THE CAPTURE OF RICHMOND1
BY LIEUTENANT R. B. PRESCOTT, U.S.V.
The Confederate capital, as it appeared before the war, was a fair and pleasant city, occupying a commanding position on the north bank of the James River, at the head of tide water, about one hundred and fifty miles from the sea, and about ninety miles from Washington in a southwesterly direction. Like ancient Rome, it was built on seven hills, surrounded by beautiful scenery, possessing a few fine public buildings, and a beautiful park adorned with statues of men famous in their country’s history. It was the capital of the state, and rich in all the natural elements of growth and prosperity.
During the war it was one of the most strongly fortified cities ever known. Its inner line of defences consisted of seventeen powerful earthworks, forming almost a complete circle about a mile from the city (the interruption being on the southwest where the river in itself was considered a sufficient protection), mounting more than three hundred guns of the heaviest calibre, and commanding each foot of ground in every direction.
A second line of continuous earthworks almost surrounded it again, and in places deemed especially weak or exposed, a third line outside of this. Not a hill or knoll for miles around but bristled with cannon. Nature had most admirably adapted it for a defensive position, protecting it on the south and west by the river, and on the north and east by that vast tract known as the swamps of the Chickahominy in which so many thousands of McClellan’s men perished in the spring and summer campaigns of 1862.
Its naval defences consisted of several powerful gunboats which lay in the river opposite the city, but their range of movement being limited to the seven miles of river navigation lying between their anchorage and the Dutch Gap Canal, they were of little or no use except as a show of strength.
Five lines of railroads brought supplies from the outer world, and thus surrounded, defended and supplied, this proud city, secure in its position, confident in the strength of its defences and the inexhaustibleness of its resources, maintained itself through four long years of bloodiest strife, as the seat and stronghold of the Confederate government, — its military centre, — the very heart of the Confederacy. And so secure did its thirty-eight thousand inhabitants feel against the most strenuous efforts of the Union armies to capture it, that from May, 1861, when it was made the seat of the Confederate government, until June, 1864, it was held by only a few thousand militia, mainly boys and old men unfit for more arduous and active service in the field. Until the last of September, 1864, the exterior line of its triple wall of defence had never been carried. Union troops had on several occasions come within sight of it; in one or two instances it had been for a moment pierced, but the assaults had always been repulsed, and no Union soldier had ever seen the inner line unless taken through it as a prisoner of war. The city had no appearance of being in a state of siege. The people quietly pursued their various avocations, and save for the newspaper reports, the tales of soldiers on furlough and those of the sick and wounded in the hospitals, they had little knowledge of what was transpiring even in their own army. Consequently, when on that beautiful Sabbath in early April, 1865, the President of the Confederacy, while seated quietly in church, was suddenly notified that General Lee could no longer maintain his lines and that the city must be immediately evacuated, one can easily imagine the scene of consternation and terror that followed.
On Wednesday, September 28, 1864, General Grant, in order
to prevent Lee from sending reinforcements to Early, who was being badly punished by Sheridan in the Valley of the Shenandoah, sent General Ord with a considerable force to make another threatening demonstration against Richmond, and this time from the south, all previous campaigns and attempts having fully demonstrated that the city could be taken only from this direction.
Ord’s troops consisted of Stannard’s division of the Eighteenth Corps, — three brigades numbering some twenty-five hundred men encamped at Bermuda Hundred — and General Birney with about eight thousand men of the Tenth Corps, including a division of colored troops from the Petersburg front, who was expected to co-operate at a point considerably further to the right. General Kautz, also, with his cavalry, was to penetrate still further, if possible, and make a demonstration along the Darbytown road, one of the turnpikes leading into Richmond. Two pontoon bridges were thrown across the river late in the afternoon of that day, one near Aiken’s Landing, about ten miles below Richmond (the place, also, where the exchange of prisoners took place), the other at Deep Bottom, some distance below.
Stannard’s division, in which was our regiment, the 13th New Hampshire, crossed at the first named place, Birney and his troops at the second. We left our camp behind the intrenchments at Bermuda Hundred at eight o’clock that morning, September 28, 1864, and spent the day in marching idly about from one position to another. At nine in the evening we started for Aiken’s Landing, some three or four miles distant, where the men were massed in the darkness of the woods awaiting the order to cross. The utmost secrecy and silence were observed. The men were allowed to converse only in low tones, and the exhibition of any light, however small, was strictly forbidden. Meanwhile the pioneers were busy covering the bridge thickly with earth, that the measured tread of the troops in crossing might not be heard by the enemy. About three o’clock
on the morning of the 29th all was ready and the movement commenced.
