Ezra Pound, the renegade poet of the 20th century, spent his later years disavowing the actions of his youth. Confronted by a student in his Harvard poetry class wanting to know why he had censored his own poem, ‘Sestina: Altaforte,’ which praises war, Pound replied slowly and deliberately, ‘War is no longer amusing.’
The residents of Richmond, Va., in early 1865 no doubt would have fully appreciated Pound’s reply. The true believers in a quick and decisive victory for the South were all gone by then. They had been replaced by a citizenry that had seen many great victories on the battlefield but always the return of the bluecoats and the relentless and methodical destruction of the South’s once productive farms, railroads and cities. Now Richmond huddled behind a besieged army, listening to the perpetual boom of enemy artillery, awaiting an inevitable conclusion.
Richmond had been the capital of the Confederacy since May 1861, when the new Confederate Congress voted to move it there from Montgomery, Ala., thinking that Richmond would be more prestigious and closer to the bulk of the fighting. Prewar Richmond had become an important international city, trading coffee, spices, slaves and other commodities for cotton and tobacco. Five foreign nations had consulates in the city. Thirteen working foundries made it the iron-manufacturing capital of the South. The Tredegar Iron Works made more than 1,100 cannons, in addition to mines, torpedoes, propeller shafts and other such war machinery. The Richmond Laboratory manufactured more than 72 million cartridges, as well as grenades, gun carriages, field artillery and canteens. The Richmond Armory had a capacity for manufacturing 5,000 small arms a month. There were also 8 flour mills, a paper mill, 13 carriage manufacturers, 10 saddle and harness makers, 4 gunsmiths, a sailmaker, 4 soap and candle manufacturers, 2 rolling mills, 14 slave traders, 14 hotels, 13 newspapers, 15 restaurants, 11 private schools, 26 druggists, 9 dentists, 72 doctors, 72 saloons, a canal and 5 railroads.
With a population of about 38,000, Richmond was the second largest city of the Confederacy, trailing only New Orleans. But for all its commercial success, prewar Richmond had kept a small-town atmosphere, probably because the social elite had been more or less constant for many years and all the leading families had known each other since childhood. But the war had brought great changes to Richmond, and its oldest citizens had trouble recognizing the city of their youth.
Situated at the headwaters of the James River, 110 miles from Washington, D.C., Richmond had become the symbol of secession to the North and the key to much of its military planning. For four years the city remained the Northern Army’s main military objective in the Eastern theater, requiring vast expenditures of men and materiel to keep it out of Union hands. Now it was a beleaguered city, not only from without but also from within. As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond had seen an influx of thousands of people, many of them a much different sort than the patrician city was accustomed to. Along with the hundreds of regiments from farther south and thousands of people to staff the various government offices came swarms of unsavory speculators, gamblers, drifters, prostitutes and derelicts of every description. The population grew to 128,000, straining the physical and social resources of the city. Saloons, gambling halls, billiard parlors, cockfighting dens and houses of prostitution proliferated. One newspaper editor wrote disgustedly: ‘With the Confederate Government came the rag, tag and bobtail which ever pursue political establishments. The pure society of Richmond became woefully adulterated. Its peace was destroyed, its good name defiled; it became a den of thieves, extortioners, substitutes, deserters and blacklegs.’
By March 1865, life in Richmond had become grim. Robert E. Lee’s force of 44,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia faced a Federal force of 128,000 in the 37 miles of trenches surrounding Richmond and Petersburg. February had seen the fall of Fort Fisher, N.C., the last major Confederate supply port. When available, flour sold for $1,500 a barrel, beef for $12-$15 a pound, butter for $20 a pound, and boots for $500 a pair. People subsisted mainly on cornbread soaked in bacon drippings, dried beans, and hot water with salt or brown sugar sprinkled on it, a barely palatable fare known as ‘Benjamin hardtack’ in honor of former Secretary of War Judah Benjamin. Mrs. William A. Simmons, whose husband was in the trenches, summed up living in Richmond in her diary of March 23, 1865: ‘Close times in this beleaguered city. You can carry your money in your market basket and bring home your provisions in your purse.’
