April 3, 1865 – Federal troops entered the Confederate capital, having captured Richmond after four long, hard years of brutal warfare.
On the morning of the 3rd, Richmond was still engulfed in the flames that had been sparked the night before. The fires that burned through the city proved more destructive than those that ruined Atlanta or Columbia. According to Sallie A. Brock:
“As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. To speed destruction, some malicious and foolish individuals had cut the hose in the city. The fire was progressing with fearful rapidity. The roaring, the hissing, and the crackling of the flames were heard above the shouting and confusion of the immense crowd of plunderers who were moving amid the dense smoke like demons, pushing, rioting and swaying with their burdens to make a passage to the open air…”
Near dawn, the last Confederate troops left Richmond via the Mayo Bridge. After the last man crossed, the bridge was destroyed.
Federal forces in the trench lines east of Richmond cautiously advanced and found the Confederate works, including vital Fort Gilmer, abandoned. Major General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding XXV Corps of the Army of the James, sent in a cavalry detachment under Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr. of Massachusetts. A Richmond resident wrote, “A single blue jacket rose over the hill,” and then others, “as if rising out of the earth.”
Joseph Mayo, the 80-year-old Richmond mayor, rode out in a carriage to meet the Federal troopers around 7 a.m. Mayo handed them a message bearing the seal of the city:
“To the General Commanding the United States Army in front of Richmond… I respectfully request that you will take possession of (Richmond) with an organizing force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property. Respectfully, Joseph Mayo, Mayor.”
An hour later, Stevens raised a U.S. flag over the former Confederate State House. Weitzel soon arrived and received Richmond’s formal surrender at City Hall. He wired Washington: “We entered Richmond at 8 o’clock this morning.” A female resident later recalled:
“Exactly at eight o’clock the Confederate flag that fluttered above the Capitol came down and the Stars and Stripes were run up. We knew what that meant! The song ‘On to Richmond!’ was ended–Richmond was in the hands of the Federals. We covered our faces and cried aloud. All through the house was the sound of sobbing. It was as the house of mourning, the house of death… The saddest moment of my life was when I saw that Southern Cross dragged down and the Stars and Stripes run up above the Capitol. I am glad the Stars and Stripes are waving there now. But I am true to my old flag too, and as I tell this my heart turns sick with the supreme anguish of the moment when I saw it torn down from the height where valor had kept it waving for so long and at such cost.”
A woman watched the U.S. flag go up the pole and later wrote, “My heart sickens with indignation to think that we ever should have loved that flag.” As Federal bands played “Yankee Doodle” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” residents hid in their homes and a woman wrote, “We tried to comfort ourselves by saying in low tones… that the capital was only moved temporarily… that General Lee would make a stand and repulse the daring enemy, and that we would win the battle and the day. Alas, alas, for our hopes.”
The Federals were followed by northern newspaper correspondents. One from the New York Times wrote, “Richmond is indeed most beautiful–in spite of the hideous ruins… left behind. It is a magnificent capital, both old world and new… built like a miniature Rome, upon a number of little hills.” The New York World reporter wrote:
“There is a stillness, in the midst of which Richmond, with her ruins, her spectral roofs… and her unchanging spires, rests beneath a ghastly, fitful glare… We are under the shadows of ruins. From the pavements where we walk… stretches a vista of devastation… The wreck, the loneliness, seem interminable… There is no sound of life, but the stillness of the catacombs, only as our footsteps fall dull on the deserted sidewalk, and a funeral troop of echoes bump… against the dead walls and closed shutters to reply, and this is Richmond. Says a melancholy voice: ‘And this is Richmond.’”
The incoming Federal force included nearly all the black troops serving in the Armies of the Potomac and the James. Ecstatic black residents cheered their arrival, while most whites stayed indoors. Resident Mary Fontaine wrote:
“Then the Infantry came playing ‘The Girl I left behind me,’ that dear old air that we heard our brave men so often play; then the negro troops playing ‘Dixie,’ and they certainly were the blackest creatures I ever saw. I am almost inclined to the belief that they were a direct importation from Africa. Then our Richmond servants were completely crazed, they danced and shouted, men hugged each other, and women kissed, and such a scene of confusion you have never seen. Imagine the streets crowded with these wild people, and troops by the thousands, some loaded with plunder from the burning stores, whole rolls of cloth, bags of corn, etc., chairs, one old woman was rolling a great sofa; dozens of bands trying to drown each other it seemed; gorgeously dressed officers galloping furiously about, men shouting and swearing as I never heard men do before; the fire creeping steadily nearer to us, until houses next to us caught and we prepared to leave; and above all, inconceivably terrible, the 800,000 shells exploding at the laboratory. I say imagine, but you cannot; no one who was not here will ever fully appreciate the horrors of that day.”
The Federals were quickly put to work forcing the remaining residents to help extinguish the fires and restore order to the decimated city. Weitzel later wrote:
“When we entered Richmond we found ourselves in a perfect pandemonium. Fires and explosions in all directions, whites and blacks either drunk or in the highest state of excitement, running to and fro on the streets, apparently engaged in pillage, or in saving some of their scanty effects from the fire. It was a yelling, howling mob… When the mob saw my staff and myself, they rushed around us, hugged and kissed our legs and horses, shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ and ‘Glory!’”
Chester Morris, the first black correspondent for a major U.S. newspaper (the Philadelphia Press), sat at a desk in the Confederate Capitol and wrote out his account of the scene: “Richmond has never before presented such a spectacle of jubilee. What a wonderful change has come over the spirit of Southern dreams.” But some Richmonders remained defiant, as reflected in one of the last editorials in the Richmond Whig: “It is ultimately impossible for the people of the South to embrace the Yankees. Even to recognize them as fellow creatures. An acre of blood separates (us)…”
News of Richmond’s fall reached Washington near noon. Northern newspapers hurried to print special editions, government officials poured out of their offices, and massive celebrations spread 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.
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