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The Fall of Richmond in the Civil War: The Inside Story

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

What was it like in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America, when it finally fell to the Union after four years of bloody civil war?

"The fall of Richmond, Va on the night of April 2d 1865"

"The fall of Richmond, Va on the night of April 2d 1865"

Headquarters Detachment Army of the James,

Richmond, Va., April 3, 1865.

Major-General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding detachment of the Army of the James, announces the occupation of the city of Richmond by the Armies of the United States, under command of Lieutenant-General Grant. The people of Richmond are assured that we come to restore to them the blessings of peace, prosperity, and freedom, under the flag of the Union.

When elements of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army entered Richmond early on the morning of Monday, April 3, 1865, it marked the effective end of the Civil War and of the Southern slave-holding states' bid for separate nationhood. There was still hard fighting to be done, and many more lives would be lost before the last rebel soldier put down his rifle. But the loss of the Confederacy’s capital city was a fatal blow from which it was impossible for the Southern war effort to recover.

What was it like to be a Confederate loyalist living through those harrowing days when the hated Yankees entered and occupied the city as conquerors? Several diarists living in Richmond recorded their experiences and thoughts during those fateful days. We’ll call on two of them to help answer that question.

  • John Beauchamp Jones (1810-1866) was a writer who took a post in the Confederate War Department in Richmond so that he could write about the war from the inside. A staunch secessionist, Jones had been a Southerner living in New Jersey. Just days before the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter initiated hostilities, he returned to the South to cast his lot with the Confederacy. He published his diary in 1866 under the title, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary at the Confederate States Capital.
  • Judith Brockenbrough McGuire (1813-1897) was the wife of an Episcopalian minister and the daughter of a member of the Virginia state Supreme Court. With strong Confederate sympathies, she fled with her husband from her Alexandria, Virginia home when that city was occupied by Union forces in May of 1861. For rest of the war the McGuires lived in the Richmond area as refugees. Judith McGuire published Diary Of A Southern Refugee During The War in 1867.

A Fateful Sunday Morning

The story of the evacuation of Richmond by the Confederates begins on Sunday, April 2, 1865.

General Grant, with a huge army, had been besieging the city for months, but had so far been unable to achieve a breakthrough. Richmond inhabitants, along with most people throughout the Confederacy, were confident that Grant would never be able to overcome the resistance of General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia and take the city. In fact, there was a widespread expectation that Lee would soon launch an attack that would smash Grant and end the threat.

View of Richmond from Gambles Hill, April 1865

View of Richmond from Gambles Hill, April 1865

On that Sunday morning, the churches were full as usual. Confederate president Jefferson Davis was in his pew in St. Paul’s when a messenger from the War Department entered and handed him a note. Observers said that Davis’s face went pale as he read the message. He quickly got up and left the church.

The dispatch was from General Robert E. Lee. It informed Davis that the lines of Lee’s army had been broken in three places, and the city could no longer be defended. The Confederate government must be prepared to leave Richmond that very night.

Citizens of Richmond Are Stunned by the News

Rumors of the impending evacuation spread quickly. In his contemporaneous account, Southern History of the War, Edward A. Pollard, who himself lived in Richmond at the time, writes that on that Sunday morning practically no one in the city had any inkling that its time as the capital of the Confederacy was about to expire. The news that within hours Richmond would be surrendered to Grant's army burst upon inhabitants, as Pollard puts it, “like a thunderclap from clear skies.”

A Beautiful and Peaceful Day Turns Chaotic

John Beauchamp Jones was one of those struck by that thunderclap. That Sunday morning started off “bright and beautiful,” he notes in his diary, but soon the peaceful atmosphere was disrupted by disturbing rumors. One rumor told of a bloody battle in which the division of General George Pickett (of “Pickett’s Charge” fame) suffered fearful losses (this was the Battle of Five Forks). But the War Department, where Jones was a high ranking clerk, was not releasing any information about the fighting that was clearly taking place nearby. Jones took that official silence as an ominous sign.

By 2:00 p.m. the rumors were spreading and, wrote Jones, “an intense excitement prevails.” Still, there was no official announcement. The truth was transmitted by decidedly unofficial means. “The excited women in this neighborhood say they have learned the city is to be evacuated to-night,” Jones wrote. That rumor was soon confirmed. Jones recorded his dismay in his diary:

It is true! The enemy have broken through our lines … Gen. Lee has dispatched the Secretary to have everything in readiness to evacuate the city to-night.

