flies.” Hefty flirtation is not something we often associate with Lincoln, and it is especially hard to imagine given his eventual fate in the presidential box at Ford’s.

The same day as the concert, June 19, Tad returned to Washington alone and Lincoln telegraphed Mary that he had arrived safely. The next day at 5 p.m., Tad and his father boarded the ordnance steamer Baltimore at the Washington Navy Yard, which made its usual run down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, then down the bay, past Fort Monroe at the mouth of Hampton Roads and up the James River to City Point. Hay stayed behind in the White House, but Gustavus Fox, the assistant secretary of the Navy, accompanied them.

The overnight trip, which landed them at Grant’s headquarters at about noon on the 21st, had apparently been rough, because when Grant and some of his officers boarded the Baltimore to welcome the president, Lincoln confessed to feeling seasick. As General Horace Porter, who accompanied Grant onto the steamer writes, one of the younger officers on Grant’s staff “saw that an opportunity had arisen to make this scene the supreme moment of his life, in giving him a chance to soothe the digestive organs of the Chief Magistrate of the nation.” He suggested that Lincoln try a glass of champagne, which he called “a certain cure for seasickness.” Porter reports that the president gazed at the young man for a moment, and then smiled and said, “No, my friend; I have seen too many fellows seasick ashore from drinking that very stuff.”

After they went to Grant’s headquarters and talked for a while, the president and the general went out to inspect the troops—the first time Lincoln had visited the army under Grant’s command. The army had suffered 65,000 casualties over the past six weeks as it fought to annihilate Robert E. Lee’s Confederates and finally end the war. Now, after four days of fierce, but ultimately fruitless, combat outside Petersburg, Grant laid siege to the city to choke off its vital transportation links to Richmond.

Lincoln rode the general’s favorite horse, a large bay called Cincinnati, and Grant rode a horse called Jeff Davis. Porter, who later wrote an engaging memoir about his Civil War experiences, and two other members of Grant’s staff accompanied them. Porter observed that Lincoln had “good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged he was not a very dashing rider.” The president was characteristically dressed all in black, including his famous “very high black silk hat,” but by the time they had ridden the nearly 10 miles to where the troops were, “he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray.” In addition, his pants legs had hiked up above his ankles, and he looked, Porter said, like “a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.” Porter acknowledged that a civilian always looked out of place among troops, but “the picture presented by the President bordered on the grotesque.”

The troops ignored Lincoln’s hayseed appearance and cheered him heartily as he passed by. The Washington Evening Star also reported on the visit, writing drily that “wherever he went he was enthusiastically cheered by such troops as were in his way, the number of whom, however, was not large, as most of the army was uninvitingly near the front.” In a little while Grant suggested that they visit the “colored troops, who behaved so handsomely…in front of Petersburg last week.” He was referring to the U.S. Colored Troops who had charged the Confederate rifle pits on June 15.

Lincoln immediately agreed, saying he had read a report to the secretary of war about “how gallantly they behaved,” having taken “six out of sixteen guns captured that day.” These were cannons along the 10-mile Dimmock Line, which the Confederates had set up to defend Petersburg, and which they abandoned to the initial Union assault. Porter recalls that Lincoln went on, saying to Grant,

I was opposed on nearly every side when I first favored the raising of colored regiments; but they have proved their efficiency, and I am glad they have kept pace with the white troops in the recent assaults.

They soon reached the encampment of the African-American troops of the XVIII Corps of the Army of the James, under Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith. There, Porter writes, “a scene now occurred which defies description,” when the black troops first encountered “the liberator of their race.”

They crowded about him and fondled his horse; some of them kissed his hands, while others ran off crying in triumph to their comrades that they had touched his clothes. The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humbled and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.

The mighty trio of Spielberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin (on whose Team of Rivals the film was based), and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, did not find or imagine a scene this moving or indeed this cinematic for Lincoln. Given the president’s largely intellectualized approach to race, in life as in the film, a scene like this one might have given our understanding of his attitude more depth.

It should be said, though, in the interest of historical accuracy and complexity, that a casual racism was not absent from any of these events. As Lincoln and Grant approached the black troops, Porter recalls that the president told the general a racist joke. Porter himself sets up the scene when the African-American troops see Lincoln by saying, “Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits,” and quotes “their negro dialect” with remarks like “God bress Massa Linkum!” and “De Lord save Fader Abraham!”

Later in 1864, on November 12, John Hay and a large group went to visit Grant at City Point, and the question of black troops came up again. Grant told the group that the African-American soldiers were “admirable in many respects,” but that “an army of them could [not] have stood the week’s pounding at the Wilderness or Spotsylvania as our men did.” Note Grant’s use of the word our for his white troops, contrasting them with his black troops.

If the filmmakers missed an opportunity in Lincoln’s meeting with the black soldiers, a more regrettable missed chance also occurred at the time of Lincoln’s visit. The famous photographer Mathew Brady, whose 1860 image of Lincoln introduced a then little-known presidential candidate to the nation, was on that very day taking photographs of Union troops along the Dimmock Line. Although the XVIII Corps was at the north end of the line and Brady and his men were working farther south, it’s puzzling that he could have missed this scene and the rest of the president’s visit, especially since news of Lincoln’s presence was said to have spread as rapidly down the line as the soldiers’ cheers for their ungainly commander in chief.

Lincoln and Tad slept on the Baltimore that night as it was docked at City Point, and the next day steamed up the James River to inspect the battlements, eventually turning back and returning to Washington, “sunburnt and fagged but still refreshed and cheered” from his visit with Grant’s army, according to John Hay. Brady’s men would soon be training their cameras on General Grant at City Point, and Brady himself would at almost the same time be heading back to Washington or New York, but no evidence exists, pictorial or otherwise, that the president and the cameraman crossed paths in Virginia.

Lincoln returned to City Point in late March 1865 and rode into Petersburg on April 3, the day it finally fell to the Union. On the 4th, Admiral David Dixon Porter escorted Lincoln up the James to Richmond, occupied now by Union troops. African-American soldiers were among the first to enter the former Confederate capital, heartening thousands of newly liberated black slaves eager to see the man who was now indisputably their president. Throngs of people slowed Lincoln’s progress through the streets. “Mr. Lincoln,” the admiral later recalled,

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…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.”

Ten days later, Lincoln was back in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre on the last evening of his life. With his death, and uncertainty hovering over the fate of millions of African Americans, the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops—one of the regiments that had fought so well at Petersburg— traveled to Washington, D.C. In a final act of respect for the slain commander in chief, they led the funeral procession from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.

 

Robert Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar. He adapted this story from his book Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, to be published in August by Bloomsbury.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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