The Liberation of Richmond

Thanks to David Woodbury for his recent post on James W. Loewen’s research of “Montana’s Civil War Dead.” Few have pushed further than Loewen in investigating the ways in which Americans have gone about remembering crucial aspects of their past. Much of that remembered past, according to Loewen, is not only false but steeped in racism. In addition to Lies My Teachers Told Me and Lies Across America I highly recommend his newest book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Loewen explores the disturbing and forgotten story of towns and cities across the United States that continued to pass laws up until relatively recently that barred African Americans from entering their limits after nightfall.

Back to the Civil War. While the story of how Montana came to celebrate its Confederate dead reflects the cultural attraction of a remembered Confederate past, the story of Richmond’s fall and Lincoln’s arrival as a sad moment in the history of the city reveals the continued popularity of a narrow interpretation of the Confederate past. The controversy surrounding the unveiling of a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son in the former capital of the Confederacy in 2003 clearly highlights this bias. Commissioned by the United States Historical Society, Lincoln and his son are seated on a bench against a plain granite wall. The words, “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds” are cut into a granite capstone. Those who followed this story know that the unveiling was accompanied by a great deal of controversy and emotion. The commander of the Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the work “a slap in the face of a lot of brave men and women who went through four years of unbelievable hell fighting an invasion of Virginia led by President Lincoln.” Another likened a Lincoln statue in Richmond to erecting a monument to Adolf Hitler in Jerusalem. Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, supported placing the statue in Richmond “as an historical symbol of
reconciliation.” Richmond National Battlefield Park Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod said that Lincoln’s visit ” was, and is, nationally significant and this statue will bolster our effectiveness in telling that story.” This heated debate suggests that the fall of Richmond and the Civil War still has a tight hold on popular memory. The publication of Richmond Burning serves as a fruitful entry point into the history behind this continuing fascination and attachment to the final days of our nation’s civil war.

The argument against the unveiling of the monument assumes a specific interpretation concerning the sentiments of those who were in Richmond at the time of Lincoln’s arrival following its evacuation in April 1865. Accordingly, one can assume that they were white and ardent supporters of the Confederacy. The historical record, however, suggests that reactions from the city’s white population varied. For Fannie Dickinson, the arrival of Union troops meant the end of the world as she knew it, while Elizabeth Van Lew rejoiced as Union regiments raced one another toward Capitol Square. Both individuals represent communities that must be taken into account in any study of the social and political dynamics within the capital.

The slave population welcomed the army, which included regiments of U.S. Colored Troops as liberators. Accompanying the 28th USCT was Reverend Garland White who was born in Richmond as a slave and later escaped to the North where he recruited African Americans for the Union army. After he had addressed a crowd on the edge of the city, an older woman approached and said, “[t]his is your mother, Garland, whom you are talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

The varied responses that can be discerned among Richmond’s citizens at the time of Richmond’s fall serves as a reminder that Southern history should not be blindly reduced to white Southern history. More importantly, it is important to acknowledge that significant pockets of Unionism existed all over the South and in the Confederate capital itself. It is no stretch of the imagination to picture joyful Richmonders heralding the arrival of Union soldiers as liberators unless you choose to narrow your focus to one segment of that community. One can ignore the salient distinctions within any community, but you do so at the price of a more mature and historically accurate picture of the past.

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