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Jones noted that even then Jefferson Davis held out hope that a Confederate force under General William J. Hardee, which was only twelve miles away, would arrive in time to prevent disaster. Davis would delay his own departure from Richmond as long as he could, hoping for a military miracle. But in the end there was no help for the doomed city.

Most other government officials weren’t waiting. During that Sunday afternoon and evening, Jones saw many army officers and civilian officials hurrying with their trunks toward the railway station in hopes of getting themselves on one of the last trains leaving town. Most, Jones observed, did not succeed.

With the mad scramble that took place as desperate Confederate officials and panicked rich civilians used every possible means to find space for themselves and their belongings on overflowing railway cars, Jones knew he had no chance of getting away from the city before the enemy arrived. He had no choice but to stay and await his fate.

I remain here, broken in health and bankrupt in fortune, awaiting my fate, whatever it may be. I can do no more. If I could, I would.

— John Beauchamp Jones

Richmond’s Last Night As the Capital of the Confederacy

Richmond was to have one final night as the capital of the Confederate States of America. “It was a quiet night, with its million of stars,” Jones wrote. But nobody in Richmond slept that night as they waited, with dread, for the hated enemy to come and take over the town.

Union troops wouldn’t enter the city until about eight o’clock on the morning of April 3. But before they arrived, the retreating Confederate military had its final say about the fate of Richmond.

The Confederates Burn Down Their Own Capital City

Blindly following a military doctrine of destroying anything that could possibly be of use to the enemy, the fleeing rebels set off explosions in military supply depots. Those detonations, which Jones said “seem(ed) to startle the very earth,” quickly turned into raging fires in several parts of the city. The armory, the arsenal, and the Confederate ordnance laboratory were all leveled as artillery shells stored there were exploded by the flames. A number of civilians were killed, and much of the most valuable property of the city was destroyed by a senseless and useless act done, despite the urgent pleas of the mayor and other city officials, in the name of “military necessity.”

Richmond after it was burned by Confederates

Richmond after it was burned by Confederates

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Burning Documents in the Streets

Other senseless acts were taking place as well, as a spirit of hysteria spread. Jones noted that all the previous night Confederate officials had been burning official records, such as “claims of the survivors of deceased soldiers, accounts of contractors, etc.” in the street. One can only wonder why they thought such documents might provide some military advantage to the Union.

Rattled civilians were engaging in their own irrational acts. Jones wrote of meeting a woman in the street who had a bushel of potatoes. She asked him to buy them, which he did for $75 in Confederate money. It hadn’t sunk in yet that those Confederate notes would never again be worth a single penny.

But Richmond city officials did take some sensible actions that day.

VIDEO: Richmond Burning

City Officials Attempt to Protect and Aid Inhabitants

Understanding the civil power vacuum that would exist between the exit of Confederate forces and the arrival of Union troops, the Richmond mayor and city council did their best to prevent lawless behavior. Jones records that by seven o’clock that morning, representatives of the city government went to all the liquor shops to try to destroy as much of that dangerous product as they could.

The streets ran with liquor; and women and boys, black and white, were seen filling pitchers and buckets from the gutters.

The city administration also distributed all the Confederate government goods that escaped the flames to the poor, rather than leaving them to be looted. Jones notes that the government bakery was opened, and flour and crackers were freely given to inhabitants until the supply ran out.

Union Troops Act to Protect the City

Union forces were first seen in the former Confederate capital between eight and nine on the morning of Monday, April 3. As they poured into the city basically unopposed, their first task was to put out the fires the rebels had ignited. Using the city’s two fire engines, as well as bucket brigades of their own troops, they eventually got the fires under control. They also posted guards at strategic points to protect against looting. Jones was impressed at how well the conquering army behaved toward inhabitants.

The troops do not interfere with the citizens here any more than they do in New York-yet. Last night everything was quiet, and perfect order prevails.

But Jones did have one complaint about the Union soldiers he saw all around him. He recorded it in his diary entry for April 5:

The white citizens felt annoyed that the city should be held mostly by Negro troops. If this measure were not unavoidable, it was impolitic if conciliation be the purpose.

With Richmond practically destitute of food, the Federal army provided rations to civilians. Jones commented in his diary:

This morning thousands of Negroes and many white females are besieging the public officers for provisions. I do not observe any getting them.

But they did get them, although many, especially upper class ladies, maintained an attitude of haughty disdain toward their benefactors.

This engraving from Harper's Weekly, June 3, 1865, shows Richmond ladies going to receive US government rations. Original caption: "Don't you think that Yankee must feel like shrinking into his boots before such high-toned Southern ladies as we!"