The first faint flushes of dawn were just appearing in the eastern skies when the entire force found itself safely transferred to the north bank of the river, and without delay was immediately ordered forward. Advancing across open fields for about a mile, we entered a travelled road — the Varina road — which led through a piece of pine forest, and just at this point the enemy’s pickets were first encountered. A brisk fire was exchanged with our skirmishers, when the enemy hastily retreated leaving their breakfast untouched, which was without ceremony snatched and eaten by our men as they passed along. On emerging from the woods nearly three miles above, a momentary halt was made to afford a hasty survey of the scene before us. Directly in front and nearly three-quarters of a mile distant, on the summit of a hill, stood a large fort, the Confederate flag waving above it, and the black muzzles of its heavy guns plainly visible. Long lines of rifle pits stretched away on either side to the James River on the left, and until lost to view in the woods on the right. The ground between us and the fort was rough and uneven, the trees having been cut away to afford the enemy an unobstructed view of the road, but leaving the stumps a foot or more in height, and the ground strewn with branches. Two brigades, General Burnham’s and General Stevens’, were ordered to the left of the road; the third, General Roberts’, to the right, in order to allow our own artillery to come up the road to the front. No use was made of it however; not a cannon shot from our side was fired during the day, the battle being fought and won by the infantry alone.
In another moment a loud roar, a sudden burst of flame and smoke from the fort, announced that the action had begun. The first few shells screamed harmlessly overhead, only cutting off the tops of the trees and bursting far behind us, but the enemy soon obtained our range and more serious results followed. The first to do any harm struck the edge of an artillery
wheel close to where we stood, straightened its heavy tire and laid it flat as a ribbon along the road, then glancing, cut off the fore-legs of a horse attached to the gun next behind, causing the poor beast to pitch suddenly forward upon his breast. Passing on, it killed two more horses, and finally exploded in a group of men, killing three and wounding several others.
Nothing demoralizes troops more thoroughly than to remain inactive under fire, and it was with a feeling of relief that the order “forward” was received. Steadily, almost as if on parade, in close column by division, with arms at right shoulder, the brigades moved onward, and as the cannon shot from fort and gunboats ploughed great gaps through their ranks, quickly closed up and pressed forward as rapidly as the nature of the ground would permit. It did not take long to traverse that mile of death, and when a point was finally reached where the ground rose so abruptly that the guns of the fort could not be depressed sufficiently to do further harm, a momentary halt was made to enable the men to recover their breath. Then the order to charge was given, and with a yell the men sprang forward. Leaping into the deep moat which surrounded the fort, they climbed by means of each other’s shoulders, and their bayonets driven into the opposite wall of earth, to the slope above, over which they swarmed like bees, under a terrible fire of musketry from every available point. So near were they to the enemy that many were severely burned by the flame from the latter’s rifles, and their faces blackened by the unburnt powder. The fire was literally in their very faces. It was but a moment, however, ere the parapet was gained. The colors of half a dozen regiments were quickly planted upon it, and as the enemy turned and fled in haste, loud and repeated cheers announced that the dearly bought victory was won. The fort with its sixteen heavy guns and a considerable proportion of its garrison was ours. All this had been accomplished without firing a shot. At the moment of commencing the march across the field the caps were removed from the muskets, bayonets
were fixed, and until the enemy were met face to face within the fort, not a shot from our side had been fired. When once inside the fort, the bayonet alone completed the work. Later in the day we had the misfortune to see General Birney’s troops repeatedly repulsed while charging Fort Gilmer, another large earthwork further in our front.
That march of a mile, through such a terrible tempest of lead and iron, was, of course, attended with most disastrous results. General Stevens lay severely wounded just without, and General Burnham dead just within the fort. Both were taken away in the same ambulance, under a heavy fire. Of the assaulting column more than one-third lay dead and wounded between the fort and edge of the woods. Looking back from the parapet of the fort the line of march was seen to be covered with prostrate forms, while the groans and shrieks of agony that came to our ears were most appalling. What with the fire from the fort and the redoubts which flanked it on the right and left, the huge shells which came screaming up from the enemy’s gunboats on the river, the bullets from the enemy’s riflemen posted in treetops, the roofs and chimneys of the scattered farmhouses, and from the lines of rifle-pits, it is a wonder that the column was not completely annihilated. Had there been an abattis in front of the fort, it is certain that it could not have been taken, and why so important a position was unprovided with this invaluable protection is something I have never been able to understand. It is only on the supposition that the position was considered impregnable.
As the last discharge of the enemy’s artillery tore through the broken and shattered ranks, the column wavered and rocked like a tree before a rude blast of wind, and for a moment the task seemed impossible; but under the shelter of the crest before mentioned there was a momentary respite, and the rush and shout which immediately followed were irresistible. As the first men mounted the parapet and looked down into the faces below them a Confederate officer was discovered just sighting
one of the huge pivot guns for another shot, when a Union soldier shouted at the top of his voice, “Don’t fire that gun.” The Confederate soldier who held the lanyard looked up with a curse upon his lips and defiance in his face, but before he could pull the cord he fell dead, transfixed by the Union bayonet. In another moment a score of ready hands had turned the gun about and its contents of grape and canister were sent crashing through the disorganized ranks of the fleeing enemy.
