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“The morning of the 2nd of April, 1865, dawned brightly over the capital of the Southern Confederacy,” remembered Virginia native Sallie Brock. “A soft haze rested over the city, but above that, the sun shone with the warm pleasant radiance of early spring. The sky was cloudless. No sound disturbed the stillness of the Sabbath morn, save the subdued murmur of the river, and the cheerful music of the church bells.”

By the next morning, Richmond, Virginia, would be engulfed in flames, with columns of Union soldiers quickly advancing to occupy the city, many of them former slaves once sold on Richmond’s auction blocks. And just one day later, on April 4, one hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln would enter Richmond—the “Stars and Stripes” flying from the abandoned Confederate Capitol building, the “Star Spangled Banner” sounding from Union bands, and thousands of liberated slaves rejoicing in jubilant celebration.

The dramatic turn of events began in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond.

“On to Richmond!”

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was seated in his pew for the monthly Communion service. Just as the rector finished reading from Habakkuk 2:20, “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him,” a messenger hurriedly made his way up the aisle and placed into Davis’ hands a sealed message from General Robert E. Lee: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.” Before dawn the next day, Davis and the Confederate government, and Lee and the Confederate army, were gone. Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital, had fallen to Union armies. (The following Sunday, Palm Sunday, Lee would surrender in Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War.)

For four long years, “On to Richmond!” was the battle cry of Union armies that endured a series of devastating military defeats. In the spring of 1862, a massive Union army had advanced to within sight of Richmond’s church spires, only to have the tide turned after Davis placed Lee in command. The daring general would go on to wage a series of battlefield victories unparalleled in American history. It would require three more years of horrifying bloodshed, including a nine-month siege of nearby Petersburg, before Union armies would advance on the Confederacy’s capital again.

Strategically and symbolically, Richmond was the heart of the Confederacy. It was the South’s second largest city, after New Orleans, and the capital of the Confederacy’s most populous state, Virginia. And it was not only the seat of political power, housing the Confederate government throughout the war, but also a vital industrial center for arms production, shipbuilding, and steam locomotive manufacturing. Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works alone was responsible for almost half of the South’s domestic production of artillery.

And Richmond was also the historic and symbolic center of the South’s slave trade.

“I saw hundreds of mothers separated from their children”

Slavery in Virginia dates to 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. In the early 19th-century, just as cotton was beginning to become “king” in the plantation economy of the Deep South, the United States Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1807. As a result, to meet their demand for labor, plantation owners looked to the slave markets of Virginia, the Old Dominion, not only the Father of Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe), but also the mother of slaves. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Virginia slaves were “exported” throughout the Deep South.

civil war

Richmond’s slave traders treated “negroes” like common livestock. In an autobiographical account, William H. Robinson details his personal experience being bought and sold in Richmond’s slave market. Traveling through Virginia’s various counties, slave traders “would buy up eight, ten or twenty, as the case might be, and locate them at some central point until he had from three to five hundred. Then he would have a long chain and handcuff them on either side of the chain and march them to Richmond . . . [where] they would auction them off to the highest bidder.”

Upon arriving in Richmond, Robinson’s group was housed in a “negro pen,” which was “a very large brick structure with a high brick wall around it” and “no furniture” except “long troughs” to drink from.

When it came time for the auction, Robinson was herded into a room with ten or twelve others. “There were five or six young ladies in the gang I went in with,” Robinson recalls. “The traders forgetting the sacredness of their own mothers and sisters, paid no respect to us, but compelled each one of us to undress, to see if we were sound and healthy.” Any who refused to disrobe received one hundred lashes across their back.

After completing the “humiliating ordeal of examination,” each slave stood on the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder, and the prices were later “quoted on the bulletin and in the paper the same as our stock and wheat are quoted today.”

Of all the degradations endured by slaves, none was crueler than the denial of their familial bonds and the indifferent separation of their families. Robinson witnesses:

I saw hundreds of mothers separated from their children. I heard the wail of many a child for its mother, and of the mother for her child. While one buyer had the mother, going in one direction, another with the child would be going the opposite way. I saw husband and wife bidding each other farewell and sisters and brothers being separated. There could not have been any darker days to them than these; it was with them as it was with Job, when he spake in the Third Chapter of Job, and said: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it is said there is a man child conceived, let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.”

One of the children separated from his mother on Richmond’s auction block was Garland H. White. And, decades later, he would be among the first Union troops to enter Richmond on April 3, 1865.

“The simplist instroment used in the right direction sometimes accomplishs much good” 

Sold in his youth to Georgia lawyer Robert Toombs, Garland H. White would become the “body servant” of the prominent politician and eventual founding father of the Confederacy. Toombs brought White with him to Washington D.C., where Toombs represented Georgia in Congress for more than fifteen years. Following the 1860 election, Toombs resigned from Congress, led Georgia in seceding from the Union, and briefly served as the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, before being commissioned a Confederate general. Toombs was well known for having an “explosive and undisciplined temperament” and for drinking to excess.

Sometime in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, White escaped and fled to Canada, where he became a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Ontario. But within just a few years, in May 1862, White was looking for a way to return to the United States and fight for the Union cause. Referencing his association with Secretary of State William H. Seward (while Robert Toombs’ slave), White wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, offering to head a regiment of his fellow blacks bearing Union arms.