A foreign businessman who had frequently been in ‘the metropolis of the Confederacy,’ paid another visit and noticed a ‘deathlike stillness’ as soon as he stepped from the train. ‘Everyone wore a haggard, scared look as if in apprehension of some great impending calamity,’ he noted. ‘I dared not ask a question, nor had I need to do so, as I felt too surely that the end was near. My first visit was to my banker, one who dealt largely in Confederate securities, and knew too well the ups and downs of the Confederate cause by the fluctuations of its paper. As soon as he could give me a private moment he said in a sad, low tone: ‘If you have any paper money put it into specie at once.”
Plans for the evacuation of the capital had been discussed by Confederate officials for nearly a year but never finalized, perhaps because to do so would have seemed too much like defeatism. The loss of Richmond, though becoming more and more likely as time went on, was an eventuality that most citizens chose to deny. They chose rather to expect miracles from their proud Southern military leaders, who had so dazzled the country for four long years.
The worsening military situation did, however, give more credence to those Confederates who favored a negotiated truce. Unfortunately, it also served to undermine whatever negotiating power the South might have had. There were two official attempts to negotiate a peace that might salvage some of the Confederacy and avoid forcing a fight to the finish. In early 1865, Vice President Alexander Stephens and Judge John A. Campell, assistant secretary of war, met Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward aboard the steamer River Queen near City Point, Va. They were informed that there could be no armistice without total dissolution of the Confederacy and unconditional restoration of the Union. Northern states were, at that very moment, voting on the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
In March, Robert E. Lee sent a truce flag to Grant proposing a ‘military convention’ to put an end to ‘the calamities of war.’ Grant wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who replied on March 4, the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration, that Grant should not talk with Lee other than to discuss the capitulation of his army, and meanwhile should ‘press to the utmost your military advantage.’ For the second time in 1865, ‘the dove of peace departed,’ as one observer noted. That same day Lee learned of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s crushing defeat at the hands of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan near Waynesboro, Va., thus destroying his last hope for reinforcements. Lee met with Davis in Richmond to inform him of the necessity to abandon Richmond in the near future so that his army could link up with General Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
As March wore on, the signs of impending disaster became more and more obvious. Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge had given all War Department bureau chiefs standing evacuation orders. Ordnance Chief Josiah Gorgas recorded: ‘An order has been given to remove all cotton and tobacco preparatory to burning it. All departments have been ordered to move.’ A War Department clerk wrote: ‘Fearful orders have been given in the offices to keep the papers packed, except such as we are working on. The packed boxes remain in the front room, as if uncertainty existed about moving them. As we walk in every morning, all eyes are turned to the boxes to see if any have been removed, and we breathe more freely when we find them still there.’ Red flags began to line the residential streets, signifying the sale of furniture and the renting of houses to the highest bidder. Those who were able began preparing to flee the city.
Late in the evening of March 24, Lincoln arrived at City Point aboard River Queen for meetings with his generals. At the outset of talks with Grant, the commander in chief was shown a top-secret order now ready for implementation: ‘On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved to our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time, in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville railroads.’
Before dawn the following day, Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon launched a surprise Confederate attack against Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg near the City Point Railroad, the main Union supply route, in an attempt to break a hole in the Union line. Three hundred Confederate soldiers followed 50 woodcutters swinging axes as they smashed through the spiked chevaux-de-frise. The fort fell quickly in the surprise of the attack, and its battery was soon turned on the Union lines. Confederate forces rushed in and captured two more batteries before they were overwhelmed by the remaining Union artillery.
At the height of the battle, three forts behind Stedman that Gordon had hoped to capture and use against the enemy were found to be no more than abandoned ruins of old Confederate forts–of no use to anyone. The Confederate troops who had moved into the breach were now pinned down, and most of those who were not killed or wounded chose to surrender rather than run the gantlet of withering fire back to their lines. The battle was over by 8 a.m. Coupled with the losses suffered by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s forces near Hatcher’s Run in an immediate counterattack ordered by Grant, Gordon’s actions cost Lee nearly 5,000 irreplaceable men. Federal forces lost about 2,080.
First reports of the battle filtering into Richmond lifted the spirits of the city, but later news of the reversal caused the evening Sentinel to play down the battle. ‘There was indeed a grand exhibition of fireworks, but no battle and scarcely anyone hurt,’ the paper reported misleadingly.
The following day Lee reported to Davis, ‘I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near.’ Breckinridge wanted to know how much notice could be expected prior to evacuation, noting, ‘I have given the necessary orders in regard to commencing the removal of stores, & c., but, if possible, would like to know whether we may probably count on a period of ten or twelve days.’ Lee replied, ‘I know of no reason to prevent your counting upon the time suggested.’ The next day, Lee learned of Grant’s intended assault on his right.