The capture of this fort, the most important of all the defences on the south of Richmond, and the main reliance of that part of the Confederate lines, created the wildest excitement in the rebel capital. Fearing that the fall of the city would immediately follow, a panic seized upon the citizens, who began packing their valuables and preparing for instant flight. With much difficulty their fears were allayed. They were assured that the position would be speedily retaken, and Jefferson Davis, General Lee and others high in authority came hastily down to Fort Gilmer to study the situation and decide what should be done. From our position we plainly saw the group surveying us through their field-glasses, and from numerous deserters who came into our lines that night we learned that Mr. Davis had declared that the fort must be retaken if it required the entire Confederate army to do it. It would never do to permit the Yankee army to remain permanently within such easy threatening distance; its frequent raids from so secure a position, and the constant bursting of Union shells within the city suburbs would keep the people in constant alarm. So every male between the ages of sixteen and sixty was hurried at once into the defences. The ironclads were sent down the river, and taking up a position directly opposite the fort, they shelled it furiously all the afternoon. The river banks at this point were fortunately so high that the necessary elevation of their guns sent their shells high above the fort bursting harmlessly overhead and scattering their fragments in the fields beyond. Only one shell of the hundreds they threw at us that afternoon came
inside the fort, — and that, a huge two hundred pounder, fortunately did not explode.
Knowing there would be hot work as soon as the enemy attempted to retake the fort, orders were given to strengthen the position as speedily as possible. It was with very different feelings from those of the day before that the men set about this task. Now they would be the defenders and the enemy the attacking force. They felt abundantly able to hold it against any force that could be brought against it. So the dead lying too thickly about the place were hastily buried, leaving the more remote untouched; the enemy’s barracks were torn down and the logs piled up into breastworks, covered with bales of hay, and wagons filled with shovels and pickaxes were ordered up from the river bank without delay. This attempt to assist, however, proved utterly useless. The enemy’s sharpshooters concealed in the trees and behind the chimneys, shot down the mules as soon as the wagons appeared in sight, and killed the men detailed to go back and fetch the tools in their hands. So every man wrought as best he could with bayonets, sticks, and the tin dipper from which he drank his coffee. Thus digging away as for dear life, by night a low bank of earth ran along the rear of the fort, now changed to a new front facing toward Richmond. All night long we worked, and on the following morning, much to our disgust, our slender protection was taken from us and given up to fresh troops who had been hastily sent up as reinforcements ; we who had won the position the day before were removed further to the right into open unprotected ground. There was much unavailing grumbling at this seeming injustice, but the men went heartily to work turning up the fresh earth for new protection. All that forenoon the cloud of dust raised by marching rebel troops, and the gleam of their bayonets were plainly visible, skirting the edge of the woods at no great distance, giving token of dreadful work close at hand. About noon, each man had raised for himself a little mound of earth a few inches in height. At that time a sudden furious
cannonade opened from gunboats, batteries and forts, and soon after the appearance of long lines of Confederate gray, — ten of the choicest brigades in the whole Southern army, under Ewell, and later under Lee himself — at the edge of the woods announced the approaching attack.
The dense lines of gray, with banners flying and uttering their shrill cries, came sweeping swiftly forward. It was a moment of intensest interest. The enemy was but a few yards distant; already their features were plainly visible, when suddenly came the sharp command “Fire.” A sheet of flame leaped from the muzzles of two thousand seven hundred rifles, and that line of gray went down as grass falls beneath the mower’s scythe. Broken and shattered the survivors made their way back to the shelter of the woods, followed by a continuous fire from breechloading rifles.
I well remember the feeling of exultation that found expression in our brigade as they recognized in the lines of the approaching foe a certain Southern regiment which they had often faced on former battle-fields, and against which a peculiarly bitter animosity existed on account of certain atrocities committed on our dead and wounded who had fallen into their hands. So it was with gleeful feelings that this regiment was recognized, and most fearfully were those atrocities avenged. At the roll-call of that Southern regiment at the close of that afternoon’s fight, only seven men made answer to their names, while General Clingman’s brigade to which it belonged, and upon which our fire was concentrated, was practically annihilated — being either killed, wounded or captured — flags and all.
Meanwhile the enemy reformed his shattered ranks in the woods for a second assault; but this and a third also met with a like result, being each time effectually repulsed with terrible loss. The Spencer, a breech-loading rifle which could be fired with great rapidity, poured in its constant fire with deadly effect. Some of the Confederate prisoners exhibited great curiosity to
see what they expressed as “that d—d Yankee gun which could be loaded up on Sunday and fired all the week.”
