Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond

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Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond
Gus Nall
Oil on canvas
39.62 x 29.5 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, permanent loan from the Illinois State Historic Library

The state of Illinois commissioned this painting, along with many others from artists and citizens, in celebration of the centennial (the 100-year anniversary) of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In creating it, artist Gus Nall imagines the scene during President Lincoln’s April 4, 1865 visit to the conquered Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. As Lincoln walked through the streets, some former slaves came up to him and knelt down. Lincoln was quoted as saying, “Don’t kneel to me.  You must kneel to God only and thank Him for your liberty.” These former slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but only truly liberated after the Union army seized Richmond on April 3, 1865.
In this painting, we see Lincoln at the top of the steps of the Confederate Capitol building, with former slaves gathered below; his son, Tad standing next to him; and a group of black and white Union soldiers clustering around him. The artist shows Lincoln as a man whom former slaves admired, but also as someone who valued equality through the presence of both white and black soldiers.
History tells us that Lincoln’s views on emancipation and race were complex, and that he was not an advocate of racial equality. But we also know that United States Colored Troops were among the first soldiers to occupy Richmond, and that Lincoln greeted black soldiers as he toured the city. Why, then, did the artist choose to depict this scene the way that he did? First, paintings of historical events are the artist’s best effort to capture the moment according to what he or she has learned from reading or talking to others, and what the artist finds most interesting, beautiful, or notable about a particular time or place. This painting’s focus on equality is particularly important when you think about when it was made: during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The artist here depicts the higher meaning of Lincoln’s decision to make abolition a Union war aim, and the deep irony of having black soldiers play such a central role in the fall of the Confederacy. Pictures like these are important because they can remind society about continuing injustice and inspire people to change things. They also tell us about how people interpret the meaning of historical events years after they happened.
1. This scene is very focused, giving the painting a feeling of closeness. Why do you think the artists chose this point of view?
2. Compare Nall’s vision of Lincoln’s visit to  the Confederate capital to Lincoln’s Drive Through Richmond by Dennis Malone Carter? How do Nall and Carter differ in their approaches? Why?
3. Take a look at Tad Lincoln. Why do you think that Abraham Lincoln brought his son with him to Richmond?  Imagine you are Tad Lincoln. He is traveling with his father through a war-torn city. What do you think you would see? How would Tad’s presence have affected those who came out to see Lincoln?

Further reading:
American Experience: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. Produced and directed by David Grubin. 360 minutes. PBS, 2001. Online Transcript.

National Park Service. “Lincoln’s Visit to Richmond.” Last modified May 10, 2010. National Park Service, Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Peck, Hiram T.  “The Fall of Richmond: Personal Recollections of the Triumphal Entry of Union Troops into the Rebel Capital,” Civil War Richmond:,_10_4_1900.htm. 

©DuSable Museum of African American History