Nicolay, John G., and Hay, John. "The Fall of the Rebel Capital – Lincoln in Richmond," The Century Magazine, Vol. 39:2 (Dec. 1889) pp. 308-313


A Little more than two months before these events, President Lincoln had written the following letter to General Grant:

Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend. My son, now in his twenty-second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long are better entitled, and better qualified to hold. Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your military family with some nominal rank, I, and not the public, furnishing his necessary means ? If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious and as deeply interested that you shall not be encumbered as you can be yourself.[1]

Grant replied as follows:

Your favor of this date in relation to your son serving in some military capacity is received. I will be most happy to have him in my military family in the manner you propose. The nominal rank given him is immaterial, but I would suggest that of captain, as I have three staff-officers now, of considerable service, in no higher grade. Indeed, I have one officer with only the rank of lieutenant who has been in the service from the beginning of the war. This, however, will make no difference, and I would still say give the rank of captain.— Please excuse my writing on a half-sheet. I have no resource but to take the blank half of your letter.[2]

The President's son therefore became a member of Grant's staff with the rank of captain, and acquitted himself of the duties of that station with fidelity and honor.

We may assume that it was the anticipated important military events rather than the presence of Captain Robert T. Lincoln at Grant's headquarters which induced the general on the 20th of March, 1865, to invite the President and Mrs. Lincoln to make a visit to his camp near Richmond; and on the 22d they and their younger son Thomas, nicknamed "Tad," proceeded in the steamer River Queen from Washington to City Point, where General Grant with his family and staff were "occupying a pretty group of huts on the bank of the James River, overlooking the harbor, which was full of vessels of all classes, both war and merchant, with wharves and warehouses on an extensive scale."[3] Here, making his home on the steamer which brought him, the President remained about ten days, enjoying what was probably the most satisfactory relaxation in which he had been able to indulge during his whole presidential service. It was springtime and the weather was moderately steady; his days were occupied visiting the various camps of the great army in company with the general.

"He was a good horseman," records a member of the general's staff, "and made his way through swamps and over corduroy roads as well as the best trooper in the command. The soldiers invariably recognized him and greeted him, wherever he appeared amongst them, with cheers that were no lip service, but came from the depth of their hearts."[4] Many evening hours were passed with groups of officers before roaring camp-fires, where Mr. Lincoln was always the magnetic center of genial conversation and lively anecdote. The interest of the visit was further enhanced by the arrival at City Point, on the evening of March 27, of General Sherman, who, having left General Schofield to command in his absence, made a hasty trip to confer with Grant. He was able to gratify the President with a narrative of the leading incidents of his great march from Atlanta to Savannah and from Savannah to Goldsboro', North Carolina. In one or two informal interviews in the after cabin of the River Queen, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Rear-Admiral Porter enjoyed a frank interchange of opinion about the favorable prospects of early and final victory, and of the speedy realization of the long-hoped-for peace. Sherman and Porter affirm that the President confided to them certain liberal views on the subject of reconstructing State governments in the conquered States which do not seem compatible with the very guarded language of Mr. Lincoln elsewhere used or recorded by him. It is fair to presume that their own enthusiasm colored their recollection of the President's expressions, though it is no doubt true that he spoke of his willingness to be liberal to the verge of prudence, and that he even gave them to understand that he would not be displeased at the escape from the country of Jefferson Davis and other principal rebel leaders.

On the 29th of March the party separated, Sherman returning to North Carolina, and Grant starting on his final campaign to Appomattox. Five days later Grant informed Mr. Lincoln of the fall of Petersburg, and the President made a flying visit to that town for another brief conference with the general. The capture of Richmond was hourly expected, and that welcome information reached Lincoln soon after his return to City Point.

