Richmond to DC: Abraham Lincoln and a tale of two White Houses

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As Steven Spielberg's Lincoln biopic is released, Chris Coplans travels from Richmond, Virginia, to Washington DC to unravel the story behind the most revered leader in US history

After he's sworn in on the steps of Capitol Hill tomorrow, President Obama might well steal a quick glance towards the Lincoln Memorial and the man who, more than any other, made his presidency possible. Fittingly, this year's inauguration marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It also takes place on Martin Luther King Day, and coincides with the UK release of Steven Spielberg's sweeping epic Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field. Set in the final few months of the civil war, Spielberg focuses on Lincoln's attempt to persuade Congress to pass the 13th amendment – which would abolish slavery across the US – before the end of the conflict.

The one place that is off-limits to the cameras of movie-makers – even if those movie-makers are called Steven Spielberg – is the White House. Spielberg, who has always preferred authenticity over studio sets and CGI, found an able stand-in 100 miles south in Virginia's state capital, Richmond. There's a certain irony here, as this quintessential southern town was also the last capital of the Confederacy.

Richmond is a pretty place, steeped in colonial history and awash with that legendary southern hospitality (even if the residents secretly suspect that you might be a limey socialist). It was founded in 1637 on the banks of the James River and the cobbled and tree-lined streets of its compact historic district are awash with revolutionary and civil war memories.

One of the most important sights is the White House of the Confederacy – an enduring symbol of southern pride – and the adjacent Museum of the Confederacy, which opened in 1896 as the Confederate Museum. In 1970, in an attempt to evolve from a shrine to a more modern museum, it changed its name and now houses the most comprehensive collection of artefacts and other memorabilia related to the Confederacy.

The restored White House (actually painted a rather lacklustre confederate grey) is where Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived and conducted the business of war. The handsome Neoclassical house was built in 1818 and seems barely changed since Davis's occupancy.

Lincoln visited Richmond with his son Tad on 4 April 1865, arriving by paddleboat the day after the city capitulated. He spent three hours in the White House of the Confederacy, but asked to be left alone. He did not tour upstairs, as he said that he didn't want to "invade the Davis family space". Two days later, the Confederate army of northern Virginia surrendered. Less than a week after that, Lincoln was assassinated in Ford's Theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser and supporter of slavery.

There is a distinct whiff of "the south will rise again" about the restored White House. It's full of the Davis family furnishings and oddities such as an original Confederate flag, alongside the better known battle flag of the Confederacy. Jewish Southerners objected to the original, with its cross of St George, as being too Christian. To this day the Confederate flag causes controversy, being seen by many outside the south as a symbol of segregation, slavery and racism.

Daniel Day-Lewis, whose capture of the Best Actor Golden Globe last week augurs well for possible Oscar success, also visited the White House, spending considerable time alone in the library, as Lincoln did before him.

For evidence of the vision and genius of principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President Thomas Jefferson, feast your eyes on the Virginia State Capitol just a few blocks away. Jefferson modelled it in 1785 after a Roman temple; when it was built, it was the first Neoclassical structure in the New World.

Spielberg shot the north face of Jefferson's dazzling masterpiece as the White House; the south face doubled up as the US Capitol building for Lincoln's inauguration. If you've seen the movie by the time you visit, you'll also recognise the sumptuous, state house chamber. It doubles up in the movie as the US House of Representatives, where the 13th Amendment debate and vote take place. In the rotunda of the exquisitely designed interior stands a marble statue of George Washington, the only one completed while he was alive. It's said to be the most valuable piece of sculpture in the country. When he saw it, Lincoln joked: "He's looking at me but pointing to Jeff Davis."

Within easy walking distance of Capitol Square are a number of worthwhile stops. On East Broad Street is the delightful 1741 colonial St John's Episcopal Church, where the rebellious Second Virginia Convention took place in March 1775 (when Patrick Henry uttered the immortal words "Give me liberty or give me death".) Four blocks east on the same street is the tiny Hill Street Café, a favourite of Day-Lewis during his stay in Richmond. I learnt from my guide that he liked to be addressed as Mr President, even when off set.

