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An Eyewitness Account of the Evacuation of Richmond During the American Civil War

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The Adams Express Company, established in 1840 and the 19th-century equivalent to today's express delivery services, played a significant role in the Civil War, initially serving as a shipping agent for both the Union and Confederate governments. Complaints arose about Adams' dual service, and the company established the Southern Express Company as a separate affiliate. General Orders, No. 77, dated October 22, 1862, exempted Southern Express employees from conscription. Virginian James Hawkins worked as an agent for the Southern Express on the Virginia Central and the Orange & Alexandria railroads and wrote about his wartime work.

His diaries, housed in Navarro College's Pearce Civil War Collection, contain numerous references to 'his company,' the 'West A Guard,' but evidence suggests Hawkins probably never mustered into Confederate service. He felt an affinity for the West Augusta Guard, reorganized in 1861 to become Company L, 5th Virginia Infantry, because it was from Woodstock, Va., his hometown, and included many of his friends.

Hawkins worked for Southern Express from at least 1862 to May 1865, frequently traveling to Richmond, Charlottesville, Staunton, Gordonsville and Lynchburg. On April 2, 1865, Hawkins returned to Richmond after a run to Charlotte, N.C., with Confederate money and found himself caught up in the evacuation of the Confederacy's capital. In a letter to his mother six weeks later, Hawkins recounted the evacuation and his own harrowing trip to Greensboro, N.C.:

No. 'One'
Danville May 15th 65
Dear Mother
…I arrived in Richmond the memorable Sunday of the Evacuation about 1 OC PM. Just getting back from Charlotte where I had been with a large sum of C.S. Govt Coin. Found every thing in an awful excited condition burning valuable paper and money at all the different Departs — Treasury, War, Medical, State Capitol of Va etc. — destroying all that they supposed would be of any service to U.S. Govt. Found they had also pressed the Company's horses etc. but they were after liberated by orders 'Secty of War.' I went to Central Depot supposing I might find some of the boys going Home & send a letter to you all, but no chance. I had then resolved to go home by way of Ly[n]chburg but on returning to Express Office was asked by Col. Bullock if I would not take charges of the horses and two large wagons (containing 'all' monies in hand) as far as Lynchburg. I at once decided that I had better do it. S. Stiles accompanied me as driver of the 4 horse team — although he at first refused to leave Richmond. We got every thing ready — loaded up and left Richmond Sunday night 12 OC precisely having five (5) safes and a large lot of the books belong to the office besides supplies for man & beast. We took the North Side of Jas. [James] River with our two wagons while Col. Bullock with 4 of the Co[mpany's] horses & one wagon loaded with private baggage from Col. Ould, Col. Hatch, Maj. French Hamilton & himself took the South side of River. I had directions to [go] by Lynchburg — if not too closely pressed by enemy.

On the evening of 2nd day out we crossed Jas River — 51 miles above Richmd at Carterville. The Enemy's Cavalry pushing up…as fast as possible about the 4th we met up with Col. Bud Harman & daughter, he walking & his daughter being with a Capt. who had offered her a seat in his wagon, and gave him a seat on our wagon — as near the SSRR [South Side Railroad] as we would go — he wanting to [go to] Lynchburg when we arrived 2 miles from Appomattox Depot. I took two of my horses and accompanied him to Appomattox to hear some definite information and could gain nothing — left him then & came back to wagons concluded to make a bold start for Lynchburg. We reached Concord Depot 12 miles from there about 4 OC PM. Met an 'operater' Teleg[r]aph Co. coming out and he informed us the Enemy expected in every moment. Everybody that could get away was leaving — we staid there until dark when the Refugees, wagons, etc. began to crowd the place. We turned and at once made for Staunton River to reach the other side below Campbell CH as the enemy were in possession there.

I had forgotten to tell you that we met up with Col. Ould, Col. Bullock etc. in Cumberland Cr. When Col. B gave me directions to take the Lynchburg stroll with us also and the Petersburg horses if we met up with them, asking me at the same time if I would not take charge and accompany them on South to Augusta, Geo[rgia] saying he would 'be very glad if I would' etc. I came to the conclusion at once that I had better agree to his request as it might do me some good in the end. We had when we left Richmd two clerks (Raborg & Davis) whom he directed I should leave in Lynchburg when we reached there as 'he had no farther use for them' but as we did not get there I did not inform them of what he said until we crossed Staunton River at Pannills bridge when they started to Danville on a Govt wagon train. We intended originally to go through Henry Co. striking above Danville but the enemy were ahead of us [and] we had to turn off again.

…I think the whole route was the worst I ever seen, the mud being often above the hubs, had to unload several times and get a team to help pull the empty wagon out then to work and reload.

Army wagons, artillery etc. behind and ahead of us and stragglers by the thousand just going along taking all they could find. It beat anything I ever seen since the war — about the 10th or 11th we heard of 'Genl Lees' surrender and on the 12th just 10 days after leaving Richmd arrived within 10 miles of Danville and were informed by Dozens from there that it was evacuated. Enemy about in 'better move or we would be caught that night as they were advancing from there.'