In rudimentary handwriting, White informed Stanton, “I am now a minister, & am called upon By my peopel to tender to [you] their willingness to serve as soldiers.” White felt to assure Stanton that their offer was “not for speculation or self interest but for our love for the north & the government at large, & at the same time we pray god that the triumph of the north & restoration of peace . . . will prove an eternal overthrow of the institution of slavery which is the cause of all our trouble.” Conscious that his letter displayed a lack of education, White persisted, “yet I feel that the simplist instroment used in the right direction sometimes accomplishs much good.”

It would take eight more months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation authorized black soldiers to be “received into the armed service of the United States.” But by January 1863, when the Proclamation took effect, White had already relocated to Ohio with his wife and infant daughter, and set to work recruiting hundreds for the first regiments of “colored troops.” White also volunteered, first enlisting as a private and then eventually receiving a commission as chaplain of the 28th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, one of only 14 black chaplains in the entire Union army.

“I proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind.”

Chaplain White and his regiment were among the first Union troops to march on Richmond after its defenses collapsed. On the morning of April 3, 1865, White marched at the head of his regiment’s column, as former slaves and sons of slaves entered the Confederate capital, the heart of the Confederacy, as free men. They found a city in chaos.

The Confederate government evacuated Richmond in less than a day, spreading panic among its frightened citizens. Some crowded along the roads and canals leading out of the city with their “incongruous heaps of baggage,” and others did their best to shut their homes, secret away their valuables away, and keep a fearful vigil. In the absence of law enforcement, mobs of hungry, or greedy, citizens—maybe both—ransacked the commissary depot and the cities’ dry goods stores.

Then in the early hours of the morning, Confederate troops set fire to the four principal tobacco warehouses, hoping to deny their enemies any benefit from the valuable commercial crop. But the fire could not be contained, and it furiously burned the city’s commercial district and hundreds of homes. Eventually, the flames reached the arsenal, where numerous carloads of loaded shell were stored. Sallie Brock recalls, “At every moment the most terrific explosions were sending forth their awful reverberations, and gave us the idea of a general bombardment. All the horrors of the final conflagration, when the earth shall be wrapped in flames and melt with fervent heat, were, it seemed to us, prefigured in our capital.”

Upon entering Richmond, Union soldiers energetically set about restoring order and extinguishing the city’s surging fires. But in his letter to the editor of the Christian Recorder, Chaplain White said nothing about the raging fires or bedlam from looting. Instead, White wrote only of the “shouts of ten thousand voices” from the city’s enslaved population.

“As white Richmond retreated behind shutters and blinds,” Jay Winik writes, “black Richmond spontaneously took to the streets.” When White’s regiment advanced up Richmond’s Broad Street, a “vast multitude assembled” and the officers and men of the regiment called upon the chaplain to make a speech. History does not record the exact words, but in his succinct summary, White wrote that he “proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind.” Afterwards “the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. . . . I became so overcome with tears,” White wrote, “that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart.”

“God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them.”

A “multitude” of Richmond’s liberated slave population later followed White’s regiment to its encampment. When some men in the regiment told him, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you,” White followed them to a group of “colored ladies” and one of them questioned him as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Garland H. White.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Where was you born?”
“In Hanover County, in this State.”
“Where was you sold from?”
“From this city.”
“What was the name of the man who bought you?”
“Robert Toombs.”
“Where did he live?”
“In the State of Georgia.”
“Where did you leave him?”
“At Washington.”
“Where did you go then?”
“To Canada.”
“Where do you live now?”
“In Ohio.”
“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

She was among those “many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere.” (During the course of the war, she had contacted Toombs while he was in the capital to discover the whereabouts of her son, learning that he escaped to Canada, then resettled in Ohio.) In his letter describing their tender reunion, White wrote, “I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.”

“You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

When Lincoln learned that Union troops had entered Richmond, he exclaimed fervently, “Thank God that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone.” Then he added, “I want to see Richmond.”

It seems likely that a civilian president never toured enemy territory so quickly after being occupied as Lincoln toured Richmond. His advisers counseled against it, but Lincoln persisted. In just forty hours after Jefferson Davis abandoned Richmond, Lincoln walked its streets.

James McPherson describes Lincoln’s visit as “the most unforgettable scenes of this unforgettable war.” With an escort of no more than a dozen sailors, Lincoln arrived at the Confederate capital in a humble rowboat after his party navigated the James River, traveling upstream. As he disembarked, a small group of freedmen crowded around him. A Union war correspondent, Charles Carleton Coffin, said to a nearby black woman, “There is the man who made you free.” For a moment, she gazed at Lincoln “in amazement, joy, rapture, as if in supernal presence, then clapped her hands, jumped and shouted, ‘Glory! glory! glory!”

As the Great Emancipator gradually made his way through Richmond’s streets, he was completely surrounded, the crowd growing larger and larger. Describing the scene, Garland H. White wrote, “I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy.”

Lincoln deflected the praise, acknowledging the true source of their freedom. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln kindly told an elderly man that fell upon his knees in front of him, “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”