The Fall of Richmond

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Sulivane, Clement. "The Fall of Richmond: No. I -The Evacuation," Battles & Leaders of the Civil War 4:725-726.


ABOUT 11:30 A. M. on Sunday, April 2d, (1) a, strange agitation was perceptible on the streets of Richmond, and within half an hour it was known on all sides that Lee's lines had been broken below Petersburg ; that he was in full retreat on Danville; that the troops covering the city at Chaffin's and Drewry's Bluffs were on the point of being withdrawn, and that the city was forthwith to be abandoned. A singular security had been felt by the citizens of Richmond, so the news fell like a bomb-shell in a peaceful camp, and dismay reigned supreme.

All that Sabbath day the trains came and went, wagons, vehicles, and horsemen ran to and fro, and, in the evening, ominous groups of ruffians - more or less in liquor - began to make their appearance on the principal thoroughfares of the city. As night came on pillage and rioting and robbing took place. The police and a few soldiers were at hand, and, after the arrest of a few ringleaders and the more riotous of their followers, a fair degree of order was restored.

But Richmond saw few sleeping eyes during the pandemonium of that night.

The division of Major-General G. W. C. Lee, of Ewell's corps, at that time rested in the trenches eight miles below Richmond, with its right on the James River, covering Chaffin's Bluff. I was at the time its assistant adjutant-general, and was in the city on some detached duty connected with the "Local Brigade" belonging to the division, - a force composed of the soldiers of the army, detailed on account of their mechanical skill to work in the arsenals, etc., and of clerks and other employees of the War, Treasury, Quartermaster, and other departments.

Upon receipt of the news from Petersburg I reported to General Ewell (then in Richmond) for instructions, and was ordered to assemble and command the Local Brigade, cause it to be well supplied with ammunition and provisions, and await further orders. All that day and night I was engaged in this duty, but with small result, as the battalions melted away as fast as they were formed, mainly under orders from the heads of departments who needed all their employees in the transportation and guarding of the archives, etc., but partly, no doubt, from desertions. When morning dawned fewer than 200 men remained, under command of Captain Edward Mayo.

Shortly before day General Ewell rode in person to my headquarters and informed me that General G. W. C. Lee was then crossing the pontoon at Drewry's; that he would destroy it and press on to join the main army ; that all the bridges over the river had been destroyed, except Mayo's, between Richmond and Manchester, and that the wagon bridge over the canal in had already been burned by Union emissaries. My command was to hasten to Mayo's bridge and protect it, and the one remaining footbridge over the canal leading to it, until General Gary, of South Carolina, should arrive. I hurried to my command, and fifteen minutes later occupied Mayo's bridge, at the foot of 14th street, and made military dispositions to protect it to the last extremity. This done, I had nothing to do but listen for sounds and gaze on the terrible splendor of the scene.

And such a scene probably the world has seldom witnessed. Either incendiaries, or (more probably) fragments of bombs from the arsenals, had fired various buildings, and the two cities, Richmond and Manchester, were like a blaze of day amid the surrounding darkness. Three high arched bridges were in flames ; beneath them the waters sparkled and dashed and rushed on by the burning city.

Every now and then, as a magazine exploded, a column of white smoke rose up as high as the eye could reach, instantaneously followed by a deafening sound. The earth seemed to rock and tremble as with the shock of an earthquake, and immediately afterward hundreds of shells would explode in air and send their iron spray down far below the bridge. As the immense magazines of

(1) Mr. Davis attended morning service at St. Paul's Church, where he received a dispatch, on reading which he left the church to prepare for the departure of the Government.-EDITORS

cartridges ignited the rattle as of thousands of musketry would follow, and then all was still for the moment, except the dull roar and crackle of the fast-spreading fires. At dawn we heard terrific explosions about "The Rocketts,'' from the unfinished ironclads down the river.

By daylight, on the 3d, a mob of men, women, and children, to the number of several thousands, had gathered at the corner of 14th and Cary streets and other outlets, in front of the bridge, attracted by the vast commissary depot at that point; for it must be remember Richmond was a half-starved city, and the Confederate Government had that morning removed its guards and abandoned the removal of the provisions, which was impossible for the want of transportation. The depot doors were forced open and a demoniacal struggle for the countless barrels of hams, bacon, whisky, flour, sugar, coffee, etc., etc., raged about the buildings among the hungry mob. The gutters ran whisky, and it was lapped as it flowed down the streets, while all fought for a share of the plunder. The flames came nearer and nearer, and at last caught in the commissariat itself.