At last, realizing that our line could not be broken, and maddened and desperate by failure, they concentrated all their remaining strength and energy for a final assault, and this time directed their attack obliquely upon the division of colored troops at our right. The assault was impetuous in its fury and well-nigh successful. They came to the very foot of the low earthwork, many of them actually clambered over it, and our hearts sank within us when we saw the colored troops give way in terror and confusion. In vain their officers cursed and struck at the men with their swords. A wild panic seemed to have seized them, and the danger of being flanked and taken prisoner seemed imminent to all, when suddenly a color sergeant, a tall, muscular, black fellow, — a typical specimen of his race — sprang upon the low edge of earth, waved the flag about his head, and calling upon his comrades to follow him, leaped boldly down into the midst of the enemy. It was the work of an instant. He lived hardly long enough to touch the ground. We found his body after the fight was over, lying at the bottom of a heap of slain, — blacks and whites together — fairly riddled with bayonet wounds, and the flag all torn and bloody, tightly clenched in his stiffened hands. Poor, despised, unknown image of his Maker! Who would ever have believed this man capable of such sublime courage and heroism? But beneath that black skin there beat a heart as loyal to freedom and as determined to win it for himself and his race as any which stands recorded in the world’s history. Who shall dare deny to that poor black, in the face of such devotion and sacrifice, the possession of those qualities which in other races call forth our highest praise and admiration? His example saved the day. His comrades, ashamed of their momentary panic, turned and followed him. With an almost unearthly cry — a cry in which all the agony and despair of centuries of bondage and oppression seemed concentrated, they threw themselves with irresistible
fury upon their foes. No mercy was asked or given on either side, and that evening as I walked over the blood-soaked ground I counted them by the score, black and white, pierced by each other’s bayonets.
During this terrific struggle, the troops previously engaged were compelled to remain passive spectators. They could not turn their arms against this swaying mass without equal danger to friend and foe. But so great was their realization of the danger, so keen the anxiety, so doubtful the issue, that every eye was riveted upon it unmindful of the storm of lead and iron that the Confederate sharpshooters and artillery poured upon us from every available point. It seemed impossible in such a storm for any to escape, but happily in a few moments the Confederates broke in disorder and sought safety under the protecting guns of Fort Gilmer, while the Union troops shouted themselves hoarse with delight. From the prisoners we learned that General Lee had commanded in person, that he was deeply disappointed and chagrined at his failure to retake this most important position, and counted its loss an irreparable disaster to the Confederate cause.
The capture of Fort Harrison and the desperate attempt to retake it were among the important battles of the war. As Gettysburg indicates the highest tide-water mark reached by the rebellion, so the capture of Fort Harrison marks the real beginning of the end. This was the first time that the Union army had gained a permanent foothold on the north side of the James River; the first tightening of that iron grip on the throat of the rebellion which was never to be relaxed until its final death. Henceforth Richmond was in a state of siege; her steeples almost within sight and her people ever within sound of the Union guns.
A great change had taken place in the sentiments of the people of Richmond even before the date of the storming of Fort Harrison. Before the battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, high hopes of ultimate success had animated all classes of
the Southern people, and no one, however great the doubts he might have felt, dared to give them open expression. But when Lee’s shattered and demoralized battalions came pouring back in wild disorder from that bloody field, the hopes of the South sank never again to rise. They realized then, as never before, the tremendous military strength of the Government, and the determination of the North never to abandon the contest until the recreant states had returned to their allegiance.
The positions of the opposing forces as just described, remained practically unchanged throughout the winter. As was anticipated, the Union batteries threw hundreds of tons of iron into the suburbs of the city, and were replied to with equal vigor by the Confederate guns. For days at a time the shelling was so furious that there seemed hardly any intermission, day or night. Life was rendered a burden, no less from the incessant din than from the constant vigilance required to escape the flying missiles. On the picket line at night we lay wrapped in our blankets, and, unable to sleep, watched the curving lines of fire with which the air was filled, and calculated from the radius of curvature the nearness of the explosion.
The vigilance in both armies was unceasing, and so great was the strain that the health of nearly every one became seriously impaired. All winter long a battle was deemed imminent at any hour. Only two, however, occurred. On October 20th Mr. Davis and General Lee came down within half a mile of Fort Harrison and for five hours discussed the situation. The result was seen a day or two later in a furious attack upon our right flank, which was unsuccessful. It cost the Union army, however, about fifteen hundred lives and the enemy more than twice that number. On the 27th the Union army retaliated, and advanced within four miles of Richmond, one mile nearer than McClellan had advanced in 1862. The attack was repulsed and the troops driven back with heavy loss. The retreat of that night forms one of the darkest pictures of the war. All night long the rain poured in torrents. So deep was the mud
that the roads were almost impassable, and so tenacious that boots and shoes were pulled off and left behind at every step. The darkness was intense and we went floundering slowly along, artillery, infantry, cavalry, wagons, ambulances, all mixed together in inextricable confusion. Many dropped out from sheer fatigue, and either perished in the woods or were captured by the pursuing enemy, the flash of whose rifles every few moments lit up for an instant the otherwise impenetrable darkness. Others were drowned in the swollen streams, or sank helpless in the soft mud which in many places reached nearly to the knees. To add to its misfortunes the column lost its way and came suddenly upon Confederate fortifications, to avoid which it turned aside into the woods and waited for daylight, the wearied men catching a little sleep in a standing position, leaning against the trees. Nothing could be done for the wounded, whose shrieks, as the ambulances went bumping over stumps and stones and sunken logs or were tipped completely over in the mud, were dreadful and heart-rending beyond power to imagine.