On March 29 there was a parade of two newly formed black volunteer companies and three companies of convalescent white troops in Capitol Square. Since there were no uniforms available for them, it was not a very stirring display. But President Davis was probably too preoccupied to notice, busy as he was in preparing to send his own wife and family to Charlotte, N.C.
Varina Davis did not want to leave Richmond and pleaded with her husband to stay, but to no avail. He insisted that his headquarters must be in the field, and that his family’s presence would only serve to make him grieve rather than comforting him. ‘If I live you can come to me when the struggle is ended, but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty,’ he told his wife. Varina wrote that he gave her a pistol and showed her how to load, aim and fire it. ‘He was very apprehensive’ she recalled, ‘of our falling into the hands of the disorganized bands of troops roving about the country, and said, ‘You can, at least, if reduced to the last extremity, force your assailants to kill you, but I charge you solemnly to leave when you hear the enemy are approaching. If you cannot remain undisturbed in our country, make for the Florida coast and take a ship there for a foreign country.”
Keeping only a 5-dollar gold piece for himself, Davis gave his wife all the gold he had, but denied her request to bring a barrel of flour along, maintaining that no foodstuffs should leave the city, as those remaining behind would require them. Much of the Davises’ household goods had been sold in previous days, but in the haste to depart, the check was never cashed.
Varina Davis left the executive residence, ‘taking only our clothing’ and her four children: Maggie, 9; Jefferson Jr., 7; Billy, 3; and Winnie, 9 months. (It had been less than a year earlier, on April 30, that their 4-year-old son Joe had fallen to his death from the second-story rear porch of the executive mansion.) Accompanying Varina were her younger sister Margaret; Jim Limber, a free black orphan who had been rescued from the streets of Richmond and virtually adopted by the Davis family; and the daughters of Secretary of the Treasury George A. Trenholm. They were to be escorted on their journey by Burton Harrison, the president’s trusted personal secretary.
That evening the group drove through a cold drizzle to the Danville station. The rail stations had become scenes from bedlam by then, crowded with wealthy refugees attempting to escape the coming calamity with as many of their possessions as they could carry. Varina Davis wrote of her departure: ‘With hearts bowed down by despair, we left Richmond. Mr. Davis almost gave way, when our little Jeff begged to remain with him, and Maggie clung to him convulsively, for it was evident he thought he was looking his last upon us.’ The old, overworked engine stalled outside of Richmond and spent the night being repaired. Crackers and milk were found for Mrs. Davis’ children at great trouble and expense, costing $100 in Confederate money. The drizzle turned into a downpour.
The next day, Davis emptied his house of all edibles and packed them off to Richmond hospitals while Sheridan was at Grant’s headquarters convincing him to continue his offensive. Grant had begun to consider postponement, as the rains had made the roads nearly impassable. But Sheridan would have none of it. He insisted he would ‘corduroy every mile of the road from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.’ Sheridan was anxious to ‘end the business here,’ as Grant had assured him they would just a week earlier. The next day, the rains slacked off, but the roads were still terrible. Sheridan pushed on from Dinwiddie toward Five Forks, the westernmost extremity of Lee’s line.
As Lee saw the threat to his rear develop, he dispatched Maj. Gen. George Pickett with a force of 12,000 to intercept Sheridan. With the element of surprise on their side, the Confederates managed to split Sheridan’s forces and drive them back to Dinwiddie for a time, but before dark, Sheridan had rallied his men with reinforcements from Maj. Gen. George A. Custer’s division and drove the Rebels back again to Five Forks. Both sides spent a wet night camped within a few hundred yards of each other.
The morning of April 1 was uneventful as Sheridan waited impatiently for Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren and his V Corps to arrive for the planned assault. Pickett reported to Lee about the previous day’s battle and was disgruntled by the tone of Lee’s reply: ‘Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the South Side Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.’ This seemed a bit of a reprimand to Pickett, who felt he had repulsed the Federals and forced them to reconsider their offensive. Feeling sure of his position and thinking nothing of note would occur that day, Pickett deployed his men along the White Oak Road while he and Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee joined Brig. Gen. Tom Rosser for a shad bake. Warren’s Union V Corps finally arrived at the front that afternoon, and the attack was launched at 4 p.m. By the time Pickett made it back to his division, half of his men were either dead or captured.