At daylight the approach of the Union forces could be plainly discerned. After a little came the clatter of horses' hoofs galloping up Main street. My infantry guard stood to arms, the picket across the canal was withdrawn, and the engineer officer lighted a torch of fat pine. By direction of the Engineer Department barrels of tar, surrounded by pine-knots, had been placed at intervals on the bridge, with kerosene at hand, and a lieutenant of engineers had reported for the duty of firing them at my order. The noisy train proved to be Gary's ambulances, sent forward preparatory to his final rush for the bridge. The muleteers galloped their animals about half-way down, when they were stopped by the dense mass of human beings. Rapidly communicating to Captain Mayo my instructions from General Ewell, I ordered that officer to stand firm at his post until Gary got up. I rode forward into the mob and cleared a lane. The ambulances were galloped down to the bridge, I retired to my post, and the mob closed in after me and resumed its wild struggle for plunder. A few minutes later a long line of cavalry in gray turned into 14th street, and sword in hand galloped straight down to the river; Gary had come. The mob scattered right and left before the armed horsemen, who reined up at the canal. Presently a single company of cavalry appeared in sight, and rode at headlong speed to the bridge. "My rear-guard," explained Gary. Touchinhe called out, "All over, goodbye; blow her to h-ll," and trotted over the bridge. That w as the first and last I ever saw of General Gary, of South Carolina.

In less than sixty seconds Captain Mayo was in column of march, and as he reached the little island about half-way across the bridge, the single piece of artillery, loaded with grape-shot, that had occupied that spot, arrived on the Manchester side of the river. The engineer officer, Dr. Lyons, and I walked leisurely to the island, setting fire to the provided combustible matter as we passed along, and leaving the north section of Mayo's bridge wrapped in flame and smoke. At the island we stopped to take a view of the situation north of the river, and saw a line of blue-coated horsemen galloping in furious haste up Main street. Across 14th street they stopped, and then dashed down 14th street to the flaming bridge. They fired a few random shots at us three on the island, and we retreated to Manchester. I ordered my command forward, the lieutenant of engineers saluted and went about his business, and myself and my companion sat on our horses for nearly a half-hour, watching the occupation of Richmond. We saw another string of horsemen in blue pass up Main street, then we saw a dense column of infantry march by, seemingly without end ; we heard the very welkin ring with cheers as the United States forces reached Capitol Square, and then we turned and slowly rode on our way.


IN the spring of 1865 the total length of the lines of the Army of the James before Richmond (under General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding the Twenty-fifth Corps) was about eleven miles, not counting the cavalry front, and extended from the Appomattox River to the north side of the James.

The Varina and New Market turnpikes passed directly through the lines into the city, which was the center of all our efforts.

About 2 o'clock on the morning of April 3d bright fires were seen in Richmond. Shortly after, while we were looking at these fires, we heard explosions, and soon a prisoner was sent in by General Kautz. The prisoner was a colored teamster, and he informed us that immediately after dark the enemy had begun making preparations to leave, and that they were sending all of the teams to the rear. A forward movement of our entire picket-line corroborated this report.

As soon as it was light General Weitzel ordered Colonel E. E. Graves, senior aide-de-camp, and Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr., provost-marshal, to take a detachment of forty men from the two companies (E and H) of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, and make a reconnoissance. Slowly this little band of scouts picked their way in. Soon after we moved up the New Market road at a slow pace.

As we approached the inner line of defenses we saw in the distance divisions of our troops, many of them upon the double-quick, aiming to be the first in the city; a white and a colored division were having a regular race, the white troops on the turnpike and the colored in the fields. As we neared the city the fires seemed to increase in number and size, and at intervals loud explosions were heard.

On entering we found Capitol Square covered with people who had fled there to escape the fire and were utterly worn out with fatigue and fright.

Details were at once made to scour the city and press into service every able-bodied man , white or black, and make them assist in extinguishing the flames.