Between the receipt of this news and the following forenoon, but before any information about the great fire had been received, a visit to Richmond was arranged between President Lincoln and Admiral Porter. Accounts differ as to who suggested it or extended the invitation, and there is great vagueness and even contradiction about the details of the trip. Admiral Porter states[5] that he carried the President in his flag-ship, the Malvern, until she grounded, when he transferred the party to his barge with a tugboat to tow it and a small detachment of marines on board. Another account states that the President proceeded in the steamer River Queen until the transfer to the barge; also that another transport, having a four-horse field wagon and a squadron of cavalry, followed for the service of the President. Still a third account states[6] that the party went in the admiral's barge the whole distance, as affording greater safety against danger from any torpedoes which might not yet have been removed. The various accounts agree that obstructions, consisting of rows of piling, sunken hulks, and the debris of the destroyed Confederate vessels, were encountered, which only the tug and barge were able to pass.

The result therefore was that the party were compelled to make a landing at some distance below the proper place, at the suburb called Rockett's, and that there was neither sentry nor officer nor wagon nor escort to meet and receive them. One cannot help wondering at the manifest imprudence of both Mr. Lincoln and Admiral Porter in the whole proceeding.

Never in the history of the world did the ruler of a mighty nation and the conqueror of a great rebellion enter the captured chief city of the insurgents in such humbleness and simplicity. As they stepped from the barge the street along the river front seemed deserted, and they sent out to find some chance person of whom to inquire their way. The unusual group soon attracted the attention of idlers, and a crowd gathered. Admiral Porter ordered twelve of the marines to fix bayonets to their rifles and to form six in front and six behind the party, which consisted of President Lincoln, holding his son "Tad" by the hand, Admiral Porter, and three officers, all being on foot; and in this order they walked from the landing at Rockett's to the center of Richmond, a distance of nearly two miles. It was a long and fatiguing march, evidently not expected by the President, who during his ten-days' stay with the army had probably always had an officer at his elbow to anticipate his slightest wish for horses or vehicles. There remains no trustworthy account of this strange presidential entry; the printed narratives of it written from memory, after the lapse of years, are so evidently colored by fancy that they do not invite credence. Admiral Porter, writing on the following day, says :

On the 4th of April I accompanied the President up to Richmond, where he was received with the strongest demonstrations of joy.[7]

This is perhaps the most perfect historical record we shall ever have of the event, and the imagination may easily fill up the picture of a gradually increasing crowd, principally of negroes, following the little group of marines and officers with the tall form of the President in its center; and, having learned that it was indeed Mr. Lincoln, giving expression to wonder, joy, and gratitude in a variety of picturesque emotional ejaculations peculiar to the colored race, and for which there was ample time while the little procession made its tiresome march, whose route cannot now be traced.

At length the party reached the headquarters of General Weitzel, established in the very house occupied by Jefferson Davis as the presidential mansion of the rebel Confederacy, and from which he had fled less than two days before. Here Mr. Lincoln was glad of a chance to sit down and rest, and a little later to partake of a lunch which the general provided. An informal reception, chiefly of Union officers, naturally followed, and later in the afternoon General Weitzel went with the President and Admiral Porter in a carriage, guarded by an escort of cavalry, to visit the Capitol, the burnt district, Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, and other points of interest about the city; and of this afternoon drive also no trustworthy narrative in detail by an eye-witness appears to have been written at the time.

It was probably before the President went on this drive that there occurred an interview on political topics which forms one of the chief points of interest connected with his visit. Judge John A. Campbell, rebel Assistant Secretary of War, remained in Richmond when on Sunday night the other members of the rebel Government fled, and on Tuesday morning he reported to the Union military governor, General G. F. Shepley, and informed him of his "submission to the military authorities."[8] Learning from General Shepley that Mr. Lincoln was at City Point, he asked permission to see him. This application was evidently communicated to Mr. Lincoln, for shortly after his arrival a staff-officer informed Campbell that the requested interview would be granted, and conducted him to the President at the general's headquarters, where it took place. The rebel General J. R. Anderson and others were present as friends of the judge, and General Weitzel as the witness of Mr. Lincoln. Campbell, as spokesman, "told the President that the war was over," and made inquiries about the measures and conditions necessary to secure peace. Speaking for Virginia, he "urged him to consult and counsel with her public men, and her citizens, as to the restoration of peace, civil order, and the renewal of her relations as a member of the Union."[9]