George Alfred Townsend, reporter for the New York World, wrote of the Battle of Five Forks:’slant fire, cross fire and direct fire, by fire and volley, rolled in perpetually, cutting down their bravest officers and strewing the fields with bleeding men. Groans resounded in the intervals of exploding powder, and to add to their terror and despair, their own artillery, captured from them, threw into their own ranks, from its old position, ungrateful grape and canister, enfilading their breastworks, whizzing and plunging by air line and richochet.’
Sheridan later gloated: ‘Our success was unqualified; we had overthrown Pickett, taken six guns, thirteen battle flags, and nearly 6,000 prisoners. Lee had not anticipated disaster at Five Forks.’ Sheridan sent word of the victory to Grant, who immediately ordered a massive bombardment of Petersburg and a general assault along the lines.
Sylvanus Cadwallader, of the New York Herald, under orders from Grant, brought the news of the victory at Five Forks, along with the captured battle flags, to President Lincoln at City Point. ‘As soon as I could convey my orders, he seized the flags, unfurled them one by one, and burst out, ‘Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand. This means victory! This is victory!”
At 4 a.m. on April 2, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters at the Turnbull house to report on the progress of his reinforcements, who were making their way slowly south from Richmond by train. While the general was conferring with Lee and A.P. Hill, a staff colonel rushed into the room exclaiming that teamsters were rushing up the Cox Road past the Turnbull gate, apparently in flight from a Federal breakthrough somewhere near Hatcher’s Run. A wounded officer told of being driven from his quarters more than a mile behind the center of Hill’s line. Alarmed, the group stepped out the front door and could make out in the early morning fog lines of blue skirmishers headed toward them from the southwest. Lee turned to Longstreet and told him to hurry to the Petersburg station and direct his men west as quickly as they could be unloaded from their trains. He then turned to confer with Hill, only to see him rushing off toward his broken lines to attempt to rally his men. It was the last Lee was ever to see of ‘Little Powell,’ who was soon cut down by enemy marksmen. With enemy fire falling all around him, setting his headquarters afire as he surveyed the scene, Lee mounted Traveller and with defiant resignation began to withdraw his headquarters.
The morning readers of the Sentinel were encouraged by editorials claiming to be ‘very hopeful of the campaign which is opening,’ and anticipating ‘a large advantage.’ But waiting on Davis’ desk was a message from Lee warning that Grant’seriously threatens our position and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg. I fear he can cut both the South Side and the Danville railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry. This in my opinion obliges us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on the James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.’
Another message from Lee arrived at 10:40 a.m. at the War Department. ‘I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here till night,’ he advised Secretary Breckinridge. ‘I am not certain I can do that. I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.’Postmaster General John Reagan rushed the latest news to Davis, intercepting him and Governor Frank Lubbock on their way to St. Paul’s Church for morning services. The president appeared to Reagan to be distracted and unmoved by the news, continuing on to church. In the middle of the service, however, another telegram from Lee was delivered to Davis at his pew: ‘I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops, and the operation, though difficult, I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed General Stevens to send an officer to Your Excellency to explain the routes to you by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Courthouse, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.’
Upon receiving the message, Davis rose quietly from his seat and left church, walking a block down 9th Street to his office in the War Department, and gave the necessary orders for evacuation of the city. After Davis’ departure in the middle of the service, people began to stream out of St. Paul’s, aware now that the dreaded hour was at hand. By midafternoon the peaceful Sunday was shattered by visible preparations for evacuation. Government clerks frantically loaded boxes on wagons or piled them up and burned them in the street. Army wagons rushed furiously to and fro on the streets. A pile of new, unsigned money fed a bonfire in front of the Capitol building. Officials opened the supply depots all over the city in an attempt to prevent their capture by the invaders. Matron Phoebe Pember of Chimborazo Hospital, home to some 5,000 wounded Confederates, recalled watching people lugging hams, bags of coffee, flour and sugar from the commissary department. Invalid soldiers even got out of their sickbeds to join in the spree.
Peter Helms Mayo, a 29-year-old private in the Governor’s Mounted Guard, had been supervising the movement of troops by train between Richmond and Petersburg for the previous 48 hours without sleep and with little food. He was contacted shortly after noon by Major D.H. Wood. ‘He ordered me to report immediately to the War Department to General A.R. Lorton, Quartermaster General,’ Mayo said. ‘Him I quickly found and received instructions to have prepared at once a special train to move over the Richmond and Danville Railroad to carry the President, his cabinet, their effects and horses and further to prepare in quick succession all other available engines and cars to move from the city the gold and other many valuables of the Treasury and the archives of all the other departments.
