From the National Tribune, 9/27/1900

THE FALL OF RICHMOND
Personal recollections of the Triumphal Entry of Union Trips into the Rebel Capital.
By HIRAM T. PECK.

It was my good fortune to be permitted, after many trying and hazardous experiences as a private in the ranks of the grand old 10th Conn., to enter the rebel Capital with the troops under command of Maj. Gen. Weitzel on the memorable morning of April 3, 1865; and I have thought that an article relating my experiences on that occasion, elaborated from a journal which I kept all through the service, might prove to be of some interest to the many readers of THE NATIONAL TRIBUNE, particularly to the surviving members of grand army which accomplished such results so favorable to the Union cause.

As preliminary to my narration it is proper to state that my regiment, at the time of the fall of Richmond, was engaged in gallant service before Petersburg, being one of the first military organizations to enter that city on the morning of April 3, 1865, and sharing in the glory of being present at the surrender of Gen. Lee, at Appomattox Court House, a few days later. At that time I was on detached service as clerk in the office of Dr. Conover, Medical Director of the Twenty-fifth Corps. Our headquarters were located a short distance in the rear of Fort Burnham, near the James River, where we were comfortable housed in log and canvas habitations during the Winter of 1864-’5. Our headquarters were said to be about 12 miles from Richmond by the Charles City road. The Winter was quietly passed, so far as military operations were concerned, but the harshness of the weather was a very unpleasant feature of soldier life, to those who were obliged to perform the necessary camp guard and outpost duties.

With the advent of Spring military operations began to assume a more lively character, and the stale old war-cry, “On to Richmond,” seemed to give better promise of satisfactory results. The battles of the Wilderness had been fought, the previous June, with disastrous results to the Union arms, and Gen. Grant had evolved in his mind a new plan of operations – that of the investment of Petersburg and the complete severance of all lines of communication between the rebel Capital and other Confederate points. This plan seemed to be the most feasible, and the result proved that Gen. Grant’s idea was correct. The greater part of the force holding the lines in front of Richmond was accordingly ordered to Petersburg, among which was the writer’s regiment.

Sunday, April 2, 1865, was a beautiful Spring day, as experienced by the troops in front of Richmond. To the Union force in front of Petersburg, the day, notwithstanding its natural loveliness, was a day of inexpressible horror. Dispatches received by us by “field telegraph” informed us that sever and sanguinary fighting was in progress at that point, the two opposing forces seemed to be locked, as it were, in desperate and deadly embrace. Sheridan’s troops were said to have captured three brigades of infantry and four full batteries, and our forces were pressing the enemy at all points. We did not, however, for some reason, hear much cannonading. Our signal men at the fort and at the signal tower were keeping a sharp watch on the movements of the rebels in front of us, as it seemed quite probable that Richmond would soon be evacuated. In the afternoon I went up to Fort Burnham and took a view of the territory inside the rebel lines. The force in front seemed to be as large as usual, but deserters, who came inside our lines that morning, reported that the rebels were already packing up and sending their portable property from Richmond.

ENTERING THE REBEL CAPITAL.

Another telegram, in the evening, announced that our success was complete, that we had captured during the day, no less than 10,000 prisoners, and that Petersburg was in our possession.

It may well be surmised that but little sleep was indulged in that night by those who occupied a position so near the rebel Capital as we did. Soon after midnight a large fire illuminated the heavens in the direction of Richmond and Drewry’s Bluff, followed by several heavy explosions, which gave good indication that a movement to the rear was already in progress within the enemy’s lines. We were therefore ordered to pack up at headquarters and place our baggage on board the teams; and at daybreak the detachment of the Army of the James, consisting of two divisions of the Twenty-fourth Corps and one division of the Twenty-fifth Corps (colored troops), about 16,000 strong, under command of Maj. Gen. Weitzel, moved outside of our works and were soon within the strong intrenchments of the enemy. The General and his staff soon entered the city, and the elegant mansion of Jeff. Davis was at once selected as the headquarters of the army; while the offices of the Assistant Adjutant General, Medical director, and provost Marshal were temporarily established in the Executive Building itself.

The writer walked the entire distance from our old lines to the city, and, as near as I can now recollect, we arrived at the outskirts, near Rockett’s Landing, about 8 o’clock. Passing by Libby Prison, which was then full of rebel prisoners, and over which the Stars and Stripes were waving, we proceeded to the Capitol, which served as our quarters the coming night; but the little rest we obtained, although quite weary, on the hard floor, was not very refreshing.

We were at last in Richmond - the city that had cost so many thousands of loyal lives, through many fruitless attempts to capture, during the preceding four years of terrible conflict, and which had cost so many thousands of other lives in its defense! What wonder that our hearts were filled with deep emotion because of the changed conditions of affairs? We could well imagine that the shades of departed statesmen, whose voices long ago filed those now deserted halls with their eloquence; were still occupying that solemn edifice; and that the voices of those later statesmen were still loud in offering resolutions, in both houses of the Confederate Congress, in legislative enactments antagonistic to the principle of the Union of the Northern and Southern States.

DESTRUCTION OF BUSINESS SECTION OF CITY.

The terrible fire which laid waste the greater part of the business portions of Richmond was raging as we entered the city, and it was not until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon that it died out, in a great measure for the lack of material to feed upon. It was raging so fiercely that neither the local firemen nor our soldiers were able to check its destructive power. This scene of Richmond in flames was both terrible and sublime, and one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it so long as life shall last.