In his pamphlet, written from memory long afterwards, Campbell states that Mr. Lincoln replied "that my general principles were right, the trouble was how to apply them"; and no conclusion was reached except to appoint another interview for the following day on board the Malvern. This second interview was accordingly held on Wednesday, April 5, Campbell taking with him only a single citizen of Richmond, as the others to whom he sent invitations were either absent from the city or declined to accompany him. General Weitzel was again present as a witness. The conversation apparently took a wide range on the general topic of restoring local governments in the South, in the course of which the President gave Judge Campbell a written memorandum,[10] embracing an outline of conditions of peace which repeated in substance the terms he had proffered the rebel commissioners (of whom Campbell was one) at the Hampton Roads conference on the 3d of February, 1865. The only practical suggestion which was made has been summarized as follows by General Weitzel in a statement written from memory, as the result of the two interviews:

Mr. Campbell and the other gentleman assured Mr. Lincoln that if he would allow the Virginia legislature to meet, it would at once repeal the ordinance of secession, and that then General Robert E. Lee and every other Virginian would submit; that this would amount to the virtual destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia, and eventually to the surrender of all the other rebel armies, and would insure perfect peace in the shortest possible time.[11]

Out of this second conference, which also ended without result, President Lincoln thought he saw an opportunity to draw an immediate and substantial military benefit. On the next day (April 6) he wrote from City Point, where he had returned, the following letter to General Weitzel, which he immediately transmitted to the general by the hand of Senator Wilkinson, in whose presence he wrote it and who was on his way from City Point to Richmond:

It has been intimated to me that the gentlemen who have acted as the legislature of Virginia in support of the rebellion may now desire to assemble at Richmond, and take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops and other support from resistance to the General Government. If they attempt it, give them permission and protection, until, if at all, they attempt some action hostile to the United States, in which case you will notify them, give them reasonable time to leave, and at the end of which time arrest any who remain. Allow Judge Campbell to see this, but do not make it public.[12]

This document bears upon its face the distinct military object which the President had in view in permitting the rebel legislature to assemble, namely, to withdraw immediately the Virginia troops from the army of Lee, then on his retreat towards Lynchburg. It could not be foreseen that Lee would surrender the whole of that army within the next three days, though it was evident that the withdrawal of the Virginia forces from it, under whatever pretended State authority, would contribute to the ending of the war quite as effectually as the reduction of that army to an equal number by battle or capture. The ground upon which Lincoln believed the rebel legislature might take this action is set forth in his dispatch to Grant of the same date, in which he wrote:

Secretary Seward was thrown from his carriage yesterday and seriously injured. This with other matters will take me to Washington soon. I was at Richmond yesterday and the day before, when and where Judge Campbell, who was with Messrs. Hunter and Stephens in February, called on me, and made such representations as induced me to put in his hands an informal paper repeating the propositions in my letter of instructions to Mr. Seward, which you remember, and adding "that if the war be now further persisted in by the rebels, confiscated property shall at the least bear the additional cost, and that confiscation shall be remitted to the people of any State which will now promptly and in good faith withdraw its troops and other support from the resistance to the Government." Judge Campbell thought it not impossible that the rebel legislature of Virginia would do the latter, it permitted, and accordingly I addressed a private letter to General Weitzel, with permission for Judge Campbell to see it, telling him (General W.) that if they attempt this to permit and protect them, unless they attempt something hostile to the United States, in which case to give them notice and time to leave, and to arrest any remaining after such time. I do not think it very probable that anything will come of this, but I have thought best to notify you, so that if you should see signs you may understand them. From your recent dispatches, it seems that you are pretty effectually withdrawing the Virginia troops from opposition to the Government. Nothing that I have done, or probably shall do, is to delay, hinder, or interfere with your work.[13]