The only advantage gained in this reconnoissance was by the cavalry, which secured an advanced position in the recesses of White Oak Swamp on the Charles City road which they held until the end of the war. The effect of these two engagements was extremely disheartening, and hundreds of men and officers were wholly disabled for further service. So few officers were fit for duty that the detail for picket came almost every night, and was especially severe. No sleep was allowed, nor any fires; and whether in drenching rain, blinding snow or sleet, or piercing cold, there was no relief until the twenty-four hours had expired. It seemed cruel to extinguish a trifling fire of dried leaves or twigs that the poor fellows might have kindled behind some sheltering rock, in the small hours after midnight, but the orders were imperative, and it had to be done. It was pitiable to see them rubbing their ears with snow. In many instances they were so benumbed that they could no longer hold the
musket, and many were sent to the hospital disabled for life. It was an experience akin to that which the Continental army endured in the famous winter at Valley Forge, and I am convinced that many of the desertions from our army that winter were for only one purpose. The cheerful fires of the Confederates were too great a temptation, and they went over simply to get warm.
Another order, the violation of which was punishable with death, was against holding any communication with the enemy on the picket line. But the eagerness to exchange newspapers was so great on both sides that this order was often violated. A stump about midway between the two lines was usually selected, and the picket officer on either side, first attracting the other’s attention by waving his paper in the air, advanced, laid it on the stump, and returned to his own lines. The other then advanced, took up the paper and left his own, which was again taken by the first. Of course it was agreed that there should be no firing and no treachery on either side. In this way we received the Richmond papers a few hours after their publication, and the enemy were always delighted to receive ours, especially the New York illustrated papers, for their own carefully suppressed the truth and fed their readers with the most preposterous lies. I remember meeting an officer of the 17th Virginia Regiment several times at the stump, and having a little talk with him. He freely acknowledged that the South could hold out but little longer; that it was daily becoming more and more difficult to maintain discipline in their army, and that all were longing impatiently for the end. Even on the picket line where desultory firing was kept up most of the time, intermissions occurred, usually toward the close of a pleasant Sabbath afternoon, when, after dress parade, the bands of both armies approached as near the picket lines as permission allowed, and followed by crowds of listeners who seated themselves upon the ground around, proceeded to fill the air with melody. Patriotic airs were first given. “Yankee Doodle” on the Union side
was followed with “Maryland, my Maryland” from the Confederates. The “Star Spangled Banner” alternated with “The Bonnie Blue Flag”; “Hail Columbia” with “Stonewall Jackson’s March,” each rendering followed by lusty cheers from their respective adherents, and so on, until as darkness approached and the silent stars came out one by one, and myriads of twinkling lights appeared in thousands of tiny tents stretching away far as the eye could reach, the music took on a different character. The strains of “Annie Laurie” commenced by a band of either side, was quickly taken up by the others, Union and Confederate alike, followed by “The Girl I left behind Me,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and kindred airs, the impressive silence which pervaded the vast audience showing how deeply these familiar strains had touched all hearts. And when at last the concert closed with “Home, Sweet Home,” before the last notes had wholly died away upon the ear, the bugler at some headquarters caught them up and successive bugles sent them on from regiment to regiment, brigade to brigade, division to division, army corps to army corps, until the echoes were lost in the far distance. Then the myriad lights went out, the soldier turned himself anew in his bed of mud, drawing his blanket over his head, perchance to hide the tears that he could not repress, and slept, to dream perhaps of the home and faces he was never to see again.
Amid such scenes the long and dreary winter passed slowly away. As spring approached most of the troops in this vicinity were withdrawn to the extreme left of the line forty miles away where Grant was persistently pushing Lee. This had the effect of greatly thinning our lines, and at once increasing the vigilance and rendering more burdensome the duties. The standing order, day and night, was “Be ready to move at any moment.” Desertions from the enemy occurred daily by scores and hundreds, all bringing stories of distress in Richmond.
One by one the avenues of supply to the Confederate capital and army were cut off, and the pressure of want, even hunger,
began to be acutely felt. Sheridan had rendered the fertile valley of the Shenandoah a desert waste. Sherman had cut the Confederacy in twain. His victorious legions marching to the sea had left a wide swath of desolation behind them. The Weldon and South Side railroads running south from Petersburg had both been cut, and but one avenue remained open — the Richmond and Danville road — to feed the almost starving Southern armies.
