AFTER years in the making Steven Spielberg finally has released his epic about Abraham Lincoln, Lesley Bellew walks in the footsteps of the great man and the actor who brought him to life.
It took Steven Spielberg more than 10 years to research his latest film Lincoln - by that time Liam Neeson felt he would be too old for the lead role.
Daniel Day-Lewis was the only other actor Spielberg would consider to play the 16th US president, so once the contract was signed he had some serious catching up to do. He moved to Richmond, Virginia, to immerse himself in the role of Abraham Lincoln.
Richmond became the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War - the region saw many bloody battles and Day-Lewis found an echo of the past on every corner of this historic town.
Sporting a beard for the role, Day-Lewis got into character by walking alongside the James River where Lincoln and his son Tad had arrived by boat the day after Richmond had fallen to the Union Army, on April 3, 1865.
Day-Lewis followed Lincoln’s route up to the White House of the Confederacy, in the centre of Richmond. It was from here his defeated rival, Jefferson Davis, had fled south.
The actor spent hours alone in the study where Lincoln had sat at his rival’s desk, contemplating how the president must have felt at that time – exhausted but knowing victory was surely in reach.
During the Civil War, the American president had struggled with the carnage on the battlefields and the fight within his cabinet over his decision to emancipate slaves. He was weary but unwavering in his beliefs - the man who had been born in a log cabin had come a long way and had no intention of turning back.
Day-Lewis was to learn that when the 6ft 4in president walked through Richmond, African-Americans surrounded him, bowing and thanking him for their freedom. Lincoln told them: “Kneel only to God and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”
Lincoln had passed the Shockoe district where tobacco warehouses were used as stores by day but by night doubled as slave auction houses.
The actor began to understand the strength Lincoln had needed to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Richmond had been the largest slave trading centre on the East side of America, where thousands of men, women and children were transported from the African state of Benin via Liverpool, to supply plantations in the deep south. Tourists today can visit the Reconciliation Memorial on a Slave Trail route alongside the James River.
By the end of filming Day-Lewis was deeply moved. He said of Lincoln: “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met.”
Lincoln’s next stop during his visit to Richmond was to the Virginia State Capitol. This government building, the first public property in the New World to resemble a Roman classical temple, was taken over by Spielberg’s team and transformed to represent The White House, in Washington. Roads were closed to avoid traffic noise during filming and the town began to feel the Hollywood factor.
While Sally Field, who played Lincoln’s wife Mary, moved into the five-star Jefferson Hotel, Day-Lewis became a regular at The Hill Café at the top of Church Hill where he rented a property.
He also frequented the Can Can Brasserie, on a smart 1950s shopping parade in Cary Street and Arcadia restaurant in Shockoe Bottom (where the tobacco warehouses are now fashionable shops and cafes). It was here he was pictured, sporting his Lincoln beard, on the front page of the New York Post after a customer had recognised the A-list customer.
In fact, residents soon caught the Lincoln bug and hundreds of men grew beards so they could work as extras on the film set. Spielberg was delighted with the locals’ response and the setting. He said: “Virginia’s rich historic legacy, coupled with the remarkable period architecture in Richmond and Petersburg, made central Virginia the ideal location for this production.”
Petersburg, a 20-mile drive south from Richmond, retains an old quarter with 19th century weather-boarded houses. Outside scenes of ‘Richmond’ were filmed here, giving the director a 180-degree view for street scenes. The dusty old goods station was transformed into a saloon and visitors to the town can see all of these sites during their own Lincoln trail.
No filming took place in Washington, but this tour would not be complete without sightseeing in the Capitol city – a two-hour drive if you avoid rush hour.
A three-hour assassination walking tour (which rather gives away the story ) starts opposite The White House and winds through the city to Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln received a bullet in the head.
The theatre closed for almost a century but has been refurbished with an education centre and museum alongside. Here you can see the 44-caliber gun that was used by John Wilkes Booth to kill the president, plus various ghoulish artefacts including pieces of the rope used to hang Booth’s gang.
Look out for the 34ft tower of books which contains 15,000 titles about Lincoln, symbolising the never-ending intrigue about the first US president to be assassinated.
If you had to pick one to read before seeing the film or joining this trail it might be Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Spielberg bought the film rights to the book before it was even published and used it for the basis of his blockbuster.
Lincoln’s top hat is in National Museum of American History and in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Hall of Presidents, his portrait by George P.A. Healy takes centre stage - but a night-time bike ride around the city’s illuminated memorials really brings home what Lincoln means to America.
Stand on the steps of the cavernous Lincoln Memorial, where almost 50 years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jnr delivered his ‘I have a Dream’ speech and four years ago Barack Obama made his inaugural ‘We are One’ address to the nation, and you will understand why Daniel Day-Lewis was so moved by the president who gave his life for liberty.
Factfile: Lesley Bellew was a guest of the Capital region: www.capitalregionusa.co.uk.
She stayed in the Omni Hotel Richmond: www.omnihotels.com and the W Hotel in Washington DC: www.wwashingtondc.com.
Four nights in Washington DC with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow direct to Washington, two nights’ accommodation at the W Washington DC followed by two nights at the Omni Richmond Hotel both on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £959. Price is based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures from March 11, 2013.
To book: 0844 557 3859 or visit www.virginholidays.co.uk.
RICHMOND Historic Tredegar: Former ironworks, where canons were manufactured for the Civil War, now home to the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Centre and the Civil War museum, the first to view the war through the eyes of African Americans.
Civil War battlefield tours start at 470 Tredegar Street. A complete tour involves an 80-mile drive, although the centre will assist with routes for those who want to visit fewer campaign sites.
www.tredegar.org and www.civilwartrails.org Richmond Slave Trail: Walking tour from Manchester Docks, where slaves were unloaded from the south of the James River, to Shockoe Bottom, where they were bought and sold. Pass the 15ft bronze Reconciliation Statue which completes the triangle of Richmond, Liverpool and the Republic of Benin (www.blackhistorymuseum.org/walking.htm or www.richmondgov.com).
The White House of the Confederacy and museum: Opens Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed January. Entry fee. Visit www.moc.org The Virginia State Capitol building, home to America’s oldest legislative assembly. Free tours from 9am to 4pm Monday to Saturday (www.virginiacapitol.gov and richmondhistorycenter.com).
Monument Avenue: This National Historic Landmark began with the unveiling of a monument to General Robert E. Lee and since then more statues have been placed including that of Arthur Ashe – philanthropist and Wimbledon Men’s Singles tennis champion. A walk along this wide suburban street with beautiful Victorian period properties and mature trees is a must.
WASHINGTON Ford’s Theatre and education centre - 511 100th St, NW Ticket. Book ahead for timed entry tickets at www. fords.org. CapitalCityBikeTours.com offers a three-hour tour with guide.
DC by Foot – free walking tours (offer a tip at the end!) Assassination tour offers two hours of drama following Lincoln’s last days in the city. www.freetoursbyfoot.com.
National Museum of American History – Free entry and open 11am-7pm daily except Dec 25.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (including the ‘American Presidents’ in the National Portrait Gallery on the 2nd floor). Free entry open 11am-7pm daily except Dec 25.
Visit the Washington DE website for all attractions, hotels, eating out, shopping, events and maps and inspiration - www.washington.org.