We concluded we would wait anyhow, being completely out of food for ourselves & horses. The animals so dead on their feet they could hardly move the wagon at all and concluding there was no use they would catch us anyhow.

It was my watch that night we three, Stiles, William (colored Driver of 2 horse wagons) & myself relieving each other alternately. I discovered about 2 OC in the morning that a wagon camp just below us of 20 Army wagons and 120 mules had been deserted by the teamsters or had rec'd order from the "Maj QM' to take what they wanted and leave as there was no use trying to get out.' We came to the conclusion we had better go and get some feed, etc. anyhow. So Stiles & myself went down to their camp, found all the men had left or about leaving after cutting the mules loose. We caught a couple (the woods being almost full of them) hitched them to a wagon loaded with corn and threw in a lot of Bacon from a wagon load of that and started for our Camp. About half way there the wagon stuck in the mud — the little mule pulled himself clean out of his harness, kicked up his heels & away he went. I then cut the harness off the other & William came down & we took 8 bags of the corn [and] the Bacon and carried it to our wagon. I amused myself from then till after day by the stragglers coming along — they would catch these mules & mount them bare back and away they go — a party of 114 passed us all mounted on mules caught around the camp at once.

A little after light who should come along but Maj. John Harman from [the] direction of Danville, advised us to cut loose from wagon bury the valuables in the woods and leave. We come to [the] conclusion we would make another trial anyhow to get across the Dan River and accordingly started for Bachelors ford. We had to pass within 7 miles of Danville that route and expected we would be overhauled there but were not. So we drove in the woods and I took one of the leaders [mules] to ride towards Danville & see how things were as the horses could go no farther, being completely given out, rode into town and found the place was evacuated but no enemy within 10 miles of there. So I went out & brought the wagon in at once.The next day I took the safes & started for Charlotte by train leaving Stiles to cut loose from the wagon & come in (him & William) with stock [the] next day at Greensboro, read a telegram from Mingling stating that Stiles refused positively to come any farther. So the teams had to remain here.

I staid in Greensboro NC 14 days amidst the greatest scene of confusion & excitement I ever beheld. Johns[t]ons army arrived there a few days after I did and lay around the 10 days truce or Armistice between Sherman & himself. The last of the CS Govt was also there a part of the time including 'Jeff Davis,' Benjamin, Breckenridge, Trenholm etc. nearly all the big men. ('Jeff Davis' and I suppose the balance have since been captured in Georgia).

The C.S. Govt had vast amounts of Stores there, 114 lbs [of] sugar alone, Bacon by the thousand, Corn and enough Army grey cloth to furnish a suit for every man in the Armies [of the] South. Nearly everything was carried off by the mob consisting principally of these NC woman (who beat everything I ever saw in the shape of Females) and Cavalry, Citizens & Negroes besides that they cleaned out trains loaded with stuff from Raleigh. At last I managed to get away the road having been fixed (where [Union cavalry Maj. Gen. George] Stoneman men had torn it up) and reached Charlotte NC the 28th — I staid while I was there with Mr. Bates Supt who treated me finely & — particularly after living ever since I left Richd on Corn bread & fat bacon & not enough of that. About then 'Genl Johns[t]on's' Army surrendered to Gel Sherman, and Charlotte was taken possesion of by Schofields troops — Stoneman moving South after 'Jeff Davis' who left Charlotte about [the] time I got there. I at once got my 'parole' and started home May 9th but met Col. Bullock at Lexington NC (Just from New York) aboard a U.S. troop train when he said I had better accompany him back as wanted me to attend to some business. I concluded to do so and next morning recd appointment of Agt at this point and immediately in here and relieved Mingling. This place is garrisoned by a portion of the 6th Corps USA under Gel Wright.

Tell 'Little Sis' and 'Big Sis' to write me long letters with all the town 'gossip' that you all can think of as it will be 'good news' for me now. Ma I would like to see you all very well — suppose I will have a chance maybe after a while but cannot tell certain.

Also let me know if you have heard from Grandma & the rest of them. Give my best love to all the 'Girls' around town. Would like to see them all mighty well, but don't suppose they are all married yet are they.Love to Aunt Alice, Aunt Kansas, John, Reggy, Pinks etc. if they have not left yet.

Ma, about my clothes. I am rather short at present. Want you to fix them. What [do] you think. I will need that is all the nicest etc. put what you can in that 'Sole leather trunk' (tell Pa to have the lock fixed first though) and as soon as possible send them to me. I will write again though or telegraph before you send them to me. You can just be getting them ready you know. Everything so unsettled now. I hardly know how to act. You all write me a long letter about everything. What the girls didn't think of, you can you know.

Tell Miss Azzie I think she owes me a long letter, to write and give me the news. I have been very busy since I have been here. My love to all at Woodstock. Where is 'Bill Haas' at, back yet from prison. How about the darkies in town, all 'free' I suppose are they. Have you heard from Will & wife yet?

When is John Gibson at home or not. Albert Hunter also. Who has been married since I left and ought to be. How does [Staunton] look. Any stores open etc.
With much to all at home I am
your Ever Aff son
JP Hawkins



This article was written by Julie Holcomb and originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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