Richmond in the aftermath: Alexander Gardner captured this April 1865 view from the turret of Pratt’s Castle on Gamble’s Hill. The State Capitol is visible in the top left of the panorama.
Three Days in April
It was 150 years ago that Richmond burned to the ground and became the capital city of a vanquished cause. But from the ashes arose the promise of opportunity for former slaves.
We are just two long lifetimes separated from the momentous three days of April 1865.
Historian Nelson Lankford, author of Richmond Burning, says these few days endure in Richmond’s memory because they “certainly overshadowed everything that had come before in the city and have influenced everything that has followed.” For a week between the fire and news of the surrender at Appomattox, neither defeated Confederate Richmonders nor their Federal occupiers knew the outcome of the war. “The armies of Grant and Lee had faded away to the southwest: Appomattox was still just a name on a map,” Lankford says.
Richmond’s fate was sealed more than 20 miles to its south. Defeat at Five Forks on April 1 left Confederate forces incapable of holding Petersburg and keeping open that vital rail connection.
Illustration by Shawn Yu
Sunday, April 2, 1865
A mixture of glorious light through the stained-glass windows illuminated a reverie of death in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Church on East Grace Street. In Richmond Burning, Lankford observes that the congregation at this point was mostly female, and many attendees wore black dresses of mourning. In the front pews, convalescent soldiers, President Jefferson Davis and other ranking officials prepared to celebrate the Eucharist. Davis, in his late 50s, had aged in his capacity and gone gray. Wracked by neuralgia and almost blind in one eye, he nonetheless sat tall in the pew. The record doesn’t agree on what message the rector, Charles Minnigerode, delivered that Sunday.
During the proceedings, a harried War Department messenger entered the sanctuary to hand the sexton a message that he then, with some importance in his step, took down the aisle to Davis. Interruptions to the service weren’t unusual, but this was an urgent communiqué from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee:
“I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight. I will advise you later, according to the circumstances.”
Davis rose and walked out. He said nothing nor gave any indication of the message’s contents. The service continued. As Clifford Dowdey writes in Experiment in Rebellion, the news didn’t surprise the Confederate president. “As the death of a loved one long ill still comes with a shock,” the message came “sooner than expected.” Davis soon wired Lee that this request for the government to move that night would result in the loss of many valuables. The general ripped the note into pieces, saying, “I am sure that I gave him sufficient notice.”
The government offered no announcement of evacuation to the population. Word spread from person to person, and reaction ranged from incredulity to outright panic. It led to the overburdening of rail cars and boats jamming the James River and Kanawha Canal, scudding along the bottom due to their load of passengers and belongings.
Into the maelstrom of fear and departure rode a field ambulance bearing the corpse of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. Accompanying the body were his widow, Dolly, and their children. The Hills sought a coffin to bury the general at Hollywood Cemetery. A cape covered Hill’s upper body but his left hand was visible, the fingers ripped by the bullet that killed him. For Dolly, riding in the jostling wagon, the image that stayed in her mind was how her husband’s wedding band flickered when struck by light. The moribund wagon couldn’t cross the bridge against the outflow of evacuees. After midnight, leaving Dolly and the children to wait, two Hill nephews entered the chaos in search. They found a too-small coffin at the abandoned Belvin’s furniture store and returned across the Mayo Bridge to pick up the family. Hill received temporary internment on family grounds in Chesterfield County. The Hollywood burial wasn’t accomplished until 1867, followed by yet another reburial at Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road, under his statue, in 1891.
War Department clerk and diarist John Beauchamp Jones noted of that evening, “The negroes stand about mostly silent, as if wondering what will be their fate. They make no demonstrations of joy.” Jones, like many Richmonders, believed the slaves and freedmen would rejoice. But now, perhaps more than at any other time during the conflict, the city’s blacks, enslaved or free, knew that celebration still waited.