That Mr. Lincoln well understood the temper of leading Virginians when he wrote that he had little hope of any result from the permission he had given is shown by what followed. When, on the morning of April 7, General Weitzel received the President's letter of the 6th, he showed it confidentially to Judge Campbell, who thereupon called together a committee, apparently five in number, of the Virginia rebel legislature, and instead of informing them precisely what Lincoln had authorized, namely, a meeting to " take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops and other support from resistance to the General Government," the judge in a letter to the committee (dated April 7) formulated quite a different line of action.

I have had [he wrote], since the evacuation of Richmond, two conversations with Mr. Lincoln, President of the United States. . . . The conversations had relation to the establishment of a government for Virginia, the requirement of oaths of allegiance from the citizens, and the terms of settlement with the United States. With the concurrence and sanction of General Weitzel, he assented to the application not to require oaths of allegiance from the citizens. He stated that he would send to General Weitzel his decision upon the question of a government for Virginia. This letter was received on Thursday, and was read by me. . . . The object of the invitation is for the government of Virginia to determine whether they will administer the laws in connection with the authorities of the United States. I understand from Mr. Lincoln, if this condition be fulfilled, that no attempt would be made to establish or sustain any other authority.[14]

The rest of Campbell's long letter relates to safe-conducts, to transportation, and to the contents of the written memorandum handed by Lincoln to him at the interview on the Malvern about general conditions of peace. But this memorandum contained no syllable of reference to the "government of Virginia," and bore no relation of any kind to the President's permission to "take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops," except its promise "that confiscations (except in case of third party intervening interests) will be remitted to the people of any State which shall now promptly and in good faith withdraw its troops from further resistance to the Government." Going a step further, the committee next prepared a call inviting a meeting of the General Assembly, announcing the consent of "the military authorities of the United States to die session of the legislature in Richmond," and stating that "The matters to be submitted to the legislature are the restoration of peace to the State of Virginia, and the adjustment of questions involving life, liberty, and property that have arisen in the States as a consequence of the war."[15] When General Weitzel indorsed his approval on the call "for publication in the 'Whig' and in hand-bill form," he does not seem to have read, or if he read to have realized, how completely President Lincoln's permission had been changed and his authority perverted. Instead of permitting them to recall Virginia soldiers, Weitzel was about to allow them authoritatively to sit in judgment on all the political consequences of the war "in the States."

General Weitzel's approval was signed to the call on April 11, and it was published in the "Richmond Whig" on the morning of the 12th. On that day the President, having returned to Washington, was at the War Department writing an answer to a dispatch from General Weitzel, in which the general defended himself against the Secretary's censure for having neglected to require from the churches in Richmond prayers for the President of the United States, similar to those which prior to the fall of the city had been offered up in their religious services in behalf of "the rebel chief, Jefferson Davis, before he was driven from the Capitol." Weitzel contended that the tone of President Lincoln's conversations with him justified the omission. Mr. Lincoln was never punctilious about social or official etiquette towards himself, and he doubtless felt in this instance that neither his moral nor political well-being was seriously dependent upon the prayers of the Richmond rebel churches. To this part of the general's dispatch he therefore answered:

I have seen your dispatches to Colonel Hardie about the matter of prayers. I do not remember hearing prayer spoken of while I was in Richmond, but I have no doubt you acted in what appeared to you to be the spirit and temper manifested by me while there.[16]

Having thus generously assumed responsibility for Weitzel's alleged neglect, the President's next thought was about what the Virginia rebel legislature was doing, of which he had heard nothing since his return from City Point. He therefore included in this same telegram of April 12 the following inquiry and direction:

Is there any sign of the rebel legislature coming together on the understanding of my letter to you? If there is any such sign, inform me what it is. If there is no sign, you may withdraw the offer.