Everything throughout the South was in the worst possible condition. As rats are said to desert a sinking ship, so the highest among the Confederate officers, seeing clearly the inevitably speedy collapse of the Confederacy, were sending off boxes of gold to Europe and following them just as fast as they could get away. The Governors of several of the Southern States were demanding of President Davis the immediate return of their troops, claiming the same right to secede from the Confederacy as from the old Union. Generals Johnston, Beauregard, and Bragg were without commands, and the country everywhere was filled with deserters from the ranks. They came into our lines almost every night in considerable numbers. From the Richmond papers they often brought with them we learned much of what was going on within the city. Here are a few of the market prices of provisions: Flour, $1500 a barrel; tea, $120 per pound ; coffee, $80 ; butter, $50 ; corn meal, $75 a bushel; cord wood, £5 a stick; a dress pattern of cheapest calico, $300 ; a pair of coarse shoes, $100 ; and everything else in like proportion. As the people used to say, they carried their money to market in a basket and brought home their purchases in their pockets. One newspaper article complained of the difficulty of filling the depleted ranks. They even took sick men from their beds, and one case which excited great indignation was that of a poor fellow dying of consumption who was taken from bed, a musket put in his hand, and he was forced into the intrenchments, where in a few hours he died. One editor grows almost hysterical in his gratitude for the gift of a
dozen ruta baga turnips and two quarts of persimmons, and one eminent gentleman on Christmas Day, 1864, entered into a compact with his family that while at dinner no unpleasant word should be spoken and no one should “scramble” for anything on the table. This Christmas dinner consisted of a boiled head of cabbage costing $12, and bacon costing $10 per pound. One gentleman told me that his family had not tasted fresh meat for more than a year. The last that he bought had cost $60 per pound, and even at that price was of very poor quality, while as a substitute for butter they boiled potato skins into a sort of jelly and mixed it with the fat of bacon.
Such was the condition of affairs in Richmond at this time. Finally the morning of Sunday, April 2d, 1865, dawned beautifully bright and clear. All nature teemed with signs of the coming spring. The blue sky, the warm, still atmosphere, the budding trees and songs of birds, the freshening green of the hillsides, all told of the awakening season of life and beauty. Far off in the direction of Petersburg, — southward — the deep booming of heavy cannon came all day to our ears, and we knew that a battle was in progress there. While at breakfast that morning the adjutant said to me, “You will report at brigade headquarters at half-past eight this morning as officer of the picket.” Just before starting for the picket line, General Ripley, commanding the brigade, said to me, “You will be especially vigilant to-day, and should you observe anything unusual in the enemy’s lines, you will send me word of it immediately.” Then I started with the brigade pickets for the outposts.
Our position was in a thin belt of pines from which we could clearly perceive the enemy’s works and all his movements. All seemed as usual. Fort Gilmer with its frowning parapet, its heavy battery, the Confederate flag floating from its staff, and the sentinel with musket on his shoulder, pacing the rampart, presented its usual threatening appearance. Groups of Confederate soldiers lounged about the picket fires and the camp, and nothing indicated in any way the near approach of startling
events. About the middle of the afternoon, however, I noticed several army wagons being loaded up and field artillery moving away, and a general air of bustle and activity pervading the enemy’s camps. I sent news of this to General Ripley, and received in reply the laconic message “Keep your eyes and ears open.” As darkness came on these signs increased. There was a continual rumbling sound as of heavily loaded wagons and artillery; their bands played louder and later than usual, and their camp-fires seemed to blaze more brightly. There was something ominous in the very air — a feeling that a great crisis was at hand, but of what nature it might be, none could surmise. No man slept that night. Each stood ready, musket in hand, for whatever might happen. At length, at half-past four on the morning of the third, there came a sudden blinding glare of light, a concussion that shook the earth and nearly threw us to the ground, and immediately after the division officer of the day, the lieutenant-colonel of the 5th Maryland Regiment, galloped up and ordered me to advance the picket line, adding that the enemy were blowing up their iron-clads in the river, and it was believed that Richmond was being evacuated. It was but the work of a moment for the men to sling their knapsacks, and deploying them as skirmishers, we cautiously advanced toward the enemy’s lines. Their fires were still burning brightly, but not a man was to be seen. Fearing some treachery we approached cautiously, and as we came nearer I perceived small bits of bright-colored cloth attached to slender sticks a few inches above the ground and a few feet apart. These marked the location of buried torpedoes. In their hasty flight they had forgotten to remove these danger signals. Halting the line I called attention to them, bidding the men step carefully — a pressure of only five pounds was sufficient to explode them. All passed through in safety. In another moment we had mounted the parapet of Fort Gilmer and were in the enemy’s camp. Evidences of hasty departure were everywhere visible. The ground was strewn with clothing, muskets, canteens, blankets, everything which
could hinder their flight or was not really needed for use. All this was taken in at a glance in passing, and without stopping we pushed rapidly on. From an old negro woman whose cabin stood in the rear of Fort Gilmer, we were directed into the Newmarket turnpike at a short distance on our right, and from this point we marched by the flank instead of being deployed as skirmishers.
Soon we began to meet groups of rebel soldiers — stragglers from their regiments, who gazed curiously at us, and with our men exchanged much good-natured banter and jokes. So desperately hungry were they that many of them offered to trade their rifles for a handful of coffee and a few hardtack. This offer, however, met with scant favor, though the coffee and hardtack were freely bestowed. All along the road were strewn muskets, canteens, haversacks, blankets, and other equipments, and the desertions from the Confederate ranks that morning must have reached many hundreds.