The burnt district embraced that portion of the city bordering on the river - a section where all of the large warehouses and manufacturing establishments were located. Extensive flouring and other mills, tobacco warehouses, depots, banks, hotels, etc., shared in the general conflagration. The Court House, the Navy-Yard Arsenal and Laboratory, the Tredegar Iron Works, the Post Office Building, and the Mechanical Institute were in ashes. Also the bridges of the Richmond & Petersburg, and Richmond & Danville Railroads, and that of the Mayo Turnpike. Of the five daily newspaper establishments but two escaped destruction - those of the Sentinel and Whig. The Dispatch, Enquirer and Examiner offices disappeared in smoke and flame. The Libby Prison and Castle Thunder escaped destruction, although those two buildings really merited such a fate. The “Hotel de Libby” was found to be quite useful to our military authorities, however, as it served as the place of confinement of many captured rebel soldiers and law-violating civilians.

Soon after entering the city I took occasion to pay a visit to the office of the Richmond Sentinel, one of the two daily newspaper establishments so fortunate as to escape destruction by the great fire then raging. The office was deserted, but bore the appearance of very recent occupancy by the literary and mechanical force of the institution, the boiler in the engine room still sending forth a low sound of escaping steam, and a small edition of the paper, damp from the press and bearing the date “Monday morning, April 3, 1865,” lying on the folding table, ready for distribution. I have a copy now in my possession, which I highly prize. The paper itself, as being the last literary issue of the rebel Capital, is well worthy of preservation as an interesting relic of the rebellion. Printed on a half-sheet of coarse, dingy paper, with type so badly battered and worn as to produce an impression barely legible, it affords most striking proof of the great straits which the rebels labored under in consequence of the embargo placed upon Northern manufactures by the war. While there is nothing in its tone of a character calculated to strike a harmonizing chord in the breast of a true loyalist, we could not but admire the unyielding spirit which prompted its issue at a time when the fate of the Confederacy was already sealed, and the lord of misrule and the fiery element were holding high carnival in the beautiful streets of Richmond. Judged alone by its motto - “Let all the ends thou aimest at be thy Country’s, thy god’s, and Truth’s” - we might naturally consider it a true exponent of Union sentiment and an advocate of national principles; but when we consider that the term “country,” as here used, signified only that portion of the old union which latterly had fallen under Confederate jurisdiction, a very different construction is placed upon it. quite interesting reading, as showing the almost utter worthlessness of Confederate scrip, is found in the Sentinel’s “Terms of Subscription,” as follows; “Daily, for one year, $100; newsdealers and carriers, $80 per hundred; single copies, in office, 50 cents.’ Other interesting matter is embodied in four distinct sets of resolutions, framed by as many separate military organizations in the Confederate service, all announcing their unshaken faith in the justice and ultimate triumph of their cause, and declaring their determination “to battle under the Southern flag until Independence is achieved or they are extinct,” - “until the vandals have been driven from their soil and an honorable peace is secured.” Which resolutions, in the light of events then transpiring, seemed more like a burlesque than the earnest declarations of an intelligent body of soldiers. The following local paragraph appeared to us as being quite significant at that time:

“YANKEE PRISONERS. - All the Yankee prisoners now in the Libby will be sent North to-day.”

Before leaving the city the rebel troops took occasion to pillage the principal stores, and a large amount of property must have been thus appropriated. All the Government storehouses were thrown open, and what the military authorities could not remove for transportation was left for public plunder. For the obvious purpose of preventing drunkenness and consequent riotous demonstrations during the interim of the temporary suspension of the civil and military power, a large quantity of the spiritous liquors was emptied into the streets and basements, notwithstanding which precautions enough was secured by the mob to add greatly to the terror of the scene, turning the city into a perfect pandemonium of infuriated devils, or madhouse, as it were, of “howling bedlamites.” Stores were boldly broken into by the mob of straggling soldiers and civilians, and plunder was the order of the hour. In the basement of one of the large warehouses which I visited, near the river, and which, in some way, escaped destruction by the fire, the liquor thus emptied by the authorities was several inches in depth. I was not sufficiently thirsty to have a desire to try the quality of that beverage, although it might have proved to be pretty fair “corn-juice.” If the fire had reached that basement I am prone to believe that the “fiery furnace,” spoken of in Holy Writ, would have been no hotter in comparison. Another warehouse contained large quantities of commissary stores, to which the citizens were freely helping themselves, under the extraordinary status, everything “without money and without price.”

Their ironclads in the river were blown up and sunk, which, together with the blowing up of the Arsenal and the magazines of the forts, was the cause of the heavy explosions which we heard in the morning.

The greater part of the inhabitants remained in the city, the generality of whom, if their countenances could be taken as a reflex of their mental feeling, were anything but displeased with the new state of affairs.

The amount of rolling stock on the several railroads which centered in Richmond and which fell into our possession, was said to be 26 locomotives, 44 passenger and 286 freight cars.

The works surrounding the city were of the most formidable character, being a complete succession and cordon of forts, each calculated to defend the other. That the retreat of Lee’s army was of the greatest precipitation was well shown by the fact that their tents were all, or nearly all, left behind, and not a gun was taken from the fortifications. But few, if any, of these guns - which were very heavy ones - were spiked. Lack of transportation and opportunity seemed to have been the great trouble with Gen. Lee.

The inhabitants informed us that Jeff. Davis did not leave the city till Sunday night. While in attendance at church a dispatch was received from Gen. Lee stating that all was lost. He thereupon made hasty preparations to bid adieu to the city wherein he had been so long regarded as the sovreign power of the Secession cause. Mrs. Davis, we were told, took her departure several days before.

(To be continued.)

 

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