Just after the Confederate government fled Richmond, President Lincoln made a surprise visit. The artist Lambert Hollis, who was on the scene, depicted crowds rushing to the president’s side in numbers that alarmed his bodyguards. Here Lincoln is holding the hand of his son Tad, who was celebrating his 12th birthday. (Lambert Hollis/National Portrait Gallery)
Early in the war, the North set its sights on capturing Richmond, the Confederate capital, believing that doing so would mean victory. But over time, it became clear that the war was about far more than any particular city, and that winning would in fact require conquering an entire army and a way of life.
In “Late Scenes in Richmond,” the war reporter Charles Carleton Coffin explained how the Union had come to shift its aims, especially after General Grant took command. Coffin, who has been called the Ernie Pyle of the Civil War, witnessed and wrote about many of the war’s key battles and was close friends with Grant. In this excerpt, he recounted a late-night conversation he’d had with Grant about the general’s endgame, and chronicled not only the Confederates’ chaotic flight from Richmond on April 2, but also President Lincoln’s triumphant visit two days later.—Sage Stossel
It was a natural cry, that slogan of the North in the early months of the war; for, in ordinary warfare, to capture an enemy’s capital is equivalent to conquering a peace. It was thought that the taking of Richmond would be the end of the Rebellion. Time has disabused us of this idea. To have taken Richmond in 1861 would only have been the repacking of the Department trunks for Montgomery or some other convenient Southern city. The vitality of the Rebellion existed not in cities, towns, or capitals, but in that which could die only by annihilation,—Human Slavery …