Every moment the light we had seen over Richmond on starting became more and more brilliant. Above it hung great clouds of heavy smoke, and as we drew nearer there arose a confused murmur now swelling into a loud roar and then subsiding, and again swelling like a great tumult of excited voices, while at frequent intervals short, sharp explosions were heard as of the discharge of field artillery. Weary, breathless, hungry, begrimed with dust and perspiration, but eager and excited, we pushed on, and at half-past six o’clock in the morning I stood with about two-thirds of my men on the summit of a hill and looked down upon the grandest and most appalling sight that my eyes ever beheld. Richmond was literally a sea of flame, out of which the church steeples could be seen protruding here and there, while over all hung a canopy of dense black smoke, lighted up now and then by the bursting shells from the numerous arsenals scattered throughout the city. I waited here until the stragglers of my command had come up, then marched down the hill until we came to a little creek, crossed by a few planks
which alone separated us from the city. Two mounted cavalrymen stood upon this bridge who said that they had been sent there by General Weitzel with orders to allow no one to cross the bridge until he came up. So there was nothing to do but to wait. The men stacked arms and threw themselves upon the ground. While resting, a rebel iron-clad lying in the James River in full sight blew up with a terrific crash, scattering fragments of iron and timbers all about us, but fortunately no one was hurt. In a few moments more a carriage appeared coming from the city, and stopped directly before us. Beckoning me to approach, the occupant asked if I was in command of the men lying about, and on being answered in the affirmative, he said that he was the mayor of Richmond, and that he wished to make a formal surrender of the city. At the same time he placed in my hands a large package, containing, I presume, official papers, the city seal, keys and other property. I told him that General Weitzel, commanding the department, would be present in a short time and that he would be a proper person to treat with. Even while we were speaking the general and his staff appeared at the top of the hill, and the mayor rode forward to meet him. The whole party shortly returned, and General Weitzel ordered me to follow him into the city.
This I did, but we had not advanced many rods before the smoke became so thick as to make it impossible to see even a few feet in advance, and for this reason, I suppose, I missed the general, he turning to the right towards the upper part of the city, and I to the left towards the river. We had not gone far before I discovered that I had become separated from him, and was uncertain how to proceed, when on a lamp-post at a corner I read the words, “Main Street.” Thinking this would at least conduct us to the central part of the city and assist in finding the capitol grounds, I turned into it. The scene that met our eyes here almost baffles description. Pandemonium reigned supreme. Two large iron-clads near by in the river exploded with a deafening crash, the concussion sweeping numbers of
people off their feet. The street we were in was one compact mass of frenzied people, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that we were able to force our way along. Had they been hostile our lives would not have been worth a moment’s purchase. But the poor colored people hailed our appearance with the most extravagant expressions of joy. They crowded into the ranks and besought permission to carry the soldiers’ knapsacks and muskets. They clapped them on the back, hung about their necks, and “God bless you,” and “Thank God, the Yankees have come,” resounded on every side. Women, emaciated, barefoot, with but one scanty skirt made from old bags, fell on their knees in the street, and with clasped hands and streaming eyes thanked God that their sufferings were ended at last. Others with little children, wretched little skeletons, clinging to their scanty skirts and crying with hunger and fright, pressed into the ranks and begged most piteously for food. One woman, I distinctly remember, with three little pale, starved girls clinging about her, herself barefoot, bareheaded, thinly and miserably clad, seized my arm with a vise-like grip, and begged for the love of God, for just a morsel for her starving children. They had tasted nothing since Sunday morning, and then only a spoonful of dry meal. I gave her the contents of my haversack, and one man in the ranks, a great, rough, swearing fellow, poured into her lap his entire three days’ rations of pork and hard bread, thrust a ten dollar greenback, all the money he possessed, into her hand, swearing like a pirate all the while as a means of relief to his overcharged feelings, their intensity being abundantly evident by the tears which coursed rapidly down his cheeks. I feel sure that the recording angel, as he charged up this man’s profanity against him in the book of life, kindly blotted it out with a tear, in consideration of the circumstances which called it forth.
