National Tribune, 7/12/1900

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From the National Tribune, 7/12/1900, p. 8

FALL OF RICHMOND
Evacuation of the Capital of the Confederacy as Seen by a Boy.
By J. W. M.

Although a boy of only 11 years when Richmond was evacuated by the Confederates and entered by the victorious Union forces, the stirring, and at times exciting, scenes enacted on that eventful morning in the Capital of the Confederacy, are still vivid in my memory. They were photographed on my youthful mind so indelibly that the 35 years which have since elapsed have not dimmed those weird scenes which marked the closing days of the great and grim panorama of the civil war.

Throughout Sunday, April 1, 1865 , “All Fools’ Day,” there were many rumors and reports in circulation. On street corners, in churches and elsewhere, people congregated and with bated breath declared “The Yankees are coming.” Such rumors had been current so often before that they did not cause much stir on that quiet Sabbath day. In fact, many persons regarded them as simple “April fool” jokes. During the evening these reports became more persistent, and mounted couriers in Confederate gray dashed hither and thither about the city. One of these, with clanking spurs and saber, dismounted quickly in front of old St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church during the evening service, and passed rapidly along an aisle to the pulpit, whispered a few words to the venerable rector. The minister then addressed the members of his congregation, informing them that the city was in grave danger from the enemy. He concluded by requesting all men and boys capable of bearing arms to repair forthwith to the square surrounding the Capitol building, where a organization would be formed “to resist the invaders.”

After leaving St. John’s, the courier proceeded to a nearby Catholic Church, where he repeated his performance. Within a few minutes aged men and stripling youths, who a short while before were engaged in holy worship, could be seen hurrying along the dimly lighted streets towards Capitol Square. There they were armed and organized as minute men. This motley force of militia, after remaining under arms for about two hours, were dismissed for the night, only to awake on the following morning to find the “Yankees” in full possession of their city.

DESTITUTION OF POORER CLASSES.

Confirmed hunger, almost to the point of starvation, had made many of the middle and poorer classes of the population indifferent. Some of them reasoned, and wisely, too, that the incoming of Uncle Sam’s men in blue would mean food for the hungry, if nothing more. Our family, for instance, had existed more than ten days on black-eyed peas alone, without salt, pepper or meat to flavor them. The sameness of this diet had become awful, until each individual pea seemed in my exaggerated vision as large as an orange. The bill of fare in our home had become “browned peas for breakfast; boiled peas for dinner, and cold peas for supper,” and never a bite of bread to break the dietary monotony.

Richmond became as quiet as a graveyard after midnight , and until 4 o’clock on the morning of April 2, 1865 , naught disturbed the stillness, save the occasional baying of lanky, half-starved dogs. This quietness was ominous to the fast fading Confederacy. Our family occupied a dwelling on Grace street, Church Hill, overlooking the James River at Rocketts, where the principal piers and wharfage were located. Lying at those wharfs on Sunday afternoon were a number of Government tugboats and the ancient side-wheeled gunboat, Patrick Henry. Several thousand yards west of Rocketts were two magazines containing tons of gunpowder. It was the explosion of these which suddenly awakened the Confederate Capital from its slumbers and brought a scene of excitement and activity out of one of lethargy.

The first explosion occurred a few minutes after 4 o’clock on the morning of April 2. My oldest brother, then 13 years of age, and myself occupied the same bed on the third floor of our residence. The effect of the explosion was to rattle the windows violently and cause the house to vibrate. The sound was almost deafening. As we sprang from the bed a man in the street below shouted hoarsely:

“The Yankees are coming!”

It required but a few minutes for us to get into our clothing. As we started down the stairs the second magazine was exploded with as great concussion and noise as the first. Rushing out of doors, we found the streets filled with excited men, women, and children, flitting along like an army of specters in the dim and misty light of early morning.

Richmond has fallen,” “Lee has surrendered,” and similar cries could be heard on all sides. The people appeared to be panic-stricken. My brother and I hurried to Main street and found a great crowd engaged in looting two old tobacco factory buildings, one of which had been used for storing Confederate commissary supplies, while the other was filled with quartermaster stores. Women and boys were laboriously rolling barrels of flour and cornmeal toward their homes. All were in a hurry to safely store the provisions within their domiciles before the Yankee soldiers arrived, for by that time everybody knew they were coming and would be tramping through the streets of Richmond ere long.

