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Following The Film Lincoln Around Richmond: How One Surprising City Dominates The New Spielberg Blockbuster


It's easy to find fascinating insight into Steven Spielberg's Lincoln in Richmond. Lincoln: The Movie Trail takes in many relevant sites, including the South's only statue of Lincoln at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Second down, Virginia State Capitol Guide Mark Greenough. Third down, Petersburg's distinctive Brickhouse Run pub. Fourth down, the White House of the Confederacy. Fifth down, Abe's bust is prominent among souvenirs available at the American Civil War Center. Photos by Randy Johnson.

If you’re about to see the new movie Lincoln—you’ll be seeing a lot of Richmond, Virginia. Virtually the entire movie was filmed there.

Not only did the real Lincoln visit Richmond after the city fell in April, 1865—as he does in the movie—but this richly historic town, with iconic architecture and atmospheric interiors, makes a stellar stand-in for Washington, DC and many of the movie’s locations. (Check out this video of the sites.)

That’s appropriate—Richmond is the Civil War’s premier national park “gateway town.” It’s encircled by more than a dozen NPS Civil War battlefields. And there are so many other sites relevant to the conflict here that the war’s sesquicentennial is the perfect time to "make like Lincoln"—and drop in for a visit.

Richmond is definitely ready for its closeup. And if you visit the locations where Lincoln was filmed, and where the cast slept and supped, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look.

To help guide your exploration, the state’s tourism promoters have just launched a new film-based tour, Lincoln: The Movie Trail. Virginia, it seems, is no longer just for Lovers, it’s for "Lincoln Lovers."

The former Capital of the Confederacy is a newly happenin’ spot. Richmond enthusiastically embraced the filming of the movie and impressed the Hollywood crowd with its self-assured, sophisticated urbanity. If you’re aiming to walk some of the city’s battlefields between now and 2015—an experience of the city itself should also be in your cross-hairs.

A Capital Idea

A few months ago, I retraced Lincoln’s filming locations in Richmond—and I'm happy to share my insights. I was standing in front of Virginia’s State Capitol with Andy Edmunds, interim director of the Virginia Film Office, while he ruminated on the state’s film coup. “Lincoln walked through Richmond in 1865—and Steven Spielberg walked right behind him in 2011,” Edmunds said.

Getting the movie filmed in Richmond didn’t come easy. The city was being considered since 2003, but a lot of Hollywood films go offshore because of cost. Edmunds said Spielberg “demanded some historical authenticity, but the problem was the economic model. When it became obvious that the entire film could be shot here or close by—logistical logic made the case for Richmond.”

That set up a warm welcome for Lincoln in Richmond—not unlike the one Abe received from mostly African-American Richmonders when he walked the streets in 1865. “The cast embraced the city and its restaurants and they really became part of the community,” Edmunds said.

Eighteen Oscar winners were involved in a movie with 65 speaking roles. More than 4,000 man hours were performed by local extras—”who started early growing their hair and beards,” said Edmunds.

Squarely Situated

Capitol Square was part of the film’s logic. Of the 55 days spent filming the movie—19 occurred in Capitol Square. “Imagine—This is the operating seat of the Commonwealth’s government,” Edmunds said. “How do you make that work? We did it.”

Workers marveled as the crew moved around huge “portable” trees and literally turned the Capitol building into the White House and the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Thomas Jefferson designed this icon—alterations could not even touch the structure.

This is a must-see location—and not just because an early tourist named Abraham Lincoln stood outside marveling at Thomas Crawford’s equestrian statue of George Washington, unveiled just before the war started. When Capitol historian and supervisor of tours Mark Greenough interprets the House of Delegates chamber for guests (it stood in for the US House of Representatives in the film), he reminds them: “This is America's oldest elected legislature.” This site is one among many reached on Segway tours from River City Segs.

In Lincoln's Footsteps

The South has many statues of Washington—but only one Lincoln. Richmond’s statue of Abe includes his son Tad, who accompanied Lincoln on his April 4, 1865 walk and carriage ride from the James River through the smoldering ruins of the Confederacy. The statue is located at another must-see Richmond attraction, the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, the former Tredegar Iron Works where one half of the South’s cannons and munitions were made. Like no other interpretive experience, Tredegar’s groundbreaking exhibits have fused the War’s African-American, Confederate, and Union narratives. The site includes Richmond’s National Park Service visitor center.

From Tredegar, take a pedestrian bridge across the James River on foot or mountain bike and explore Belle Isle, site of a former Union Prison Camp. Trails and whitewater rapids here helped Richmond become Outside magazine’s top river town in October, 2012.

Tredegar is the best overview in town, but follow Lincoln’s tour to Jefferson Davis’ White House of the Confederacy. A hospital interdicts the street he walked, but the 1818 home is another of Lincoln’s premier destinations. The modern Museum of the Confederacy is next door.

Davis’ mansion is dripping with surprises—from its gasolier lighting system to the news that Davis’ and his wife scandalized locals by sleeping in the same bed. Waite Rawls, executive director, says it’s the “oldest museum in Richmond, and the only one that can claim Abraham Lincoln as its first visitor.”