Slave dealer Robert Lumpkin couldn’t transport his final coffle of slaves out of the city due to the trains tied up with government and civilian evacuees. He marched the shackled men and women back to his holding center in Shockoe Bottom to spend the night.
Nine months of trench warfare around Petersburg ends. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army bursts through Confederate lines. A bullet through his heart instantly kills Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill as he hurriedly reconnoiters the front.
Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters at the Turnbull House comes under Union attack. Lee sends several telegrams urging Richmond’s evacuation before taking command of an artillery battery. The general and his staff gallop off under heavy fire just as the house evaporates in flame. “This is bad business,” Lee remarks to an aide.
Notice of the Confederate government’s evacuation of the city spreads not from general announcement, but by word-of-mouth. Henri Garidel, a Louisiana Creole a long way from his family in New Orleans and working unhappily in a Richmond office, notes in his diary, “I think that things are about to explode.”
Richmond City Council convenes at the domed City Hall (which resembles Monumental Church, also designed by Robert Mills). Mayor Joseph Mayo, “excited, incoherent, chewing tobacco defiantly,” presides over decisions to destroy the liquor supply, make surrender arrangements and meet again at 9 a.m. on Monday.
Illustration by Shawn Yu
Monday, April 3, 1865
Elizabeth Van Lew observed the destruction as though from a box seat at a spectacular production from the rear veranda of her great columned Church Hill mansion. During the past four years, the Virginian believed it her duty to support the Union, and she maintained an espionage and slave escape network from her house.
On Sunday, as fires set by the Confederates consumed the city, she had opened her home to Union captives who’d slipped out of Libby Prison during the confusion. The fires, she’d say, “filled the sky with clouds of smoke as incense from the land of deliverance. What a moment! Avenging wrath appeased in flames!” Below, swift Union forces converged on Capitol Square. “When a troop of soldiers arrived on Church Hill to protect Van Lew from vengeful Confederates,” Lankford writes in Richmond Burning, “they discovered a large Union flag wavering over the mansion.”
Meanwhile, Richmond’s mayor, the stout 69-year-old Joseph Mayo, and a committee of citizens rode east in a carriage to intercept the Union vanguard in order to surrender the city and ask for aid. South Carolina cavalry rushed past them toward the bridge that had been maintained for decades by Mayo’s family and soon would be blown up. With nothing to write on, a ripped piece of wallpaper was inscribed with the mayor’s acceptance of Union entry and a plea for assistance in maintaining order. A reenactment of the official surrender occurred later in the day on the steps of City Hall.
Mayo Bridge, the last standing, was rigged with tar-filled barrels. The last of the rear guard dashed south across the bridge and its commander, South Carolinian Martin Gary shouted, “All over. Goodbye. Blow her to hell.”
Marylander Capt. Clement Sulivane directed the bridge’s ignition. Flames roared down its span. All the city’s bridges now burned like fiery passages to the infernal.
Mary Fontaine, a resident, recalled the thunderous hooves of Union cavalry. “Then the infantry came playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’... then the Negro troops playing ‘Dixie’... 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.”
Union Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, commander of the Army of the James, moved into the former Confederate White House and set up military headquarters in the Senate chamber of the Capitol. He managed a quick telegram to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. “We took possession of Richmond at 8:15 a.m. I captured many guns [and other items]. The rebels evidently left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. I am using every effort to put out the fire. A great many people are here and the whole is a mob. We were received everywhere with enthusiastic expressions of joy.” The telegram was sent everywhere.
Union officers raised U.S. flags over the Capitol.
At Chimborazo Hospital, soldiers of both sides now received attention, but in an oversight, no Union sentinels arrived. Veteran Confederate matron Phoebe Yates Pember stayed at her post tending to the injured and sick. Late in the night, a gang of men smashed into Chimborazo’s pantry. Pember interrupted their attempt to scavenge the medicinal whiskey. She was manhandled and called “a name that a decent woman seldom hears and even a wicked one resents.” But Pember carried a pistol that she pulled out cocked. She declared, “If one bullet is lost, there are five more ready and the room is too small for even a woman to miss six times.” This settled the matter.
Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes grudgingly accepts orders from Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory to destroy rebel ships. Semmes’ flagship, the ironclad Virginia II, explodes “with a shock of earthquake proportions,” historian Nelson Lankford describes.
Richmond’s commercial district burns. The conflagration begins as a controlled burn per the Confederate policy of leaving nothing of value for the enemy. The commander of the Richmond defenses, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, gives the torch command. Provost Marshal Isaac Carrington’s men must burn government tobacco barns and destroy the bridges. The gates of the slave pens in Shockoe Bottom are thrown open. Sunrise is veiled under clouds and smoke.
Near 6 A.M.
A rising southern wind pushes flames from the riverside tobacco warehouses. “Like a funeral pyre, the blaze rolled up from the waterfront, hissing and sparking and crackling,” Jay Winik writes in April 1865: The Month That Saved America. The air is rent by shattering glass and eventually the collapse of entire buildings.
Near 6 A.M
Lt. Col. Theophilus Gilliam Barham of the 24th Virginia Cavalry witnesses the riverfront ablaze, gutters on Cary Street running with whiskey and “women and children houseless and screaming, while bands of thieves of all ages, sexes and colors” plunder. Barham can’t take time for crowd control, but some soldiers grab looters and shoot them in the alleys of 14th Street or on the Mayo Bridge and throw the bodies into the river.
Illustration by Shawn Yu
Tuesday, April 4, 1865
Abraham Lincoln arrived in Richmond late that morning, despite the misgivings of his Cabinet and the delay of Adm. David Dixon Porter’s River Queen and Malvern steamships at Drewry’s Bluff because of sunken and burnt hulks littering the James River. The wrecks and mines that clotted the river scuttled Porter’s plan for a flag-flying flotilla of victory, he’d later say, for the best. Due to hazards and runnings aground, it all came down to a rowboat. When that vessel rounded the bend at Richmond, the pall and scent of smoke gave evidence of the previous night’s calamity.
The marines rowed the boat to Mayo Island near 14th Street, where clustered rocks prevented passage. Lincoln quipped to Porter that the Army might have to come to the Navy’s rescue. At that point, the rowers aimed for the closest bit of land they could get to.
Union Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, busy in his Senate chamber field headquarters, awaited cannonfire from the east to announce the sighting of Porter’s flotilla. Boston Herald reporter Charles Coffin acted as Lincoln’s informal guide, leading him from his landing place near the present day Bottoms Up Pizza at least past the First Market (now the 17th Street Farmers’ Market). Coffin was more familiar with Richmond than anyone in Lincoln’s party.
Holding his son Tad’s left hand, Lincoln strode directly into the middle of what until a few days earlier had been Richmond’s slave-trading hub. A mass of suddenly free people surrounded him.
Near the Exchange Hotel at 14th and Franklin streets, two Union generals, George F. Shepley and August V. Kautz, observed Lincoln amid a boisterous crowd. Lincoln, in an offhand way, asked one of the officers for directions to headquarters. They accompanied him to the former Confederate White House on Clay Street.
Lincoln entered the foyer dominated by two life-size, bronzed gas lamps representing Comedy and Tragedy. Housekeeper Mary O’Melia showed Lincoln into the library, off the entrance hall. Told that Davis received dignitaries there, he wearily sat, saying, “This must have been President Davis’ chair.”
The teetotaler president asked for a glass of water. He did not play tourist and ramble about the house.
Weitzel’s carriage soon clattered up, and the general offered effusive apologies for his delayed arrival.
After lunch, the president conferred with the highest-ranking civilian remaining in Richmond, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Confederate Secretary of War John A. Campbell. Campbell wanted to recall the Virginia Legislature, which had by then scattered. The judge thought he could persuade them to rescind Virginia’s secession.
