While Union forces corner Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s capital goes up in flames
The arsenal blew up early on the morning of Monday, April 3.
The explosion shattered windows across town, lofted ordnance into the sky and knocked down tombstones in the Shockoe Hill Cemetery.
Much of the city already was on fire, the blaze spread by flames from burning tobacco warehouses. Mobs were looting. The inmates had gotten out of the prison. And a man was seen torching a pile of worthless money in the street.
It was the spring of 1865 and, after almost four years of civil war, the Confederacy was dying.
The government had fled by train the previous night with what remained of its gold and silver, headed southwest for Danville. Desperate people had packed onto the departing rail cars. But many were turned away.
One was Robert Lumpkin, the city’s notorious slave broker. He had failed to get passage for himself and 50 shackled men, women and children.
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” a reporter for the London Times wrote, quoting Shakespeare.
Richmond diarist Judith Brockenbrough McGuire wrote that day: “Oh, who shall tell the horror of the past night!”
About 100 miles to the southwest, the starving remnants of the main Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee were being run down by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac.
The Confederates would stagger on for six more days before capitulating in the carpeted parlor of a home in the village of Appomattox Court House.
But here in Richmond, the real death agony of the Confederacy played out in apocalyptic scenes of fire and bedlam.
The city was overcrowded and had experienced food shortages and hardships. But it had always trusted in Lee to protect it. Now, with Lee in flight, Richmond was left to the depredations of the Yankees.
“This town is the Rebellion,” a New York newspaper reporter wrote.
The capital of the Confederacy since 1861 and the target of Union armies that had smashed themselves against its defenses in a dozen battles, the city was falling at last.
The cry, “On to Richmond!” had been raised in the North before the first major battle of the war, at Manassas, Va., in July 1861.
That battle had been a disaster for the Union, and it would be followed by many others as Yankee armies assailed the Rebel capital from the north, east and south.
Now, at least 600,000 deaths later, Grant had driven Lee out of his lines, and Richmond was being evacuated.
“It is all that we have . . . striven for,” the New York reporter George Alfred Townsend wrote. “Its history is the epitome of the whole contest . . . to us, shivering our thunderbolts against it for . . . four years.”
Watching from afar, Frederick Chesson of the Union’s 29th Connecticut Regiment recalled: “We began to realize as we had not till then . . . that this was one of the great days of the Lord.
“Right out there in the open in sight of the flaming city we went wild with excitement,” Chesson wrote, according to historian Ernest B. Furgurson’s study of Richmond during the war. “We yelled, we cheered, we sang, we prayed, we wept, we hugged each other and threw up our hats.”
The fire, started by Confederates to wreck anything of use to the enemy, raged all night and into the morning.
It destroyed Richmond’s banks, two hotels, three newspapers (the Enquirer, the Dispatch and the Examiner), a flour mill, a paper mill, railroad depots, bridges over the James River and the Confederate Post Office.
“The entire business part of the city on fire,” eyewitness John Leyburn wrote a year later, a “sea of flame.”
A cannon sits at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park; the battle was Robert E. Lee’s last before he surrendered. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Lee’s lines break
The previous day, Sunday, April 2, 1865, had brought beautiful spring weather, witnesses remembered.
“The temperature wooed people abroad,” Stephen R. Mallory, the Confederacy’s secretary of the navy, recalled later. “A pleasant air swept the foliage and flowers of the Capitol grounds. . . . The old city had never, during the war, worn an aspect more serene and quiet.”
But 25 miles to the south, at the besieged city of Petersburg, Va., Lee’s army had been stretched and finally broken by Grant’s forces.
That morning, Lee sent a telegram to the Confederate War Department: “I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here till night. I am not certain I can do that. . . . I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”
Many people, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, were in church when the telegram arrived at 10:40 a.m. An official walked down the aisle of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, tapped Davis on the shoulder and handed him a copy.
Davis rose and left, ashen-faced, some thought.
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Remnants of defeat
On a drizzly day earlier this month, the brown waters of the James River roared over the rocks at the fall line here.
Out in the river stood the abandoned bridge piers of the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, over which Jefferson Davis entered the city in May 1861 to make it the capital of the Confederacy.
Downstream were the remains of the Richmond & Danville Railroad bridge he used to flee in 1865.
Just upstream was Hollywood Cemetery, where Davis, many other Confederates and generations of the city’s residents are buried.
Elsewhere, elegant St. Paul’s Church still stands on Grace Street. The Museum of the Confederacy has meticulously cared for the Confederate White House, where Davis and his family lived.