‘The engines and cars were kept in constant use on the road in transporting army supplies and other necessaries. Moreover, the railroads from the city were built on different grades and without connecting tracks, so the problem of supplying all the trains needed in this great and sudden demand was a most serious and perplexing one.
‘Then, too, it was Sunday, and the train crews were much scattered, with no expectation or intimation of any emergency call, as was often the case on the other troop moving roads. The crews and trains were in number far below what was needed. But the shrill signal, given by the road’s old shifting engine, as the engineer had been instructed to give it in certain contingencies, summoned the men.’
The train stations were sealed off to everyone except those with military passes. Judith McGuire recalled: ‘Baggage wagons, carts, drays and ambulances were driving about the streets; everyone was going off that could go, and now there were all the indications of alarm and excitement of every kind which could attend such an awful scene. The people were rushing up and down the streets, vehicles of all kinds were flying along, bearing goods of all sorts and people of all ages and classes who could go beyond the corporation lines. We tried to keep ourselves quiet.’
When the McGuires tried to hire a servant to go to Camp Jackson to fetch their sister they were brusquely told that their money was worthless. ‘We are in fact penniless,’ they concluded.
The city council met at 4 o’clock that afternoon to deliberate upon the best course of action. Fearing mob violence, they asked that the two city regiments, the 1st and 19th Second Class Militia, be retained for the protection of the city. It was further resolved that all liquor be destroyed, with government receipts given to the owners.
At about the same time, Admiral Rafael Semmes, of the James River Fleet, received orders from Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory to destroy his fleet under cover of darkness and outfit his men for infantry duty with Lee. Sixty naval cadets off the training ship Patrick Henry were sent to guard the treasury shipment out of Richmond. With bayonets fixed, they marched through the streets escorting the wagons of bullion and specie and various paper to the Richmond and Danville Railroad station, where they boarded the ‘Treasury Train.’
With the fall of night, the troop withdrawal from the trenches began. First came Charles Field’s division, then Joseph Kershaw’s, then Custis Lee’s, leaving only pickets with orders to withdraw just before daybreak. The sight of the army retreating through the streets of Richmond was disheartening to inhabitants, and what had been during the day a confused but mainly orderly populace turned into an unruly and dangerous mob as the night wore on. Stragglers and deserters were joined by prisoners abandoned by their fleeing guards. The mob became further incited, as many had feared, when Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell began to carry out his orders to set fire to all tobacco, cotton and munitions warehouses, as well as machine shops and other government buildings, to prevent their capture by the enemy. The mob set more fires indiscriminately, and with a strong breeze fanning the flames, they soon spread. Men and women were seen throwing sacks of flour out one side of the Gallego Flour Mill while flames danced out from the windows of the opposite side.
The city council’s committees began pouring out and smashing all the liquor bottles that could be found, but much of the liquor fell into the mob’s hands, either through unbroken bottles or by being scooped out of the gutter with whatever implements were available. Wrote Nellie Gray: ‘Barrels of liquor were broken open and the gutters ran with whiskey and molasses. There were plenty of straggling soldiers about who had too much whiskey; rough women and many negroes were drunk. The air was filled with yells, curses, cries of distress, and horrid songs.’
‘From that moment,’ concluded another sober citizen, ‘law and order ceased to exist: chaos came and pandemonium reigned.’ The river of liquor inevitably caught fire, and its eery blue flames quickly spread through the city.
Davis’ Cabinet’s train finally pulled out of the station around 11 p.m., having sat in the station long enough for those aboard to witness the beginnings of the conflagration that was to consume their capital. The train itself was as loaded down as possible, with passengers on top of the carriage and hanging from every conceivable hold on the platforms and stairs. The entire Cabinet was on board except for Breckinridge, who was to remain behind and finalize the evacuation, then join Lee and bring a report to wherever Davis and the government might be at that time. All were in a somber mood except Judah Benjamin, ever the optimist, who espoused historical examples of causes that had survived setbacks worse than they were now experiencing. Trenholm shared a demijohn of peach brandy he had brought to ease the pain of his neuralgia. Postmaster Reagan kept ‘whittling a stick down to the little end of nothing without ever reaching a satisfactory point.’ He would still recall with a shudder years afterward ‘the terrible tenseness of that one night.’ One resident later recalled, ‘The scream and rumble of the cars never ceased all that weary night, and was perhaps the most painful sound to those left behind.’
