RICHMOND, Va. — Below the spaghetti-works of Interstate 95, beside a canal where excursion boats are the only watercraft, I try to imagine a group of African American workers on the day after Union soldiers brought freedom to Richmond.
They were repairing a bridge in the newly surrendered capital of the Confederacy when a tall, gangly man in a stovepipe hat approached from the James River. A few Marines surrounded him, but there was no fanfare.
President Abraham Lincoln had just arrived by rowboat to see the city that had been his nemesis for four long years of the Civil War.
Pandemonium erupted. "Such wild, indescribable ecstatic joy I never witnessed," Charles Coffin wrote in the Boston Journal as he described the scene.
As Lincoln walked from the river toward the State Capitol, he was surrounded by "a surging mass of men, women and children, black, white and yellow, running, shouting, dancing, swinging their caps, bonnets and handkerchiefs....
"Yesterday morning the majority of the thousands who crowded the streets and hindered our advance were slaves. Now they were free, and beheld him who had given them their liberty."
Lincoln spent two of the last three weeks of his life at the front lines of the Civil War in Virginia. That's partly why Steven Spielberg chose Richmond and nearby Petersburg for the filming of his epic "Lincoln," released last week. The movie, based on a part of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, focuses on the last four months of the president's life as he struggles to win approval for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery before the end of the Civil War.
Visitors can tap into Lincoln — the man and the movie — at places both real and imagined in two Virginia towns. "They really were dedicated to filming in a place that had the right spiritual elements as well as the right location elements," said Andrew Edmunds, former location manager and now interim director of the Virginia Film Office.
As a native Virginian, I usually avoided engaging anyone in conversation about Virginia's Civil War past, lest a rhetorical war break out involving the pride of our role in history and the shame of slavery.
In Richmond, a big step toward reconciliation came in the planning for the war's 150th anniversary from 2011 to 2015. Events from beginning to end officially commemorate the Civil War and emancipation.
There's no better way to tie the two themes together than to follow Lincoln's steps through the city.
Watching "Lincoln," I recognized places where I had walked in the footsteps of both the movie crew and the Civil War president. I got caught up in the humanity of history and the people behind the places. Much like living here, visiting here is a rich, revealing lesson about loss, about leadership and about life in our nation.
Surveying the siege
Richmond, which became the capital of the Confederacy in May 1861, was a military — and psychological — prize for both sides because of the industrial importance of the largest ironworks in the South and the city's location, about 100 miles south of Washington.
In 1862, Union troops, led by Gen. George B. McClellan, tried but failed to capture this brass ring in the first big campaign of the war. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant returned in 1864 with unwavering determination. When he couldn't capture Richmond directly, he laid siege to Petersburg, a rail center about 25 miles south. If Grant could cut the five rail lines leading to Petersburg, he could force Richmond's surrender. It took nearly 10 months.
Lincoln decided to oversee the effort on the ground in 1865 in what turned out to be the last weeks of his life. Most of that time he was on the River Queen, his sidewheel steamboat docked at the massive Union supply depot at City Point, now part of the city of Hopewell and a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
He arrived late in the day on March 24 and visited the front lines at Petersburg the next day. The president, his wife, Mary (Sally Field in the movie) and son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath in the movie) rode 10 miles on the military railroad to Ft. Wadsworth, just south of Petersburg, along the way traveling past a group of Confederate prisoners from the morning's battle.
At Ft. Wadsworth that day, the Lincolns would have heard the sounds of battle a little more than 2 miles to the west as Union forces counterattacked. The Confederates captured that day became a starting point for a larger attack April 2.
"That's the breakthrough that causes Petersburg to fall," said Jimmy Blankenship, Petersburg National Battlefield historian. The city surrendered April 3, and Lincoln came into town again to confer with Grant.
Leaving the train at Hancock Station south of Petersburg on April 3, Lincoln rode a horse into town on what's now U.S. 301.