Watehall, E. T. “Fall of Richmond, April 3, 1865.” Confederate Veteran
17 (1909), p. 215.
RICHMOND, APRIL 3, 1865.
BY E. T.
On April 3 about nine in the morning, while on my way to
the Baptist church, I heard the bell in Capitol Square sounding the “military
call” for the local forces and all citizens, young and old, to prepare for
duty. It was a beautiful morning, and when I left the church after service
everything seemed about as usual until I entered the street on which was
President Davis’s mansion. The President and Dr. Hoge were the only two who
had received the news of the fall of the city during church time.
However, it did not take long for the news to spread, and
earthquakes and great fires faintly resemble the result of the news. On the
street every one was calling out: “Richmond has fallen! What shall we all
do?” I had witnessed the Pawnee excitement of ‘61; but that was a joyful
rush, while this was a heartbreaking one.
There was a wild rush and hurry on all the streets, but it
was magnified in the crowd that seemed going to the Danville Depot. Here trains
were leaving every few minutes, and I saw Confederate soldiers, men, women, and
children among the citizens going away, and a quantity of gold and money and all
sorts of household articles being carried off.
The commissary storehouse (where now stands the new
Southern Depot) was a busy place, for the government had given permission for
the people to take everything that could not be carried away by the authorities.
You could see old men, women, and children snatching for something, whether it
was useful or not. I made many trips back and forth to carry my pick-ups home,
and there were any number who were doing as I did.
On Ninth Street were great piles of paper burning, and by
their light I saw some men wearing Confederate uniforms break into Antoni’s
confectionery. The woman inside asked them not to break the jars, but to take
all the candy they wanted. As this was private property, I did not try to get
any of the candy, as much as I wanted it. I also saw a jewelry store and one or
two others broken open, but this was not by the soldiers.
As I was standing on the corner of Thirteenth and Main
Streets that night about seven o’clock I saw the last Confederate cannons come
thundering down the street, the driver yelling: “Is this Virginia Street?
Which is the way to the Danville Depot?” They turned into an alleyway and then
across the bridge, which had been floored over for this very emergency.
How Richmond was burned has been often discussed; and as I
watched with all the interest of a fourteen-year-old boy, I will tell exactly
how it occurred. The first explosion was from a boat beside the bridge, and was
entirely accidental. I was standing right by General Ewell when it happened, and
I heard him say with an oath: “The first one that puts a torch to this bridge
except by my orders I wish shot down.”
These men in the boat had been doing as every one else did,
helping themselves to all they could find. They threw a box of powder on the
boat, and it struck against something and exploded. The men in the boat were in
much more danger than those on the bridge. General Ewell in his report says the
boat was under the bridge, but it was not. It was too dark and dangerous for a
boat to lie under the bridge with all that commotion going on above.
General Kershaw says these boatmen helped extinguish the
fire on the bridge, so that he and his command could pass over. He also said he
saw the flouring mills burning, but it was too far for him to go to help
I saw the Blockhoe warehouse burn and saw the crowds of men
and women throwing bags of flour out of one side while the other side of the
warehouse was burning. The Shochame warehouse was officially set on fire, and
its burning prevented the spread of the fire on that side of the city. I saw a
large coal of fire fall on the steeple of the Presbyterian church while I was
half a mile away. It burned so slowly that I am sure it could have been put out
if any one could have gotten to it. This church, though it stood in a thickly
populated part of the city, was the only thing that burned in that neighborhood.
It was rumored that this church was set on fire; but it really caught from a
coal thrown on the steeple from the explosion at Cook’s Foundry. It was
reported that the burning of Richmond was the work of an incendiary, but it was
the result of carelessness. The gas was cut off at the works, and there was no
light; so people burned paper to see how to pillage, and threw the lighted paper
on the floors. I saw as many as ten or fifteen of these lights on the floors at
once. I read a story that a spy set fire to the War Department and received a
reward from the Federal government for destroying it, when the truth is the
building was not destroyed at all, but was standing till a few years ago.
The building the Confederates used as the War Department
was built for a mechanics’ institute, and the rooms were used for all sorts of
things. In one room I saw a number of Starr pianos, the first I had ever seen,
and it was from one of these rooms that I heard the salute of cannon when
President Davis entered the city. I stood very near here the evening before the
battle of Drury’s Bluff and saw General Beauregard making his observations,
with Fort Washington on the right and Fort Scott on the left.
The burning of some of the buildings and bridges may have
been incendiary, but most of the fire came about as I have stated. The fire on
Petersburg bridge by a change of wind set fire to the arsenal. I remember the
day that Mr. Sedley, the chemist, was blown up by an explosion at the arsenal.
That was in 1861, and in 1865 I saw the whole roof collapse from fire.
A printer now working on the News-Leader had about the same
experience with paper and fire that I did. He says he lit a paper and by its
light went into a cellar and brought out a live pig which he drove down the
street. Some one yelled at him that the Confederates always went the whole hog.
About eight o’clock on the day that Richmond fell I saw
the first Yankees come marching in. Some women and boys stood on the corner and
waved little Union flags. The Yankees put the negroes to work pumping with the
hand engines, much to their disgust, for they thought that now that the Federals
were there, the whites would have to work while they played. I believe everybody
misunderstood the cause of the Richmond fire. The Yankees thought the
Confederates were burning the city to keep them from getting it, and the
Confederates thought it the work of the mob.