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This panorama of Richmond in ruins was taken by Alexander Gardner from the turret of Pratt's Castle on Gamble's Hill.
Esteemed historian and outgoing University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers understands the tremendous challenges of relating the story about the final days of the Civil War in Richmond. There is no one story, but an inextricably bound collection. And during the first few days of April 1865, thick strands came unraveled while others knotted together.
The Richmond National Battlefield Parks, in concert with UR’s “The Future of Richmond’s Past” program (and other partners) commemorates both the war’s end and the unfinished business of what came afterward.
For Ayers, one of the most powerful ways these intertwining stories are told is on the “Three Days In April” overlook that goes halfway to Brown’s Island.
Quotes from soldiers and civilians are embedded on the treads and along its sides, and the roar of the river can imitate the sound of flames.
“We’re trying to tell three major stories at once,” he says. “The evacuation of the Confederate government, which hastens the end of the Confederacy, the ending of slavery here and the arrival of the U.S. Army. World history turned around Richmond that day, thus it seems only fitting that we acknowledge this by telling about these events from many viewpoints. If we as a city and region don’t do it, then, somebody else will.”
Check out the National Park Service’s comprehensive list of Sesquicentennial events in April.
Out of a Crater
The fall of Richmond, however, was made a matter of time when the more than eight-month siege of Petersburg came to a sudden and gruesome end.
The Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier is presenting a full agenda of tours, talks and experiences from April 1 to 5.
It’s the kind of umbrella assortment you might put “palooza” on the end of, except for its seriousness. At Pamplin on April 2 and 4 and as part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, there are coordinated observations and activities pertaining to these crucial hours that sped the war to its end.
The Civil War Trust here gives you an overview of what to see and where to go.
The best way to understand these massive occurrences is through the way they affected individuals.
The great Evacuation Fire began near daybreak on April 3, 1865, but for the commemoration 150 years later, visual projections will be made along downtown walls, accompanied by sounds of the fire and costumed interpreters giving their perspective, from the civilian woman stranded in Richmond, to Confederate and black and white soldiers, to a physician treating the injured of this last battle.
“The story they’ll be telling will vary according to the day,” says Elizabeth Stern, director of interpretation for Richmond National Battlefield Park. These programs begin with a block of living history presentations under the title of “A Scene of Indescribable Confusion,” though for the visitor, there’ll be a bit less pandemonium due to tours led by a battlefield park guide who’ll take groups on timed walks throughout the Burnt District. These begin at 11 a.m. on April 2.
After dark, at a parking garage behind the Martin Agency in Shockoe that would’ve been an ignited warehouse, and along Bank Street by the Capitol, large projections of what that part of town would’ve looked like before, during and after the fire. Alyssa Murray and Allison Andrews have been involved with this sort of public image/lighting presentation since Urban Lightworks started brightening the arts scene in the early 2000s and provided a blueprint of possibilities for the 1708 Gallery’s annual InLight event.
Tours and living history will continue through April 4.
Richmond on Fire
To gain perspective on the fall of Richmond and its implications, on April 2 at 11:30 a.m. you can go to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to hear someone who wrote a book on the subject. Nelson Lankford, author of the history Richmond Burning, speaks about these tumultuous several days.
The editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography begins his talk at the exact time and in the same place as when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was handed the message from Gen. Robert E. Lee that the Army of Northern Virginia could no longer hold the Petersburg defenses and that Richmond should be evacuated.
Follow the Action
On April 3, from 6 to 9 a.m. and 9 to 11 a.m., a tour titled “A Sight That None Will Forget,” runs at Fort Harrison National Battlefield Park and tracks the Union army's advance to Richmond. Registration is $20, and seating is limited. Reservations: (804) 771-2035.
Also on this day two events are happening simultaneously within a few feet of each other: At 12 p.m., “USCT Legacy of National Redemption and Democracy," at the National Park Service Visitor Center at Historic Tredegar, 470 Tredegar St., Asa Gordon, Secretary General of the Sons and Daughters of United States Colored Troops, speaks on the impact of putting African Americans in uniform and their legacy within the context of the civil rights struggle. Then up the hill, there's a presentation by the American Civil War Museum / White House of the Confederacy, 1201 E Clay St.: G. William Quatman, who has written the first major biography of the 29-year-old commander of the Army of the James who took Richmond, will talk about his book, A Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel.
Ironing Out History
Grant didn’t take Richmond.
This is likely not the only assumption that’ll challenge people during these days of remembrance.
For sheer “ooh, ahh” mind-blowing-ness, you might gather in Capitol Square at 1 p.m. for a walking tour that includes presentation of then-and-now images of sites in around the Capitol. It’s the closest you can get to time travel.
President Abraham Lincoln strode through Richmond’s smoldering streets with the surrender at Appomattox still five days away. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. (Some parts of the South didn’t relent until June.)
The 13th Amendment vote was depicted in the film Lincoln — but while director Steven Spielberg accurately showed him in Petersburg, he skipped the incredible drama of the president’s pilgrimage to Richmond.
The amendment ending slavery was not ratified until Dec. 6, 1865, but for Richmond’s enslaved, the evacuation and fire signified the ostensible end to their servitude.
From 4 to 11 p.m. on both sides of the 1500 block of East Broad Street, in and around the site
of Lumpkin’s Jail and the Cemetery for Negroes, the importance of this day in the history and lives of African-Americans will receive interpretation through dance, ritual, music and a documentary film.
From 6:15 to 7:15 p.m., “Undertones” a music performance by composer Ashby Anderson uses idioms of jazz, African chants and rhythms to express the suffering that took place on this land, the struggles that came after and the hope in the lives of those who survived, and those who triumph against odds today. This will be followed by “Anointing the Veil: An Elevation Ceremony to Release from Bondage the Memory of Enslaved African Ancestors.”
“Anointing” includes a candlelight processional and a calling of names from the Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” database of slaves.
At 9:45 p.m., there will be a showing of Bound: Africans vs. African Americans by Kenyan director Peres Owino, in part co-produced by actor Isaiah Washington, that traces the difficult topic of enslavement and colonialism and the connections between Africans and African Americans. Ebony magazine called Bound “a straight shot to the cerebral cortex challenge of our approach to race, gender and relations.”
A talk-back follows.
There are museum exhibitions concurrent to these events, but if you have not gone to see the Library of Virginia’s "To Be Sold,” this is the weekend to do so.
The library also has a limited-run exhibition from April 1 to 18, “Spoils of War,” that shows rare artifacts of materials taken from Richmond in those chaotic days that eventually made their way back here, including Virginia’s “Ordinance of Secession.”
This is the End
On April 4 in Capitol Square from 11:30 a.m to 5 p.m. is an entire day of events for the whole family and a robust roster of speakers throughout the proceedings. This program includes a “Pop-Up Museum” coordinated by the Virginia Historical Society that asks nine questions pertaining to those days in April 1865.
So much of this series of events is about what we think we know and how we think about what we think we know — in terms of the Civil War’s end in Richmond.
At 2 p.m., Ed Ayers and the “American History Guys,” who produce the history-examining podcast BackStory, will conduct a live version of their show.
“We’ll be reflecting on what we have seen in the past three days, and I’m interested in what we’ll make of it,” Ayers says, “because I’m not exactly sure. We generally, in the world, see this as the end of slavery, but then what follows is 150 years of injustice and poverty. So, the events that occur here in Richmond in April 1865 aren’t as clear cut in their outcome.”
One can imagine that we’ll be talking about this whole thing for a long time to come.