Lincoln is said to have sat and pondered in Davis’ tiny library (his office). Daniel Day-Lewis did the same thing, with equally exclusive access. “DDL,” as many in Richmond now call Day-Lewis, has a famously immersive style that found him in the manse after hours, soaking up the atmosphere of the same room. “He used the room to ‘get into character’ a number of times,” Rawls said.

One of the perks of Rawls’ job—”I love having to call the White House in Washington ‘the other White House,’” he says with a smile.

A “Movie” Theater

When it came time to shoot a balcony scene in Lincoln (no, not Ford’s Theater), the stand-in was Virginia Repertory Theatre’s 1911 November Theatre. The facility includes Virginia’s oldest theatre, and since 1988, the space has been a location for six films, two in 2012 (National Geographic’s “Killing Lincoln” and Spielberg's “Lincoln”).

During the filming, “DDL” had a trailer behind the theatre. Virginia Rep’s managing director Phil Whiteway remembers seeing Spielberg step inside, and overhearing him say to Day-Lewis, “Good Morning, Mr. President.”

Surprising Petersburg

Lincoln first landed south of Richmond at Petersburg—and I strolled his route. I confess—I grew up in Richmond but somehow missed the awesome historic heart of this city. The Petersburg area’s director tourism, Martha Burton, set me straight. “Spielberg fully embraced Petersburg," she told me. "It’s a cosmopolitan city.”

This historic setting is Georgetown and DC in the film, but many sights that Lincoln saw still linger. Gesturing at a streetscape straight out of 1820, my guide Kevin Kirby, director of tourism for the city of Petersburg, said, “Lincoln was here and he would have seen this very setting.”

In the film, the circular farmer’s market building became Grant’s office. The antebellum Southside Depot train station became a Washington, DC government building (“an amazing transition,” Kirby said). Thanks to a recent gift from the Civil War Trust, the historic building will become a downtown visitor contact station for the surrounding battlefields and the area’s top-notch historic attractions (which include Pamplin Park).

You can’t walk past the 1816-built pub/restaurant Brickhouse Run without having to go inside. British-born Ella Dickinson says her family business isn’t a “theme restaurant pub like most in the US. It’s the real thing.” The 190 year-old building helps, with unmatched atmosphere. Along with her American husband and two sons, she lives upstairs and had a balcony seat for the filming. The restaurant was closed for a week, during which time the family peeked out over mulched streets onto a bird’s eye view of the set.

One time she looked out and saw “DDL”—a breathtaking image of Abe—sipping coffee and talking on his cell phone in the street. “After that, it was magical,” she says. “It was really neat to sit inside and see and hear a major motion picture being made just outside.”

Take the Tour

Brickhouse Run and other restaurants in Petersburg and Richmond were popular with the crew and will be with anyone who follows the state of Virginia’s new film-based tour, Lincoln: The Movie Trail. An entire website highlights filming locations and sites frequented by the cast, especially dining spots.

At Arcadia Restaurant in Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom, not far from where the real Lincoln stepped ashore at Rockett’s Landing, you can enjoy a great steak sitting right below a now famous New York Post photo showing “DDL”—made up as Lincoln but dressed in jeans—eating a filet mignon at the very same table.

I joined him—and raised a toast to "DDL" and Honest Abe.

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Went to see the movie yesterday and was wondering where it had been filmed. Thanks for this article. It answered a lot of questions.

But one remains, and perhaps a good park historian can answer it: In the movie, Lincoln rides through Richmond surrounded by a huge number of dead soldiers from both sides. Too many, I believe because I don't recall anything about pitched combat in Richmond before it fell. I've read a lot of Lincoln stories and never heard of anything like that. Was that a case of theatrical license?

Lee, at Petersburg, 10 hours of fighting during the battle now recalled as "The Crater" left some 6,000 casualties, so perhaps that was the intended backdrop (though that battle was in 1864).

I was aware of the story of the crater, but always thought Richmond fell after being beseiged for several months without a pitched battle.

I guess it doesn't really matter. It's a great movie and probably stuck much closer to the real story than most do. Gotta have enough drama to keep movie goers who are addicted to over the top special effects interested.

Lee and Kurt, and other readers—the scene Lee questions does have an explanation. In an e-mail I received a few minutes ago from Richard Lewis, public relations manager for the Virginia Tourism Commission (and quite an accomplished historian himself), he noted Lee's comment and offered this—

"I noticed in the comments section below the article that some viewers are curious about the scene of Lincoln riding through a corpse-strewn battlefield on his way to meet with Gen. Grant. That scene depicts an actual event that occurred at the southern approach to Petersburg where heavy fighting occurred leading to the fall of the city on April 2, 1865. The following day Lincoln and his party rode through the area and it was noted that Lincoln wept at the sight of the dead."

Thanks, Richard.

Thank you very much, Randy. Based on that, I think I can now offer a Five-Star rating for the film.

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