To this question General Weitzel answered briefly, "The passports have gone out for the legislature, and it is common talk that they will come together." It is probable that Mr. Lincoln thought that if after the lapse of five days the proposed meeting had progressed no farther than "common talk," nothing could be expected from it. It would also seem that at this time he must have received, either by telegraph or by mail, copies of the correspondence and call which Weitzel had authorized, and which had been published that morning. The President therefore immediately wrote and sent to General Weitzel a long telegram, in which he explained his course with such clearness that its mere perusal sets at rest all controversy respecting either his original intention of policy or the legal effect of his action and orders, and by a final revocation of the permission he had given brought the incident to its natural and appropriate termination :

I have just seen Judge Campbell's letter to you of the 7th. He assumes, it appears to me, that I have called the insurgent legislature of Virginia together, as the rightful legislature of the State, to settle all differences with the United States. I have done no such thing.[17] I spoke of them not as a legislature, but as "the gentlemen who have acted as the legislature of Virginia in support of the rebellion." I did this on purpose to exclude the assumption that I was recognizing them as a rightful body. I dealt with them as men having power de facto to do a specific thing, to wit: "to withdraw the Virginia troops and other support from resistance to the General Government," for which, in the paper handed to Judge Campbell, I promised a special equivalent, to wit: a remission to the people of the State, except in certain cases, of the confiscation of their property. I meant this and no more. Inasmuch, however, as Judge Campbell misconstrues this, and is still pressing for an armistice, contrary to the explicit statement of the paper I gave him, and particularly as General Grant has since captured the Virginia troops, so that giving a consideration for their withdrawal is no longer applicable, let my letter to you and the paper to Judge Campbell both be withdrawn or countermanded, and he be notified of it. Do not now allow them to assemble, but if any have come allow them safe return to their homes.[18]

[1] Lincoln to Grant, Jan. 19, 1865. Unpublished MS.

[2] Grant to Lincoln, Jan. 21, 1865. Unpublished MS.

[3] Sherman, "Memoirs," Vol. II,, p. 324.

[4] Gen. Horace Porter, in The Century, Oct., 1885.

[5] "New York Tribune."

[6] Manuscript narrative of Colonel W. H. Crook.

[7] Porter, Report, April 5, 1865.

[8] Campbell, pamphlet.

[9] Ibid.

[10] "As to peace, I have said before, and now repeat, that three things are indispensable :

"1. The restoration of the national authority throughout the United States.

"2. No receding by the Executive of the United States on the slavery question from the position assumed thereon in the late annual message, and in preceding documents.

"3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the Government. That all propositions coming from those now in hostility to the Government, not inconsistent with the foregoing, will be respectfully considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality.

"I now add that it seems useless to me to be more specific with those who will not say that they are ready for the indispensable terms, even on conditions to be named by themselves. If there be any who are ready for these indispensable terms, on any conditions whatever, let them say so, and state their conditions, so that the conditions can be known and considered. It is further added, that the remission of confiscation being within the executive power, if the war be now further persisted in by those opposing the Government, the making of confiscated property at the least to bear the additional cost will be insisted on, but that confiscations (except in case of third party intervening interests) will be remitted to the people of any State which shall now promptly and in good faith withdraw its troops from further resistance to the Government. What is now said as to remission of confiscation has no reference to supposed property in slaves." [President Lincoln's memorandum printed in Campbell, pamphlet, pp. 9, 10. ]

[11] Weitzel, in "Philadelphia Times."

[12] Lincoln to Weitzel, April 6, 1865. Weitzel, testimony ; Report of Committee on Conduct of the War. Supplement, Part I., p. 521.

[13] Lincoln to Grant, April 6, 1865.

[14] Campbell, pamphlet.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lincoln to Weitzel, April 12, 1865.

[17] The account given by Admiral Porter of this transaction, in his " Naval History," p. 799, is evidently written from memory, without consultation of dates or documents, and is wholly inaccurate.

[18] Campbell, pamphlet.

Go to top