This engraving from Harper's Weekly, June 3, 1865, shows Richmond ladies going to receive US government rations. Original caption: "Don't you think that Yankee must feel like shrinking into his boots before such high-toned Southern ladies as we!"

Although Jefferson Davis had sent his family away from Richmond before the crisis hit, Robert E. Lee's family remained in the city. The Federal army provided a soldier to guard the Lee home (even though at this time Lee was still leading his army against Grant). Apparently Mrs. Lee appreciated the gesture: Jones saw the guard being given breakfast from within the house.

President Lincoln Arrives in Richmond

On Tuesday, April 4, Abraham Lincoln came to Richmond, bringing with him his 12-year-old son Tad. The President had been with General Grant behind Union lines at City Point, a few miles outside the city, and he wanted to see for himself the prize for which so much blood and treasure had been spent. He was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the black inhabitants of Richmond; the white population was much more subdued. Said Jones in his diary entry for April 5:

The cheers that greeted President Lincoln were mostly from the Negroes and Federals.

President Lincoln, with his son Tad, in Richmond

President Lincoln, with his son Tad, in Richmond

Another diarist, Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, expressed the disdain and anguish many white Confederate loyalists felt at seeing the President of the United States walking the streets of what had just two days before been the capital city of the Confederacy:

His reception was any thing but complimentary. Our people were in nothing rude or disrespectful; they only kept themselves away from a scene so painful.

There were white Unionists who joined the blacks in cheering for Mr. Lincoln, but in McGuire’s opinion, they were nothing more than a “motley crew of vulgar men and women,” who were “the low, lower, lowest of creation.”

She couldn’t contain her distress at hearing that Lincoln had been able to relax in the house formerly occupied by Jefferson Davis. In fact McGuire would have much preferred for the "Confederate White House" to have burned down like so much of the rest of Richmond before Lincoln had a chance to set foot in it.

Ah! it is a bitter pill. I would that dear old house, with all its associations, so sacred to the Southerners…had shared in the general conflagration. Then its history would have been unsullied, though sad. Oh, how gladly would I have seen it burn!

Controversy About Which President to Pray For

By the next Sunday, April 9, Judith McGuire’s anger and defiance had not abated. Even in church the conflict between Union and Confederate allegiances still raged. She went to services at St. Paul’s, the same church Jefferson Davis had attended. The pastor, Dr. Minnegerode, was confronted with a dilemma that churches all across the city were facing on that first Lord’s Day after the transfer of Richmond from Confederate to Union hands: for which President were the churches obligated to pray?

An order came out in this morning's papers that the prayers for the President of the United States must be used. How could we do it ?

— Judith Brockenbrough McGuire

The Bible commands Christians to pray for those in authority, and for four years the official prayer in the churches of Richmond had been for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. But now officers of the occupying Union army had forbidden that practice. It was illegal in Richmond for public prayers to be offered for the leader of the rebellion.

Still, Jefferson Davis had not yet been captured by Union forces, and the loyalty many white Richmond church-goers felt towards him remained strong. With the man they still considered their president on the run, harried by Federal pursuers, how could they bring themselves to pray instead for that hated monster of Abolition iniquity, Abraham Lincoln?

So Dr. Minnegerode, like most Richmond pastors in that season of transition, simply omitted praying for either president. But parishioners like Judith McGuire were not so constrained in their private prayers:

How fervently did we all pray for our own President! Thank God, our silent prayers are free from Federal authority.

Finally, It Was All Over

On April 10 Jones recorded in his diary the news of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

It is true! Yesterday Gen. Lee surrendered the "Army of Northern Virginia."… All is lost! No head can be made by any other general or army--if indeed any other army remains. If Mr. Davis had been present, he never would have consented to it; and I doubt if he will ever forgive Gen. Lee.

With that news came final, sad acceptance – the Confederacy was dead, and it would never rise again from the ashes. As Judith Brockenbrough McGuire put it,

The calmness of despair is written on every countenance.

John Beauchamp Jones wrote his last diary entry on April 17, 1865. In the beginning he had, as his diary shows, committed himself heart and soul to the establishment of a separate Southern nation. Now, facing the reality that he would live the rest of his life in the Union he had despised, he saw the dead Confederacy in a somewhat altered light:

I never swore allegiance to the Confederate States Government, but was true to it.

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 30, 2015:

Thank you, Jennifer. I think you're right on both counts - the burning of Richmond is symbolic of what the Confederate rebellion did to the entire South, which in some ways has still not fully recovered from the devastation of that war. And the CSA military commanders blindly followed a protocol that at that point in the war was no longer valid, if it ever was.