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.
"He gets to Ft. Mahone [obliterated by a Petersburg shopping center] and sees dead bodies, bloated bodies, one shot through the forehead, another with both arms shot away," Blankenship said. "He shuddered at the sight. One soldier observed large teardrops running down the president's cheeks…"
Lincoln met Grant April 3 at Petersburg's Thomas Wallace House, the general's temporary headquarters. Lincoln sat in an upholstered wooden chair, with his long legs dangling over the edge of the square porch, as he discussed policies toward the defeated South.
"Let 'em up easy," Lincoln told Grant.
Filming on historic sites
When the Confederates evacuated Richmond, a fire set to destroy military supplies spread and burned a large swath of the city between the river and the State Capitol. Urban development in the heart of downtown has altered much of the rest.
Some of the best architectural works have survived, including the Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, and the Executive Mansion, both used in the filming of "Lincoln."
In fact, Spielberg spent 53 days filming in Virginia, adapting various locations to stand in for Washington, D.C., and other sites. (A map of what was filmed where will soon be available online from Virginia Tourism to help you construct your own "Lincoln" tour of Richmond.)
In the movie, the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, where the Confederate Congress actually met, was transformed into the U.S. Capitol with the help of a false façade and judicious placement of trees. (The dome was computer-generated.)
The House of Delegates chambers filled in for the U.S. House of Representatives. Unless Virginia's General Assembly is in session, typically from mid-January until mid-March, visitors can step inside the room where Tommy Lee Jones stole many scenes in the movie as abolitionist Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. (Tours are free.)
The exterior of the Virginia Executive Mansion, the oldest continually occupied governor's home in the nation and now home to Gov. Bob McDonnell, represented the home of politician Preston Blair, played in the movie by Hal Holbrook. The residence, which is next door to the State Capitol, is open for tours from 10 a.m. to noon and 2-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays.
Richmond's Maymont Park, a Gilded Age country estate bequeathed to the city in 1925, provided the carriage paths on which Day-Lewis rode with Field's Mary Todd Lincoln. The village of Appomattox Court House, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant, was re-created on the grounds at Maymont, which is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
In Petersburg, the cobblestone streets of Old Towne easily accommodated the film crew.
Unoccupied historic buildings, such as the South Side Depot and octagonal Farmer's Market, offered distinctive vantage points and settings. (The depot was recently purchased by the Civil War Trust, which will eventually turn it over to the Petersburg National Battlefield Park for use as an Old Towne visitors center.)
Old Towne restaurants embraced the filming with specials. The director ordered a to-go chili-topped cheeseburger, a.k.a. the Spielberger, from the Dixie Restaurant. During filming, the patio at Andrade's, which serves Latin American food, was separated from the action only by a wooden screen so patrons could hear what was going on, even if they couldn't see it. Brickhouse Run restaurant continued to serve American cuisine on Cockade Alley, a block that carries the city's nickname, while it was part of the set.
History and recreation
On returning to City Point April 3, Lincoln learned that Richmond had surrendered and told Adm. David D. Porter he wanted to see the city. "It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone," Lincoln said.
You can make the 25-mile journey from City Point to Richmond in about a half-hour on I-95, but in Lincoln's day, getting there wasn't easy.
A flotilla set out with flags flying, but only one motor-powered launch could make it past the sunken ships and other Confederate obstacles at Drewry's Bluff eight miles below Richmond. Above that point, no one had swept the river for mines.
"This is now incredibly dangerous," said Mike Gorman, Richmond National Battlefield Park ranger. "And then things get truly weird."
Adm. David Farragut had arrived in Richmond and captured a Confederate ship. He got stuck between the piles of a former bridge a couple miles downriver. When Porter approached to help, his launch got stuck too.
"So now both admirals of the U.S. Navy have been completely embarrassed by having their vessels run aground on the same day with the president in attendance," Gorman said.
A dozen Marines rowed the president to Richmond. They drifted down to a sandbar at the end of 17th Street. The only acknowledgment today is a sign at the head of the Capital to Capital bike trail on the river side of the city flood wall.
"Try to visualize this," Gorman said. "The former slaves are here working on this bridge. They're not going to see him until he crests that rise, and nobody's going to see this ridiculous little rowboat. He's just suddenly going to appear."
A crowd soon swarmed around the president. There was no Army escort in this underbelly of the city, just below the former slave markets.
As they approached Capital Square on Governor Street, they finally encountered Union officers who escorted Lincoln up 12th Street to the new Union headquarters at the Confederate White House.
Their mile-long walk, available as a podcast narrated by Gorman at http://www.civilwartraveler.org, is still steep enough to steal your breath, gaining more than 100 feet in the third of a mile from 15th Street up Franklin and Governor to Broad at 12th Street.
"If you come out and do this, you will be tired by the time you get to the [Confederate] White House, and that's not having to fight through crowds of former slaves who see you as the physical embodiment of their freedom," Gorman said. "You will want to sit down."
And that's just what Lincoln did. He was shown into the library, where he sat down in one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis' chairs and, "crossing his legs he looked far off with a serious dreamy expression," Gorman said.
"There was no triumph in his gesture or attitude. He laid back in the chair like a tired man whose nerves had carried him beyond his strength. All he wanted was rest and a drink of water."
Because about 60% of the furnishings in the house existed in it during the Civil War, odds are that Lincoln's chair is among them.
Lincoln's visit to Richmond lasted only a few hours. Yours could last days.
History is the backdrop for a city that robustly enjoys life. Outside magazine called Richmond the "Best River Town Ever" in its September issue. It's hard to argue with that when you're shooting Class IV rapids through downtown in a rubber raft or floating on an inner tube on flat water. Sun bathers lolling on the boulders, hikers and mountain bikers on miles of paths bordering both sides in James River Park, fishermen, bird watchers, wildlife lovers and photographers each have their own reasons for agreeing.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which opened a $150-million expansion in 2010, bedazzles with an exhibition of Dale Chihuly glass through Feb. 10. Its permanent collections are among the best in the nation for Art Nouveau and Art Deco, English silver, Fabergé and the art of South Asia.
Dozens of other galleries and museums range from the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose sculpture department was ranked No. 1 in the nation for 2012 by U.S. News and World Report for the eighth year in a row, to Henricus Historical Park, which commemorates the second English settlement in the New World in 1611.
Spielberg said he had "an amazing time in Richmond." He's made three movies in Virginia, but "Lincoln" was the first in the capital. His favorite spots tended to be places near his riverfront apartment downtown.
"My wife and I and my children all loved the experience of being in Richmond," he said. "The experience of making 'Lincoln' there made us all want to come back and make another movie there."
Perhaps one with a better ending for its protagonist. Lincoln returned to Washington on April 8, 1865. At a social function at the White House, he revealed a premonition he'd had: He dreamed he awoke in the White House and heard wailing, went to investigate and was told that the assassinated president was in the coffin at the other end of the room.
On April 14, Lincoln was shot while attending a performance at Ford's Theatre and died the next morning.
"Now he belongs to the ages," Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said.
Thanks to his visits, he also belongs to Richmond.