Abraham Lincoln fittingly spent the tail end of the Petersburg Campaign at the front, docked in the River Queen offshore from the Federal headquarters at City Point. He met with important generals to discuss strategy, reviewed Union troops and their Confederate prisoners, witnessed the fighting that took place on March 25, and made triumphant entries into the cities of Petersburg on April 3 and Richmond on 4.
Lincoln hoped to remain in Petersburg long enough to receive the news he anticipated from Grant’s pursuit of Lee but realized that his presence was necessary back in Washington. The River Queen sailed out of City Point on April 8. It was during that final day at the front that Lincoln left his lasting memorable impression on the troops who served under his stead for four years.
Around noon on the 8th, Lincoln, accompanied by a large group of guests and military personnel, went to the Depot Field Hospital. One mile from City Point, the 200 acre campus could hold up to 10,000 patients at capacity. One of Lincoln’s party, the Marquis de Chambrun, described the scene:
…a large area had been reserved for ambulances. These were organized according to a plan as simple as it was logical. Each army corps had its separate ambulance space. This consisted of a large rectangle of ground divided by open corridors placed at equal distances from one another. Between these corridors stood a row of tents or of frame huts, each of which was capable of containing about twenty wounded. One side of these corridors was given up to officers, the other to privates. At the center of each rectangle of ground was located a pharmacy, a kitchen, and that which Americans considers as always essential–a post office.
“Those who have visited one of these tents or of these frame huts have seen them all,” claimed the French observer. Yet the President was indeed intent on seeing them all.
The administrators at the Depot Field Hospital wanted Lincoln to review their procedures, but he insisted that he instead meet with the wounded. “Gentlemen, you know better than I how to conduct these hospitals,” Lincoln reminded them, “but I came here to take by the hand the men who have achieved our glorious victories.”
Private Stephen Meidam of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry was one of those responsible for the Federal victory, but he also bore testament to its cost. The seventeen year old lost his leg during the Breakthrough on April 2nd and would stay in the hospital at Petersburg until September. The young soldier claimed that on April 8th Lincoln stayed with him for nearly half an hour on account of his age.
“There was a number of officers with him, but they remained at the door,” recalled New York lieutenant J.C. Gill as Lincoln moved from tent to tent. “The President walked down the long aisle between the rows of cots and spoke to and shook hands with every man in the ward. It was that hand shake that I have always considered the greatest honor that ever came to me.”
Lincoln took the time to even visit with Confederates captured from the previous weeks’ fighting before finally concluding his hospital visit late in the afternoon. His arm ached from shaking thousands of hands, but the President refused to acknowledge his pain. When a doctor suggested that Lincoln looked tired, he wearily grabbed a nearby ax and took a few swings at a wood pile to prove his strength to the delight of the crowd.
That night Private Wilbur Fisk chronicled the commander-in-chief’s visit for his local newspaper:
President Lincoln was here at the hospital today to visit the boys, and shake hands with them. It was an unexpected honor, coming from the man upon whom the world is looking with so much interest, and the boys were pleased with it beyond measure. Everything passed off in a very quiet manner; there was no crowding or disorder of any kind. When the President came all the men that were able arranged themselves by common consent into line, on the edge of the walk that runs along by the door of the stockades, and Mr. Lincoln passed along in front, paying personal respect to each man.
“Are you well, sir?” “How do you do today?” “How are you, sir?” looking each man in the face, and giving him a word and a shake of the hand as he passed. He went into each of the stockades and tents, to see those who were not able to be out. “Is this Father Abraham?” says one very sick man to Mr. Lincoln. The President assured him, good naturedly, that it was. Mr. Lincoln presides over millions of people, and each individual share of his attention must necessarily be very small, and yet he wouldn’t slight the humblest of them all.
“The men not only reverence and admire Mr. Lincoln, but they love him,” concluded Private Fisk. “May God bless him, and spare his life to us for many years.”
By the time Fisk’s uplifting letter reached the press in Vermont, rumors of President Lincoln’s assassination raced across the nation.
More information on President Lincoln’s time spent at Petersburg can be found in Donald C. Pfanz’s excellent book The Petersburg Campaign: Abraham Lincoln at City Point, March 20-April 9, 1865. (Lynchburg, VA: H.E. Howard, Inc., 1989).