The Fall of Richmond

April 3, 1865 – The prized Confederate capital fell to Federal forces after nearly four years of warfare in Virginia.

After receiving General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee’s message on the 2nd warning of the impending fall of Petersburg and Richmond, President Jefferson Davis promptly left St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and summoned his cabinet into an emergency session. Davis informed his cabinet that Lee’s line had been broken and Richmond must be evacuated.[1]

Each cabinet member was to bring his department’s records to the Richmond & Danville Railroad depot where they would leave that evening. The Confederate government would move to Danville, some 140 miles southwest of Richmond. Thus Davis planned to not only evade Federal capture but keep the government functioning as well.[2]

Meanwhile, pandemonium raged through Richmond as the news quickly spread. The news shocked many residents because the Richmond press had been discouraged from printing reports of Federal success. People wept as they either hurried to leave or resolved to stay. Humanity jammed all roads and railroad stations. As Richmond’s troops evacuated, the inevitable looting began. The Local Defense Board fell apart as marauders plundered shops, stores, and homes, and inmates escaped from the state prison.[3]

Richmond in ruins | Image Credit: familysearch.org

Richmond in ruins | Image Credit: familysearch.org

The special train for Davis and his government arrived at 8 p.m. Davis cleared out the White House and forced his way through the mob to get to the station (his wife and children had already left town). By 11 p.m., Davis and most top Confederate officials had boarded the train, with each department assigned its own car. The Treasury car held Confederate assets of $500,000 in gold and silver.[4]

During the night, Confederates burned warehouses to keep them from falling into Federal hands. These fires quickly spread out of control, burning most tobacco barns, flour mills, and public buildings, as well as the Richmond Examiner and Inquirer. Around 2 a.m., the fires reached the national arsenal holding gunpowder and nearly a million artillery shells. This set off massive explosions that rocked the city for hours. By dawn on the 3rd, Richmond lay in ruins.[5]

Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo met approaching Federal cavalry outside the city around 7 a.m. Intending to surrender the city, Mayo urged the Federals to stop the fires. An hour later, Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr. of Massachusetts raised a U.S. flag over the former Confederate State House. Federal Major General Godfrey Weitzel received Richmond’s surrender at City Hall. Weitzel wired Washington: “We entered Richmond at 8 o’clock this morning.”[6]

Ecstatic blacks welcomed the troops, which belonged to Weitzel’s XXV Corps and included nearly all the black troops serving in the Armies of the Potomac and the James. Meanwhile, fires still raged and looters still rampaged. Federals forced the remaining residents to help extinguish the flames and restore order.[7]

At Petersburg, U.S. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant received a message: “Weitzel entered Richmond this morning at half past eight.” Grant quickly planned to pursue Lee’s army. He also wired Major General William T. Sherman, whose Federal army was in North Carolina, that if Lee escaped from Grant, “you will have to take care of him with the force you have for a while.” But if Grant caught Lee, “there will be no special use in you going any farther into the interior. This army has now won a most decisive victory and followed the enemy. This is all it ever wanted to make it as good an army as ever fought a battle.”[8]

News of Richmond’s fall reached Washington near noon. Northern newspapers hurried to issue special editions, and massive celebrations took place throughout the North. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a 300-gun salute to commemorate the capture of Petersburg and another 500 guns for Richmond. After four years of terrible warfare, the prized Confederate capital had finally fallen.[9]

—–

[1] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 219-21; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 663-64

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18578-18598; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 368-69

[3] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18578-18598; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 715-16; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 490-92

[4] Angle, A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years, p. 219-21; Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18597-18637; Ward, Burns, Burns, The Civil War, p. 368-69

[5] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18636-18646; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 716-17; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64; Ward, Burns, Burns, The Civil War, p. 368-69

[6] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18666-18676; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 138; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 665-66

[7] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 576; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 108-10, 164-71

[8] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18775-18795

[9] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-55; Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18883-18903; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 716-17

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2 thoughts on “The Fall of Richmond

  1. […] Confederate capital of Richmond fell to Federal forces after four years of brutal warfare in […]

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