Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis and filmed in and around Richmond, Va., has re-ignited interest in the American Civil War.
However, you don’t have to be a historian or a Civil War buff to retrace the steps of Honest Abe when he came to Richmond in 1865 before the end of the Civil War.
A recent trip there surprisingly revealed a vibrant and elegant city full of historic monuments and sights that have been lovingly restored—some of which get cameo appearances in the movie. There’s bound to be something new to learn about this period in history from an eager local or a vivacious tour guide.
Expansive exhibits on all aspects of war and daily life in that time, along with museums and battlefields, trendy shopping districts with quirky boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and cafes all combine to give Richmond its energy and character.
Richmond was the focal point of campaigns and battles in the Civil War, which is the cornerstone of the city’s tourism business. Richmond is the gateway to Civil War history and was named the capital of the Confederacy in 1861. Even the original owner of the city’s grand hotel, The Jefferson, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Richmond and its people will welcome you just as they did when Abe Lincoln showed up on the shores of the James River on April 5, 1865, two days after Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army broke through the lines of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army, and just 10 days before he was assassinated.
Lincoln planned to visit Richmond on his way to see Grant. He arrived unannounced, with a very small entourage while some parts of the city were still burning. Word spread quickly of his arrival, and he was met by scores of newly freed slaves as he made his way to the city center.
His famous quote, delivered in front of masses of former slaves, “Liberty is your birthright,” made him an instant hero.
Lincoln’s first stop in the capital was the White House of the Confederacy. Today, this exquisitely renovated White House, a National Historic Landmark, is where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived and ruled his empire before it collapsed in 1865, and is an incredibly accurate example of High Victorian interior design and décor.
It’s worthwhile to call ahead and arrange for the director to give you an engaging tour.
You’ll also see where Lincoln is reported to have sat at a small desk when meeting with a local garrison commander. The white neoclassic style (commonly known as classic Greek revival) mansion was built in 1818 and designed by Robert Mills for John Brockenbrough, the president of the Bank of Virginia. The majority of the furniture in the residence is original and dates back to the late 19th century.
Located a few blocks away is the Virginia State Capitol. Designed by Thomas Jefferson, the blindingly white Classical style façade, framed by rows of columns, is where the Bill of Rights was ratified and is a majestic landmark to American history.
Inspired by the Maison Carrée in the city of Nîmes in the south of France, Jefferson completed this building in 1788, and it continues to house the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest elected body in the United States.
Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Winston Churchill are other dignitaries besides Lincoln who visited the Capitol. In the Rotunda, a life-size marble statue of George Washington, billed as the finest and most accurate likeness of the Revolutionary General and first President (standing at 6′ 2″) and carved by French artist Houdin stands as it has since 1796.
Historic Tredegar, the headquarters of Richmond National Battlefield Park, is a National Historic Landmark on 8.3 acres. Founded in 1837, Tredegar became the largest iron works in the country (employing 800 laborers by 1861) and produced all the materials of war: guns, ammunition, artillery, cannon and armor plating for southern warships.
A visitor center in the historic Pattern Building on the site includes three floors of artifacts and exhibits that feature “voices” from Richmond residents who were there during the Civil War.
From here, you can explore the outlying battlefields and other historic sites. For example, the American Civil War Center is right next door, housed in a former gun foundry, and is the first museum to tell the story of the Civil War from the Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.
For those seeking culture, don’t miss a visit to or a performance at the Empire Theatre, formerly the Booker Theatre, which opened in 1911 and is the oldest standing theater in Virginia for live stage performances. Vintage in every aspect down to the chairs and the curtain, the theater was inspired by the Empire Theatre in New York City.
The 100-acre Maymont Mansion may have a Daughters of the American Revolution connection (the owner’s wife, Sallie May Doolie, was the organizing regent of Virginia’s first chapter), but it is certainly worth a visit since the estate features gardens, animal exhibits, an arboretum, and 25 historic buildings, in addition to more than 200 tree and plant species, all preserved to its almost original state since Mrs. Doolie’s death in 1925.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) had the mandate when it opened in 1936 to become a flagship museum for the state of Virginia which it has fulfilled with great success.It has one of the country’s most complete collections of classical and African art alongside European masters like Goya, Delacroix, Monet, bronzes by Edgar Degas, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer, as well as Indian and Himalayan art, English silver, Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, ceramics, and glass. One of the institution’s earliest and most popular donations was the Lillian Thomas Pratt’s donation in 1947 of her jeweled objects by Peter Carl Fabergé. The café and restaurant is one of the city’s best kept dining secrets.
Allow time for a short side trip to Petersburg, a small, historic town that Lincoln returned to a few days after leaving Richmond. The town has a unique background, being ideally located along the tobacco route on the banks of the Appomattox River and with its own railway stop. It was one of Richmond’s high society destinations in the early 1800s due to a proliferation of finishing schools there for well-to-do Northerners. The Siege Museum chronicles the 10-month siege—the longest during the American Civil War.
Centre Hill is a richly decorated mansion dating from 1823 that belonged to one of Virginia’s first families dating from the 1660s, the Bollings. Hiram Haines’ Coffee and Ale House, made famous by Edgar Allan Poe who honeymooned there in 1836 right before it closed and which re-opened in 2010 as a bookstore and café after being closed for 174 years, is a quirky way to finish off the day.
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.
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