Lincoln, careworn, and with the war not yet ended, gave half-tacit approval to Campbell’s plan and said they would talk more the next day.
Lincoln soon emerged to ready his son for a ride in Weitzel’s buggy, which proceeded through Capitol Square.
They next visited Libby Prison, a warehouse that had been used until the day before to hold Northern captives. Now it was a holding place for Southerners who’d not yet received parole.
At this point, Lincoln wept. He stated that Libby should be preserved as a monument.
Weitzel, exhibiting a lack of tact at this emotional moment, asked how to treat the defeated Confederates. The president replied, “If I were in your place, I’d let ’em up easy — let ’em up easy.”
The next day, April 5, aboard the Malvern, Lincoln again met with Judge Campbell and perhaps Brig. Gen. Joseph Reid Anderson, the Tredegar Ironworks supervisor, who’d saved the industrial plant from the fire.
When he returned to Washington on April 9, the president had been absent 17 days. On his arrival, he first heard news of Lee’s surrender. He also chose to accept advice from Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and radical Republicans to rescind the order to re-gather the Virginia lawmakers.
The president wrote to Weitzel on April 12, saying he recognized the legislature as “having power de facto” to cease fighting, but not as a legitimate governing body.
The next day, Stanton removed Weitzel from his command, considering him too young and inexperienced. As detailed in the recently published biography A Young General and the Fall of Richmond by G. William Quatman, the misunderstandings in Richmond plagued Weitzel the rest of his life.
Lincoln was assassinated a day later, on April 14.
Richmonders begin to wander around the waterfront amid the still hot, smoldering wreckage turned into an alien landscape. War Department clerk J.B. Jones notes, “The burnt district includes all the banks, money-changers, and principal speculators and extortioners. This seems like a decree from above!” Every bar, bank and newspaper office is destroyed.
Tredegar Ironworks is spared, due to the insistence of its director and Confederate Gen. Joseph Reid Anderson, who posted armed men along its perimeter.
Photographers including Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady are in Richmond to record the scenes of devastation in the effort to create souvenirs, but events move at such a fast clip that the image-makers remain in Richmond at the time of the Appomattox surrender.
Boston Herald newspaper reporter Charles Coffin stands watching the scene of laborers clearing wreckage away from a canal bridge near the present day site of Bottoms Up Pizza. Some motion by the river catches his eye: a tall dark figure made higher by a stovepipe hat and a group of soldiers. Coffin recognizes the figure – President Abraham Lincoln. He tells the workers that if they’d like to see their liberator, he’s approaching.
The sight of President Abraham Lincoln striding directly into what until a few days earlier had been the slave-trading hub of Confederate Richmond is dramatic enough, but the clamoring of newly freed slaves to see and touch him is remarkable. Lincoln seems to have stopped to sit and rest somewhere near the market, perhaps on a pile of rubble, and an older woman may have knelt and asked to pray with him. How much of this is true isn’t clear.
Richmond on Fire
Which painting best depicts the city’s fiery collapse?
The familiar Currier & Ives (top image) print of Richmond burning on April 2, 1865, while dramatic, isn’t accurate. In actuality, it was simply a pre-war lithograph of the city that had been altered with a decorous overlay of flames. As such, it’s trying to convey several simultaneous phases of time.
The watercolor painting by Belgian-French artist Alexandre-Thomas Francia (bottom image), while less compelling, is regarded as perhaps the most accurate depiction of the fire consuming Richmond. He worked from sketches by English-born Thomas William Kennard, the chief engineer of the Atlantic and Great Western Railway. As a marine naïf, Kennard sailed his steam yacht Octavia, flying the British flag, into Richmond on April 3, past British and U.S. warships whose officers rather resented his presumptuous tourist approach. Kennard, with members of his party, created a view of the evacuation fire that includes the pontoon bridge across the James River.