Days before the Confederacy surrendered 150 years ago, here's how Lincoln proved that the war was really over

After more than four years of exceedingly brutal warfare, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union troops 150 years ago today.

After retreating from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia on April 2nd, 1865, Lee cut west in an attempt to join with the North Carolina Confederate.

His escape was interrupted when his army reached Appomattox on April 8th. Surrounded by Union troops, Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

A series of other Confederate leaders followed suit and the war was officially declared over on May 9, 1865. 

Even before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, it was clear that the Confederacy had been beaten. A few days earlier, Lincoln himself had visited the vacated Confederate capital and performed an act that cemented the rebellion’s absolute defeat, if only symbolically: On April 4, 1865, Lincoln calmly strolled through the streets of the recently captured city and proceeded to sit at the desk of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had fled the city just days before.

Wikimedia CommonsThe ruins of Richmond after the Civil War.

Confederate forces had evacuated their capital two days prior to Lincoln’s visit. Ignoring the danger of possible assassins hiding in the city, Lincolnheaded directlyto Richmond to prove to the Confederates that their capital had fallen and to show that law and order would be re-established in southern cities brought back into the Union fold.

He received a hero’s welcome: As soon as Lincoln landed in Richmond, mobs of “negroes and poor whites” rushed towards the president, according to accompanying Union Admiral David D. Porter. “They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln or his coat tail or even to kneel down and kiss his boots!”

Pushing through the crush, Lincoln and his entourage made their way to the Confederate White House. The house was empty except for an elderly caretaker. 

Inside the house, Lincoln “took a seat in the reception room that also had served as the office of the Confederate president,” William C. Harris writes in his biography Lincoln’s Last Months.

There’s little in warfare that’s more humiliating than an enemy leader marching into a vanquished rival’s seat of power, literally, in this case. But Lincoln was already thinking about how he could heal the deep national scar that the war had opened.

In his second inaugural address, delivered exactly one month earlier, Lincoln spoke of striving “to bind up the nation’s wound,” and it’s unsurprising that he seemed to derive so little closure or enjoyment from the symbolic victory of sitting at the enemy president’s desk. “One observer noted that as he sat down ‘there was no triumph in his gesture or attitude,'” according to Harris.

Despite both the immediate and historical importance of the occasional, Lincoln didn’t pose for a photograph.

Lincoln Richmond visitLibrary of CongressThe scene of Lincoln visiting the Confederate White House.

Everyone on hand then drank from Davis’s whiskey stash — everyone except for Lincoln, that is. Colonel William H. Cook, Lincoln’s bodyguard, writes in his memoir Through Five Administrations that Davis’ housekeeper greeted the Union entourage and asked if they had any needs within the house.

After Cook informed him of their thirst, the servant “produced a long, black bottle [of whiskey]. The bottle was passed around. When it came back it was empty. Every one had taken a pull except the President, who never touched anything of the sort.” 

Lincoln and his group then toured Richmond before returning to the ship that had brought him to the city.

Five days later, Lee would surrender setting up a domino effect of other Confederate capitulations. In a month, the war, which lasted over 4 years and killed over 750,000 people, would officially be over.

Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years after the war but was covered by the 1868 general amnesty for former Confederate leaders. He died in 1889, after a post-war career that included a stint as president of a Tennessee insurance company.

Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, just 11 after sitting in Davis’s chair.

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