And 10 years ago, the remains of Lumpkin’s slave compound were found, after being buried under an iron foundry, a freight depot and then a parking lot for over a century.
Now a city of commerce, medicine and education, with a population that is half African American, Richmond is still the conquered capital of the Confederacy.
Its fall is the most dramatic event in the city’s history, said Nelson Lankford, author of “Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital.”
“In three days, you’ve got the Confederate government fleeing, the Southern army retreats, the city burns, slavery ends, and Abraham Lincoln himself walks through the smoking ruins,” he said. “It doesn’t get any more dramatic than that.”
A shell of a fearsome force
Outside Petersburg that Sunday in 1865, after months of trench warfare and a crucial victory at the Battle of Five Forks the day before, Grant had launched an all-out assault, breaking Lee’s lines in several places.
Subordinates urged him to press the attack on the town itself. But he guessed that Lee would pull out and head west. He wanted to save his men for the pursuit, an aide, Horace Porter, wrote later.
Plus, Grant wrote in his memoirs, “I had not the heart to turn the artillery upon such a mass of defeated and fleeing men, and I hoped to capture them soon.”
Grant had guessed right. That night, Lee withdrew and the chase was on.
It would continue for a week, the two forces racing side by side and clashing at Namozine Church on April 3, Sayler’s Creek on April 6, Cumberland Church on April 7, and Appomattox Court House on April 9.
There, Grant caught up and blocked Lee’s escape route.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had dwindled to a hungry mob of about 25,000 men, a shell of the fearsome 60,000-man host that had beaten and tormented a parade of Union generals.
Gone were its great commanders, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, killed in 1863, J.E.B. Stuart, killed in 1864, and Ambrose Powell Hill, who had just been killed on April 2.
The army’s ranks had been thinned by death, disease and desertion. Its legendary Texas Brigade was down to 130 men.
Grant knew all this and had made an overture to Lee on April 7. “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance,” he wrote. He urged Lee to surrender to avoid “further effusion of blood.”
Lee showed Grant’s dispatch to his veteran subordinate, Gen. James Longstreet.
“Not yet,” Longstreet said.
The remnants of Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works. During the Civil War, the mill was the primary producer of Confederate artillery and made armor plate for the ironclad CSS Virginia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
‘Richmond at last!’
In Richmond, on Monday, April 3, Rebel soldiers and officials were gone, but the fire raged on.
“A dense pall of smoke hovered over the entire city, and through it shone huge eddies of flames . . . carrying great blazing planks and rafters whirling over the shriveling buildings,” eyewitness T. C. DeLeon wrote many years later.
“By noon, one vast, livid flame roared and screamed before the wind, from Tenth street to Rockett’s,” he remembered. Ammunition from the arsenal continued to explode, tossing shells into the air.
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“Richmond burning,” resident Mary Fontaine wrote, and nobody to douse the flames.
Then the Yankees arrived.
At first, just one “rose over the hill, standing transfixed with astonishment at what he saw,” hospital nurse Phoebe Yates Pember wrote, according to historian Burke Davis’s account. “Another and another sprang up as if out of the earth.”
“Some advanced infantry followed,” she wrote. “Company after company, regiment after regiment, they poured into the doomed city, an endless stream.”
Few whites were on the streets, but Richmond’s black citizens poured outside.
“The slaves seemed to think that the day of jubilee had fully come,” wrote H.S. DeForest, chaplain of the Union’s 11th Connecticut Regiment. “How they danced, shouted . . . shook our hands . . . and thanked God, too, for our coming. . . . It is a day never to be forgotten by us, till days shall be no more.”
And some of the Yankee liberators were black — members of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments.
For decades before the Civil War, Richmond had been a major hub for the nation’s slave trade. By 1850, slaves constituted the city’s biggest interstate export, according to a report done for Richmond’s City Council in 2010.
Robert Lumpkin, who had tried to leave town with his slaves, had operated an extensive and lucrative slave depot, called “the devil’s half acre,” in the city’s Shockoe Bottom district for almost 20 years.
He had holding pens, a whipping room, and lodging and a tavern for owners.
On “evacuation Sunday,” clinging to the doomed institution, he had failed to get away, according to Lankford’s book, and took his slaves back to his jail for their last night in bondage.
And now, to the dismay of Richmond’s white citizens, here came black Union soldiers in triumph.
“I looked down the street and to my horror beheld a Negro cavalryman yelling, ‘Richmond at last!” recalled Fannie Walker, a government clerk.
