A Scholarly Monograph By Michael Litterst
1 July 1995
The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 1
In the spring of 1862, with the American Civil War on the threshold of its second year, a businessman called upon President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. The gentleman, a speculator of sorts in a market whose identity has long since been lost to history, was seeking a pass to go to Richmond and ply his trade.
“Well,” replied the President, “I would be very happy to oblige you if my passes were respected.” As his face contorted in a puzzled look, the businessman asked Lincoln what he meant. The President in a glib manner sprung his punch line: “The fact is, sir, I have, within the last two years, given passes to two hundred and fifty thousand men to go to Richmond, and not one has got there yet.”1
Lincoln would not be deterred, and during the ensuing years of war, he issued over two million “passes” to men enlisting in the Union cause, in hopes that they would indeed reach the Confederate capital in Richmond. Therefore it was fitting that, once those passes were finally being “honored,” the Commander in Chief was one of the first Federals to reach the city.
The dizzying pace of events in April 1865 provided Lincoln with an unexpected opportunity to enter the enemy’s territory. Although Richmond was only nominally occupied by Union troops, Lincoln decided to view the former seat of the Confederate government firsthand. What is most recalled of the visit was “Lincoln, the tourist.” The vivid images and accounts of the journey describe him strolling the streets of the city, mischievously exploring the former home of President Jefferson Davis, or touring the corridors of the Confederate Capitol and examining the wreckage left behind by the rebel government.
Unfortunately, what has been lost among the myth-making is the important diplomatic implications of the visit. The trip was more than a mere sight-seeing excursion; Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the Confederate capital was the first stop on the road to reunion. The President had been awaiting this opportunity for four long years.
Lincoln’s trip to Richmond is not an easy event to piece together. There are only a limited number of accounts and many of them are filled with enough “bragg” as to discredit the author. A popular claim is the author had in some way shielded Mr. Lincoln from the hostile machinations of some disgruntled Confederate.
Confederate newspaper accounts are likewise non-existent or of little assistance. Of the Confederate capital’s daily or semi-weekly newspapers, all but one, The Enquirer, had ceased production in the wake of the evacuation and the subsequent Union occupation. The remaining tabloid was restricted to publishing a truncated version under the watchful eye of the Federal military government. Since the Federal authorities had severely restricted members of the “Fourth Estate” from entering Richmond, most Northern journalists were traveling with the Army of the Potomac on its relentless pursuit of Lee’s critically wounded army.
Because of the limited information, even so, seemingly simple an item as the date of the visit has often been clouded in uncertainty. However, enough reliable and verifiable accounts of Mr. Lincoln’s journey exist to piece together a fascinating and remarkable tale.