General Devens's division marched into the city, stacked arms, and went to work. Parsons's engineer company assisted by blowing up houses to check its advance, as about every engine was destroyed or rendered useless by the mob. In this manner the fire was extinguished and perfect order restored in an incredible short time after we occupied the city. (1) There was absolutely no plundering upon the part of our soldiers ; orders were issued forbidding anything to be taken without remuneration, and no made of infringement of these orders. General G. F. Shepley was placed on duty as military governor. He had occupied a similar position in New Orleans after its capture in 1862, and was eminently fitted for it' by education and experience. As we entered the suburbs the general ordered me to take half a dozen cavalrymen and go to Libby Prison, for our thoughts were upon the wretched men whom we supposed were still confined within its walls. It was very early in the morning, and we were the first Union troops to arrive before Libby. Not a guard, not an inmate remained ; the doors were wide open, and only a few negroes greeted us with, "Dey's all gone, massa!" The next day after our entry into the city, on passing out from, Clay street, from Jefferson Davis's house, I saw a crowd coming, headed by President Lincoln, who was walking with his usual long, careless stride, and looking about with an interested air and taking in everything. Upon my saluting he said: "Is it far to President Davis's house?" I accompanied him to the house, which was occupied by General Weitzel as headquarters.

The President had arrived about 9 o'clock, at the landing called Rocketts, upon Admiral Porter's flag-ship, the Malvern, and as soon as the boat was made fast, without ceremony, he walked on shore, and started off uptown. As soon as Admiral Porter was informed of it he ordered a guard of marines to follow as escort; but in the walk of about two miles they never saw him, and he was directed by negroes. At the Davis house, he was shown

(1) As one of our aides was riding through the streets, engaged in gathering together the able-bodied men to assist in extinguishing the fire, he was hailed by a, servant in front of a house, toward which the fire seemed to be moving. The servant told him that his mistress wished to speak to him. He dismounted and entered the house, and was met by a lady, who stated that her mother was an invalid, confined to her bed, and as the fire seemed to he approaching she asked for assnt conversation developed the fact that the invalid was no other than the wife of General R. E. Lee, and the lady- who addressed the aide was her daughter, Miss Lee. An ambulance was furnished by Colonel E. H. Ripley, of the 9th Vermont, and a corporal and two men guarded them until all danger was past.-T. T. G.

into the reception-room, with the remark that the housekeeper had said that the room was President Davis's office. As he seated himself he remarked, "This must have been President Davis's chair," and, crossing his legs he looked far off with a serious, dreamy expression. At length he asked me if the housekeeper was in the house. Upon learning that she had left he jumped up and said, with a boyish manner, "Come let's look at the house!" We went pretty much over it ; I retailed all that the housekeeper had told me, and he seemed interested in everything. As we came down the staircase General Weitzel came, in breathless haste, and at once President Lincoln's face lost its boyish expression as he realized that duty must be resumed. Soon afterward Judge Campbell, General Anderson (Confederates), and others called and asked for an interview with the President. It was granted, and took place in the parlor with closed doors.

I accompanied President Lincoln and General Weitzel to Libby Prison and Castle Thunder, and heard General Weitzel ask President Lincoln what he (General Weitzel) should do in regard to the conquered people. President Lincoln replied that he did not wish to give any orders on that subject, but, as he expressed it, "If I were in your place I'd let 'em up easy, let 'em up easy." A few days after our entry General R. E. Lee surrendered, and early one morning we learned that he had just arrived at his house in the city.

General Weitzel called me into a private room, and, taking out a large, well-filled pocket-book, said, " Go to General Lee's house, find Fitzhugh Lee, and say that his old West Point chum Godfrey Weitzel wishes to know if he and urge him to take w hat he may need from that pocket-book." Upon reaching General Lee's house I knocked, and General Fitzhugh Lee came to the door. He was dressed in a Confederate uniform.

Upon introducing myself he asked me in, showing me into a parlor with double or folding doors, explaining that the servants had not returned.

He was so overcome by Weitzel's message that for a moment he was obliged to walk to the other end of the room. He excused himself, and passed into the inner room, where I noticed General R. E. Lee sitting, with a tired, worn expression upon his face. Fitzhugh Lee knelt beside his general, as he sat leaning over, and placed a hand upon his knee.

After a few moments he came back, and in a most dignified and courteous manner sent his love to Godfrey Weitzel, and assured him that he did not require any loan of money, but if it would be entirely proper for Godfrey Weitzel to issue a pass for some ladies of General Lee's household to return to the city it would be esteemed a favor; but he impressed me to state that if this would embarrass General Weitzel, on no account would they request the favor. It is needless to state that the ladies were back in the house as soon as possible.

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