Another African American outfit entering town was the 28th USCT. Its chaplain was the Rev. Garland H. White, who had been born a slave in Richmond but had escaped to the North.
“It appeared to me [that] all colored people in the world had collected,” he recalled of his joyous greeting.
Some of his men brought him an old woman, who questioned him about his background, and then said: “This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”
Not far away, at the capitol building, Union soldiers hauled down the Confederate flag and raised the Stars and Stripes.
“We covered our faces and cried aloud,” remembered resident Nellie Grey. “All through the house was the sound of sobbing. It was as the house of mourning, the house of death.”
“Was it to this end we had fought and starved . . . that the wives and children of many a dear gallant friend were husbandless and fatherless? To this end that our homes were in ruins, our state devastated?”
‘It is our duty to live’
On the road to Appomattox, an exhausted and begrimed Grant was suffering from what sounded like a migraine headache. He and his staff stopped in a local dwelling for the night on April 8. It was called Clifton House, and it was deserted except for a few black servants.
Grant sought relief by “bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck,” he recounted in his memoirs.
He took off his coat and boots and lay down on a sitting room sofa to try to sleep.
He and Lee had been exchanging notes, with Grant urging surrender and Lee hesitating.
Another note from Lee arrived at midnight. A member of Grant’s staff softly pushed open his door. “Come in, I am awake,” the general said. His headache was no better. Lee’s note was evasive. He wasn’t ready to surrender but was willing to meet Grant.
The Union general shook his head. “Looks as if Lee still means to fight,” he said. “I will reply in the morning.” He went back to the sofa.
About 4 a.m. on April 9, his aide, Horace Porter, rose to check on him, and fount Grant pacing the yard in pain, holding both hands to his head. The staff suggested some coffee, and Grant improved slightly.
He composed a reply to Lee, saying a meeting without surrender was pointless, but he was still willing to meet if Lee would give up.
On the Confederate side, Lee realized he had reached the end. He had no food and no reinforcements. He thought about just riding out in the open along the front lines and “all will be over.”
“But it is our duty to live,” he said. He must go see Grant. He sent a note saying he was willing to discuss the surrender. And it was arranged that the two would meet in a private home at Appomattox Court House.
A distraught Lee put on his best uniform and sword for the meeting.
Grant told an aide that his headache had gone away.
The grave of the sole Union soldier buried in the Confederate Cemetery at Appomattox National Historical Park lies next to a Confederate grave. The Union soldier was found buried in an unmarked grave some years after the war. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
‘You are free’
Back in smoldering Richmond, Union soldiers had helped put out the fires and restore order.
And five days earlier, on April 4, the city had witnessed one of the most striking scenes of the war.
A haggard President Abraham Lincoln, who had been following events from nearby City Point on the James River, stepped off a Navy barge with his son, Tad, to see the devastated city. It was Tad’s 12th birthday.
Word spread quickly among Richmond’s African Americans, many of them newly freed slaves, and Lincoln was mobbed. “Glory hallelujah!” people cried. “I know that I am free, for I have seen father Abraham!”
Lincoln walked the streets, taking off his coat in the warm weather and the press of the crowd. He took off his stovepipe hat when a man said a prayer for him.
When another man knelt, Lincoln said to him, “Don’t kneel to me. . . . Kneel to God only and thank him for your liberty,” according to historian Burke Davis’s account.
“My poor friends,” the president told the crowd. “You are free — free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it. It will come to you no more.”
On April 9, Lincoln arrived by boat back in Washington. He learned of Lee’s surrender that night. The city heard about it the next day.
“Guns are firing, bells ringing, flags flying, men laughing, children cheering,” wrote Gideon Welles, the Union secretary of the Navy. “All, all jubilant.”
Six days later, a shabby group of horsemen riding in the rain crossed a pontoon bridge over the James River into Richmond. The entourage was headed by Lee, who was going to his temporary home on Franklin Street. (His estate in Arlington had been seized by the Union Army.)
He and his horse were splattered with mud, an observer remembered, “his garments were worn in service and stained with travel.”
“Even in the fleeting moment of passing by my gate, I was awed by his incomparable dignity,” the observer, a minister named William E. Hatcher, wrote, according to Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of Lee. “His majestic composure, his rectitude and his sorrow, were so . . . beautiful and impressive to my eyes that I fell into violent weeping.”
Crowds gathered to cheer Lee and touch him. He lifted his hat in return. Here, amid the ashes of the Confederacy, was a hero for a defeated people and its lost cause — a cause that continues to resonate, and divide the country, a century and a half later.
Art by Wayne Brezinka