Excerpt from Jay Winik’s April 1865
The next day, April 4 , brought an equally stunning sight. While General Grant was off in hot pursuit of Lee’s army, President Abraham Lincoln, in a high silk hat and long black coat, landed at Rocketts in the early afternoon and, accompanied by a naval guard of ten sailors, six in front, four in the rear, set foot on Richmond’s vaunted soil and began the nearly two-mile walk up the hill to Capitol Square. But even four long years of continuing war had not prepared the lanky president for the unprecedented reception he was to receive along a simple one-mile stretch. Out came a sound: “Glory to God!” It was a black man working by the dock. Then again: “Glory to God! Glory! Glory!”
Leaving their squalid houses and their tar-paper shacks, an impenetrable cordon of newly freed blacks followed Lincoln down the rubble-strewn streets, starting with a handful and swelling into a thousand. “Bless the Lord!” they shouted. “The great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s in my heart four long years. Come to free his children from bondage. Glory hallelujah.” And Lincoln replied, “You are free. Free as air.” “I know I am free,” answered one old woman, “for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.”
One of Lincoln’s aides asked the mass to step aside and allow the president to proceed, but to no avail. “After being so many years in the desert without water,” a man said happily, “it is mighty pleasant to be looking at las’ on our spring of life.” Weeping for joy, they strained to touch his hand; dizzy with exultation, they brushed his clothing to see that he was real; fearing that it was only a dream, they wiped their tears to make sure they were in fact looking out upon his face. Moved, Lincoln ignored his bodyguards and waded deeper into the thickening flock.
One black man, overcome by emotion, dropped to his knees, prompting the president to conduct a curbside colloquium on the meaning of emancipation. “Don’t kneel to me,” said the president. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”