- Jul 23, 2017
- Southwest Missouri
While this story has been posted in the past, I was unable to find this amazing eyewitness account by Admiral David Porter on the forum. Edited heavily for brevity.
by Thomas Nast
by Thomas Nast
April 4, 1865
At daylight it was discovered that all the forts had been set on fire and evacuated, and nothing was to be seen of the ironclads but their black hulls partly out of water.
General Weitzel, who commanded the army on the left of the James, was marching into Richmond, and the whole tragedy was over.
“Thank God,” said the President, fervently, “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. I want to see Richmond.”…..
Here we were in a solitary boat, after having set out with a number of vessels flying flags at every mast-head, hoping to enter the conquered capital in a manner befitting the rank of the President of the United States, with a further intention of firing a national salute in honor of the happy result.
I remember the President’s remarks on the occasion. “Admiral, this brings to my mind a fellow who once came to me to ask for an appointment as minister abroad. Finding he could not get that, he came down to some more modest position. Finally he asked to be made a tide-waiter. When he saw he could not get that, he asked me for an old pair of trousers. But it is well to be humble.” …..
I had never been to Richmond before by that route, and did not know where the landing was; neither did the coxswain, nor any of the barge’s crew. We pulled on, hoping to see some one of whom we could inquire, but no one was in sight.
The street along the river-front was as deserted as if this had been a city of the dead. The troops had been in possession some hours, but not a soldier was to be seen. ….
There was a small house on this landing, and behind it were some twelve negroes digging with spades. The leader of them was an old man sixty years of age. He raised himself to an upright position as we landed, and put his hands up to his eyes. Then he dropped his spade and sprang forward. “Bress de Lord,” he said, “dere is de great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s bin in my heart fo’ long yeahs, an’ he’s *** at las’ to free his chillun from deir bondage! Glory, Hallelujah!” And he fell upon his knees before the President and kissed his feet. The others followed his example, and in a minute Mr. Lincoln was surrounded by these people, who had treasured up the recollection of him caught from a photograph, and had looked up to him for four years as the one who was to lead them out of captivity.
It was a touching sight - that aged negro kneeling at the feet of the tall, gaunt-looking man who seemed in himself to be bearing all the grief of the nation, and whose sad face seemed to say, “I suffer for you all, but will do all I can to help you.”
Mr. Lincoln looked down on the poor creatures at his feet; he was much embarrassed at his position. “Don’t kneel to me,” he said. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument; but you may rest assured that as long as I live no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”
His face was lit up with a divine look as he uttered these words. Though not a handsome man, and ungainly in his person, yet in his enthusiasm he seemed the personification of manly beauty, and that sad face of his looked down in kindness upon these ignorant blacks with a grace that could not be excelled. He really seemed of another world.
All this scene was of brief duration, but, though a simple and humble affair, it impressed me more than anything of the kind I ever witnessed. What a fine picture that would have made—Mr. Lincoln landing from a ship-of-war’s boat, an aged negro on his knees at his feet, and a dozen more trying to reach him to kiss the hem of his garments! In the foreground should be the shackles he had broken when he issued his proclamation giving liberty to the slave.
Twenty years have passed since that event; it is almost too new in history to make a great impression, but the time will come when it will loom up as one of the greatest of man’s achievements, and the name of Abraham Lincoln—who of his own will struck the shackles from the limbs of four millions of people—will be honored thousands of years from now as man’s name was never honored before. …...
But we could not stay there all day looking at this happy mass of people; the crowds and their yells were increasing, and in a short time we would be unable to move at all. The negroes, in their ecstasy, could not be made to understand that they were detaining the President; they looked upon him as belonging to them, and that he had come to put the crowning act to the great work he had commenced. They would not feel they were free in reality until they heard it from his own lips.
At length he spoke. He could not move for the mass of people —he had to do something.
“My poor friends,” he said, “you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it; it will come to you no more. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years. But you must try to deserve this priceless boon. Let the world see that you merit it, and are able to maintain it by your good works. Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them; obey God’s commandments and thank him for giving you liberty, for to him you owe all things. There, now, let me pass on; I have but little time to spare. I want to see the capital, and must return at once to Washington to secure to you that liberty which you seem to prize so highly.”
The crowd shouted and screeched as if they would split the firmament, though while the President was speaking you might have heard a pin drop. I don’t think any one could do justice to that scene; it would be necessary to photograph it to understand it.
....“Thank God,” said the President, fervently, “that I have lived to see this!" President Abraham Lincoln would die at the hands of an assassin ten days later.
Admiral Porter finally located a lone cavalryman and dispatched him to find General Weitzel and send the President an escort, which he did.