Men of the Confederate Commissary department rolled a number of barrels filled with whisky and apple brandy into the streets, and after knocking in the heads, allowed the liquor to run down the gutters. Men, women, and even children stooped and drank the stuff, and several small riots were started over the possession of barrels of flour, bacon, and other foodstuffs. At the same time the excitement was increased by great tongues of flames shooting up in the thickly-settled business section of the city. Confederate cavalrymen, the same who had exploded the magazines, with shavings and oil, had been busy applying the torch.

The bright dawn of day on that pleasant Spring morning was greeted by the glare of crackling flames from several hundred business houses, and great masses of dark smoke. No attempt was made was made by the populace to check the spreading conflagration. The people were too busy looting those establishments to which the torch had been applied. Added to the pandemonium, there came from the river front at Rocketts a series of startling explosions. A Confederate naval force was engaged in destroying the tugboats by starting the vessels under full head of steam, after setting their steering apparatus so they would collide, head on, with torpedoes which had been planted in midstream. The tugs were blown into atoms, some of the descending fragments fell among the crowds in Rocketts, injuring several persons.

In the midst of the intense excitement, a detachment of Confederate cavalry, their horses covered with foam, entered the city from beyond Rocketts. Drunken men cheered them. “The Yanks are coming,” one of the horsemen yelled. “Yes,” shouted another, “they’re right behind us.” The cavalrymen dashed along Main street in the direction of the Capitol and were soon lost to view in the distance.

Ten minutes later the Union horsemen were within the city limits, riding like wildfire toward the Capitol building. Preceeding the cavalry commander and his staff was a line of troopers, from eight to 12 men, carrying small blue flags on poles. Following the commander were about 50 troopers.

I do not know what State they were from, but I do know that they were the first Union troops to enter Richmond, Va., on April 2, 1865 .

One of the Union officers, a handsome and dashing fellow, reined up his foam-covered horse just in front of my brother, and leaning over the pommel of his saddle, asked:

“Johnnie, can you direct me to Jeff Davis’ house?”

My brother gave him the desired directions, and putting spurs to his animal he galloped away with the laughing remark:

“Now to bag old Jeff.”

But he had reckoned without his host, for the President of the expiring Confederacy was by that time far away in the Southland.

The retreating Confederate cavalry ahead of the Union advance, crossed the famous Mayo Bridge over the James River, and applied the torch to that historic structure, destroying the greater portion of it. After occupying the city, the Union forces constructed a pontoon bridge across the James, about 100 yards below the old bridge, and touching Belle Isle, the former prison ground. [This last statement is a mistake. - ed.]

It was fully a half hour later before any other Union soldiers entered the city from that direction. The second detachment was also cavalry, but the men did not carry lances. This body was fired upon by several convalescent Confederate soldiers from Chimborazo Hospital, as they galloped along Main street, past 25th street. The convalescents had procured some muskets from a nearby Quartermaster depot, and then concealed themselves in a deserted carpenter shop, at the corner of 25th and Franklin street, a short block from Main street, along which the men in blue were proceeding towards the center of the city. The fusilade of musketry from the carpenter shop did not cause any casualties to the cavalry, so far as I could see, and I was near enough to hear the minnies whizz. The cavalrymen did not return the fire, but continued at breakneck speed towards the Capitol.

In the meantime, before the entry into the city of the army proper, crowds of expectant colored people had assembled along Main street to greet their deliverers from the bonds of slavery. Many of these had secured from the Quartermaster’s stores pairs of the regulation Confederate army shoes. These were roughly made of red, half tanned leather, and were of the largest sizes. On[e] old gray-topped negro had a pair of extraordinary size, which he held proudly aloft.

“Uncle, those shoes are too big for you,” remarked a bystander. “What number are they?”

“Don’t know boss, but I specs dey am number twenty-fours. But dey ain’t too big for me. Ise dun growed wid glory, cuz Ise free now, till Ise as big as de statue ob Gineral Washington at de Capitol.”