It was about midnight when the wagon bearing A.P. Hill’s body finally creaked up to the old Court of Appeals building, where Assistant Paymaster G. Powell Hill waited. With the wagon was Henry Hill, the general’s nephew. The body was without benefit of coffin. The two Hills set out to find one and found the government stores on 12th, 13th, Main and Cary streets broken into, and in many instances sacked and fired. The two men entered Belvin’s Furniture Store and, finding no clerks to help them,’selected’ their own coffin.
Sometime after 2 in the morning, the James River Fleet was set afire by Semmes, after which he led his 500 men on a desperate search for an escape route, finally commandeering a locomotive from a siding for their escape. The flagship CSS Virginia, loaded with munitions, exploded mightily, sending rockets with lighted fuses out in all directions and lighting up the sky for many minutes. One Union lieutenant observed from his vantage point: ‘The earth shook where we were and there flashed out a glare of light as of noonday, while the fragments of the vessel, pieces of timber and other stuff, fell among my pickets, who had not yet moved from the position where they had been posted for the night watch.’
Just before dawn, General Ewell ordered his men to take control of Mayo’s bridge at the foot of 14th Street, the only remaining bridge across the James, and guard it until the Confederate cavalry could come safely across, then fire the bridge. Just as the troops reached the bridge, however, the arsenal, reputed to have contained 750,000 loaded projectiles, exploded over their heads. Francis Lawley of the London Times wrote that the blast shook ‘every building in Richmond to its foundations. As the first streak of dawn heralded the day a vast column of dense black smoke shot into the air, a huge, rumbling earthquake-like reverberation rent the ground, and the store of gunpowder garnered in the city magazine passed out of existence.’
Fannie Walker, who had not ‘dared to lie down or think of sleeping’ all night, was walking downstairs when the magazine went up, ‘and before I knew it I found myself flat. Glass was falling all around.’
Finally, the South Carolina Cavalry approached from the southeast, the rear guard of Lee’s army. As the last of the men rode across the bridge, the officer shouted to the chief engineer, ‘All over, good-bye, blow her to hell!’ The barrels of tar placed along the bridge were torched, and soon the flames were shooting high into the air above the bridge.
The 4th Massachusetts Cavalry came down Osborne Pike right behind. Phoebe Pember remembered: ‘A single bluejacket rose over the hill, standing transfixed with astonishment at what he saw. Another and another sprang up, as if out of the earth, but still all remained quiet. About 7 o’clock there fell upon the ear the steady clatter of horse’s hooves, and winding around Rocketts came a small and steady compact body of Federal cavalry in splendid condition, riding closely and steadily along.’ She was too far away to realize that the soldiers were black, but she did see 80-year-old Major Joseph Mayo riding out in his carriage under a white flag to surrender the city to them.
The heat of the flames in the city forced the cavalrymen to change their route from Main Street to 14th Street. When they reached Capitol Square, they found it jammed with people seeking refuge from the flames, huddled under the linden trees for protection from the sparks. Furniture and possessions were stacked and scattered in every direction, family treasures that some had managed to save from the flames.
Brigadier General George F. Shepley was appointed military governor of Richmond, since he had occupied a similar position in New Orleans after its capture in 1862. Union troops were immediately put to work putting out the rampaging fires. This was mainly accomplished by tearing down complete rows of buildings to create firebreaks. The mobs were dispersed at bayonet point, and guards were posted to prevent further looting. Major General Godfrey Weitzel dispatched to Grant: ‘We took Richmond at a quarter past eight this morning.’ Nellie Gray agreed that it was exactly 8 o’clock when ‘the Confederate flag that fluttered above the Capitol came down and the Stars and Stripes were run up. We knew what that meant! The song On To Richmond was ended. Richmond was in the hands of the Federals. We covered our faces and cried aloud. All through the house was the sound of sobbing. It was as the house of mourning, the house of death.’
Richmond had indeed lived through a long and terrible night, and had awakened to a new and different future. The following day President Lincoln would come and tour the city. In a week, Lee would surrender his forces to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. In little more than a month, Jeff Davis himself would be taken prisoner in Georgia. But now, for Richmond, the war was over.
This article was written by Ken Bivin and originally appeared in the May 1995 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!