‘Lincoln’ offers a president Virginia can bank on

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Print this page by Robert Powell

November finally brings to a close the seemingly endless presidential election cycle. That means that we now can turn our attention to what the president can do for Virginia in the coming weeks. I’m talking about Lincoln, not Obama.

Steven Spielberg’s much-awaited film, “Lincoln,” will be in theaters nationwide on Nov. 16. The movie, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, “A Team of Rivals,” was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg last year. During production, a majestic portico suddenly appeared on the north side of the state Capitol, and white military tents sprouted on Capitol Square. More than once on my commute downtown, I spotted costumed extras scurrying across Broad Street on coffee breaks.

Virginia Tourism Corp., the state’s tourism marketing arm, is betting that the movie will encourage travelers to visit Virginia’s historic sites.  Tourism officials, in fact, got the ball rolling in September when they entertained a group of travel writers, showing them spots featured in the film. In addition, the “Virginia Is For Lovers” website notes a number of places in Virginia that Lincoln visited during the Civil War. The list includes Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax County, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Richmond and City Point in Hopewell.

While I hope “Lincoln” sparks the curiosity of free-spending tourists, I would like to see the movie also rekindle Virginians’ interest in their history. Sometimes I think we forget Virginia’s rich legacy makes it special.

In fact, there are so many layers of history in this state, some of it gets lost. For example, I work in a building on Main Street in Richmond that was built in 1866, a year after a fire set by evacuating Confederate forces destroyed 35 blocks of the city’s business district. The iron-front building, owned by the Virginia Association of Counties, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Nonetheless, the building likely is not the most historic structure to stand on this site.

This block once was home to The Eagle Hotel. From scraps of information I have found, the hotel was the scene of a major banquet honoring George Washington in 1791.  In 1807, its ballroom was used by Chief Justice John Marshall for a hearing in the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr.

Less than 20 years later, the hotel’s ballroom was used for another celebration, a banquet honoring the Marquis de LaFayette on his final tour of the United States.

Despite this wealth of history, the state marker on the sidewalk commemorates only one event at the hotel, the imprisonment of the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk, who had been captured in the “Black Hawk War” in Illinois in 1832. The warrior was being held in Fortress Monroe, but part of his punishment was being paraded in “European clothes” in a number of cities, including Richmond.  The Black Hawk War ironically was Lincoln’s only military experience before the Civil War. A captain in the Illinois militia, Lincoln saw no combat in his three-month tour of duty.

Nothing remains of the Eagle Hotel, and little exists from Wall Street two blocks away, once the heart of Richmond’s slave trading district. The street, now known as 15th Street, is truncated by Interstate 95. The only evidence of its past is an archaeological excavation of Lumpkin’s Jail, a holding cell for slaves awaiting auction, and the Reconciliation Statue at the corner on 15th and Main. The 15-foot-tall bronze sculpture was erected in 2007 as a symbol of healing for Richmond; Liverpool, England; and the African country of Benin, three partners in the international slave trade.

Fittingly, Lincoln likely passed Wall Street as he walked up Main Street on his arrival in Richmond on April 4, 1865, the day after the city fell to Union forces. The ruins of downtown Richmond still were smoldering from the evacuation fire.

Lincoln had traveled up the James River from Union headquarters at City Point to see the captured Confederate capital. Because sandbars and river hazards had scuttled the use of larger vessels, Lincoln and his 12-year-old son, Tad, unceremoniously arrived in Richmond in a rowboat accompanied only by a dozen nervous Marines.

As Lincoln walked through the city he soon was followed by a growing throng of freedmen, several of whom may have been in Lumpkin’s Jail awaiting auction only two days before. According to an account by the novelist and historian Shelby Foote, some in the crowd knelt at the president’s feet, praising him as a messiah. Lincoln reportedly told them, “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. Kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

Thanks to a helpful map provided by Virginia Tourism’s website, you can retrace Lincoln’s steps through Richmond. Some buildings he saw that day still stand, including the Capitol and the White House of the Confederacy. For much of the rest of the route, we have to use our imaginations to transport us nearly 150 years, a task made easier by Spielberg’s movie. 

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