Tucked away in a bend on the James River is the sprawling Tredegar Iron Works, which prior to "the War of Northern Aggression" as southerners called the civil war, was the third-largest iron manufacturer in the US. During the war, it became the primary iron and artillery production facility of the Confederacy and had the distinction of manufacturing the first cannon that was fired during the hostilities. Tredegar is now home to the excellent American Civil War Center, with the main exhibition hall housed in the 1861 Tredegar Gun Foundry.

Locals like to describe Lincoln as "their first tourist" but it took until 2003 for the first statue of Lincoln to be erected in the south. The "Great Emancipator" sits on a bench with his son overlooking the historic factory.

On my way out of Richmond, I took a drive down Monument Avenue in search of the heroes of the Confederacy. I found them – the war generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Robert E Lee, General and JEB Stuart, regally posed on their muscular stallions, along with President Jefferson Davis – at various intersections along the splendid tree-lined boulevard. (Alongside these symbols of the pro-slavery south is a statue of the legendary black tennis ace Arthur Ashe, who was born in the city. When it was erected on the avenue, some complained that the avenue's historic integrity was being desecrated, while many in the local black community believed that the statue deserved a more appropriate location.)

It takes two hours to drive from the southern to the northern capital along Interstate 95. With its homage to classical European architecture and grand boulevards that fan out from the stately Capitol building like grapefruit segments, Washington DC is a true treasure trove. If you are feeling presidential, then stroll down DC's main boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House, just as some previous presidents have done after their inaugurations.

Of all the monuments and memorials dotted around DC, the Lincoln Memorial is the finest. It is located at the western end of the National Mall, with its recently refurbished reflecting pool stretching out before it. It was on the steps of the memorial, and under the comforting protection of the 19ft marble statue of "Honest Abe", that Dr Martin Luther King Jr gave his "I have a dream…" speech in 1963. The memorial is always open; it's best visited at dusk when the lights come on.

On the evening of 14 April 1865, Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin with his wife at Ford's Theatre. At approximately 10.30pm, Booth entered the president's box and shot him in the head at point-blank range. Lincoln was taken across the road to the Petersen House, where he died the following morning at 7.22am.

Both sites are now preserved as the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, administered by the National Parks Service, which offers talks and interpretive programmes, including re-enactments of that fateful evening. Ford's is still a working theatre in addition to being a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Lincoln. It's little changed since Lincoln's time; the box where the president was shot is permanently draped in a vintage US flag. On display are assassin John Wilkes Booth's Derringer pistol and the clothing that Lincoln wore that evening, while the Petersen House contains the impressive 34ft Lincoln Book Tower, totalling 6,400 aluminium books.

Following Lincoln's death, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the new head of state, but the civil war president remains perhaps the most revered US leader of all time.

Lincoln is released in UK cinemas on Friday

Travel essentials

Getting there

Chris Coplans travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers two nights at the Omni Richmond Hotel and two-nights at the W Washington DC from £959. The price also includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Washington Dulles, and car hire for the duration.

You can also fly to Washington Dulles on United from Heathrow and Manchester. British Airways serves both Dulles and Baltimore-Washington international from Heathrow.

Staying there

The Willard Intercontinental in Washington DC (001 202 628 9100; washington.intercontinental.com) hosted President Lincoln (in the original hotel – today there is an Abraham Lincoln suite) and Dr King finished his "I have a dream" speech, while he was a guest there. Doubles start at $281 (£176), room-only.

More information

Bike tours: City Segway Tours (001 877 734 8687; dc.citysegwaytours.com). Three-hour bike tours cost $35 (£22).

Richmond Lincoln movie tour (001 804 545 5530; virginiafilm tours.com).

Capital Region (020-8339 6040; capitalregionusa.co.uk).

The American Civil War Center (001 804 780 1865; tredegar.org).

Ford's Theatre (001 202 347 4833; fordstheatre.org)

To see more of Chris Coplans' images of Richmond and Washington, go to coplans.co.uk

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