Pretty soon great clouds of dust beyond Rocketts told of the approach of the main body of the Union army. As they entered the suburbs of Richmond the soldiers gave cheer after cheer. Nearly all the white people hastily left the main thoroughfares and scampered to their homes, leaving the colored folks in possession to greet the army in blue. I had procured a large box filled with plug tobacco from a Commissary store and stationed myself at the curbstone near Rocketts for the purpose of selling my wares to the passing troops.

As the long lines of soldiers approached, wit clanking sabers and accoutrements, the crowds of colored people became almost frantic. They danced, embraced each other, in camp-meeting fashion, and shouted their welcomes. “Bress de Lord, we’s free!” “Glory hallelujah!” “Come on, chill’un, come on!” and similar cries were heard on all sides. Some of the old negro mammies rushed into the roadway ad tried to embrace the troops. I distinctly remember a handsome young officer with light curly hair, who was seized from behind by a portly colored woman, who held him in her muscular embrace and kissed him repeatedly before he could free himself. He blushed deeply and seemed greatly embarrassed when the men of his company laughed heartily and cheered at his discomfiture. While the fat colored woman was embracing and kissing him she repeatedly shouted: “Honey, you’se dun freed us.”

From that time and during the remainder of the day there was a steady tramp, tramp, tramp of feet and the jangling of equipments; the roll of gun carriages and clatter of the hoofs of cavalry horses along Main street, as the victorious army of the Union rolled like a series of great blue waves, into the fallen Capital of the Confederacy. As the troops passed me, I handed out plugs of tobacco to those nearest my impromptu stand on the curb line. In return many of the soldiers handed me ten, twenty-five or fifty cents, “shin-plasters,” as the fractional currency of small denominations was then called. A few of those who accepted the plugs failed to make returns to me. The box of tobacco was soon exhausted and upon counting my receipts I found myself the proud possessor of $7.25 in greenbacks. An old man who stood near me remarked:

“Boy, you were the first person to earn Yankee money at the evacuation of Richmond.”

Being almost famished with hunger I began to cast about for some place to exchange my greenbacks for food. An hour later, while trying to locate a sutler’s establishment, I was stopped by a tall Union Sergeant. He took me in his arms and said I reminded him of his little son in far-away New England . When I told him I was very hungry and was looking for some place to buy food, he invited me to accompany him to the quarters of his company in an old tobacco factory near Libby Hill. I went with him and was soon regaling myself on a bounteous feast of army shortcake, beans, fried pork and coffee. Never before nor since has food tasted so good to me. I ate ravenously, while visions of my 10 days’ diet of black-eyed peas floated before me and then drifted away as my hunger was appeased. While that Sergeant (Morris was his name) remained in Richmond I never wanted for a hot dinner or breakfast. He always addressed me as “My boy,” and did many favors for me.

After having the hot breakfast with my soldier friend, I remembered that the folks at home were without food, save the remainder of those horrible peas with black eyes. I therefore hastened to find a sutler store and expended my $7.25 for a supply f edibles. I purchased compressed soup cakes, crackers, bologna sausage, cheese and canned goods to the full limit of my pile of “shin-plasters,” and then hurried home to give the family a square meal. On the following day the Federal authorities opened several food supply depots, where provisions were furnished gratis to the whites and blacks alike. These depots were a Godsend and prevented much suffering and starvation. The people were ranged in front of them in long lines. Each person had a bag or basket, into which they deposited their rations of cornmeal, beans, bacon and coffee.

On the evening of evacuation day Richmond had become one vast camp. The Stars and Stripes floated proudly from the Capitol and other public buildings. The Davis house, or Presidential Mansion, was occupied by officers of the United States army, and a pall of smoke hung over the lower business section of the city, which was in utter ruin - masses of twisted iron and piles of steaming bricks ad stones. The work of looting during the early morning hours had resulted in cleaning out all the supplies of food and merchandise which the conflagration had not consumed. The erstwhile proud old Virginia city was indeed a total wreck. Another tragic picture of the horrors of war. The famous Tredegar Iron Works had been destroyed. [error - ed.] The river front was in ruins and all was chaos.

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