The gutters literally ran whiskey. The members of the City Council, foreseeing the mischief that would ensue should the liquor shops be sacked, had rolled all the barrels to the curb
stone, knocked in their heads, and emptied their contents into the gutters. The poisonous flood rolled like a river of death rapidly on into the sewers, while the atmosphere fairly reeked with its unsavory odor. The rougher element of the population, white and black alike, were dipping up the vile stuff with their hands, and pouring it down their throats. The shrill whistle of locomotives sounded loud and frequent in the near distance, as train after train hurried away bearing frantic citizens with what valuables they had time to secure. Bands of thieves and rascals of every degree, broken loose from the penitentiary, were entering the stores on either side the street and stealing whatever they could lay their hands upon, while the entire black population seemed out of doors and crazy with delight. Tumult, violence, riot, pillage, everywhere prevailed, and as if these were not enough to illustrate the horrors of war, the roar of the flames, the clanging of bells, and general uproar and confusion were sufficient to appall the stoutest heart. Fearing violence from some unexpected source in the midst of such fearful scenes, I looked about for some avenue of escape into a less crowded street, where I could more easily keep the soldiers apart from the populace, but none presented itself. At length the heat became so great that we could proceed no further. Our hair and beards were scorched, our clothing smoked, the air we breathed was like a furnace blast, and many of the men, weighed down as they were with musket, knapsacks, blanket, ammunition, and other accoutrements, were well-nigh exhausted. Three fire engines were burning in the street immediately before us. On the sidewalk near by lay the bodies of three young girls burnt to a crisp. People jumped from the windows of burning buildings; others with wildly waving arms shrieked for help, not daring to take the fatal leap. On a lamp-post just at my right, I read the words “Fourteenth Street,” and turning to a citizen who stood in a porch on the corner, I asked him to direct me to the capitol. “Turn right up here,” he said, “go straight on for two or three streets, and you will see it just on your left.” He also added
that General Early, at the head of a body of Confederate cavalry, had passed along only a moment before, and with outstretched hand showed us through the smoke the rearmost rank.
Following his directions we soon arrived at the capitol, where arms were stacked, and the wearied soldiers threw themselves upon the ground to rest. It was not long before an orderly from General Weitzel rode up with orders to report to him at once in the house recently occupied by Jefferson Davis, not far from the capitol. Upon presenting myself, I was ordered to patrol the streets of the city with a sufficient number of men, to order all the colored people to their homes, there to remain until further orders, and to arrest every person in Confederate uniform of whatever rank, and bring them to General Weitzel’s headquarters. In this work I was busily engaged for nearly three entire days. General Lee’s army, after the surrender, poured into Richmond by thousands. The city swarmed with them. We gathered them in from the streets, the saloons, the houses, wherever the homeless, starving wretches could find warmth and shelter. Several times a day I marched down Broad Street at the head of two or three hundred officers and privates, halting for a moment at General Weitzel’s door until they could be counted, then continuing on to Libby Prison and Castle Thunder, where they were locked up until the peace and safety of the city were assured, when they were allowed to depart whithersoever they would. During those three days both those historic buildings were literally packed from cellar to roof with Confederate prisoners, a piece of retributive justice which gave solid comfort and satisfaction to all who witnessed it.
The same tumultuous scenes just described were visible throughout the city. The spacious capitol grounds afforded the only spot of refuge, and these were crowded with women and children, bearing in their arms and upon their heads their most cherished possessions. Piles of furniture lay scattered in every direction, and about them clustered the hungry and destitute
family groups, clinging to each other with the energy of despair. One of the most touching sights amid these accumulated horrors, was that of a little girl — a toddling infant — holding her kitten tightly under her arm, a dilapidated rag doll in one hand and grasping her mother’s gown with the other, as they sought shelter from the showers of cinders, under the capitol steps.
The constant explosion of ammunition in the arsenals seemed almost like a battle. Many citizens were killed by the flying fragments. Many were burned to death. In one house seventeen people perished from the flames. The sick, the aged, helpless and infirm, left to themselves in the general panic, could only pray for deliverance, which came to them when the flames had stifled their prayers in death.
Seven hundred and fifty thousand loaded shells in the arsenals, exploding from the heat, tore their way through houses, ploughed up the streets and the gardens, and spread death and destruction on every hand. The whole city jarred and vibrated with horrid sounds, while warehouses, stores, mills, bridges, depots, and dwellings went down by scores and hundreds. The streets leading to the railroad stations were filled with a frantic mob, pushing, struggling, cursing, trampling each other without mercy in their efforts to get away with what plunder they could carry. No troops of either army were in sight, only rebel stragglers, whose long familiarity with similar scenes rendered them, no doubt, the only cool-headed and indifferent spectators of these appalling sights. Over and above all the terrible roar of the conflagration as it leaped from building to building, from street to street, filled the whole city with its scorching breath, and lent added horrors to the scene.
Upon starting out on one of these Confederate-arresting expeditions that morning a couple of hours or so after first entering the city, we heard the strains of “Yankee Doodle” by a military band, and looking in the direction from which the strains proceeded, we perceived a column of Union troops just appear-
ing at the lower end of the city. A few moments more and a whole wall of shining bayonets came into view just over the brow of the hill flashing brightly in the sunshine, and above them the regimental flags waving in the morning breeze. It was the Third Division of the Twenty-Fourth Army Corps. The First Brigade, General Ripley, led the column, and the 13th New Hampshire, the oldest regiment in the brigade, held the post of honor on the right, and was consequently the first regiment to enter the city. As they came abreast of where we stood I halted my little force and exchanged salutes as they passed. The first duty to which they were assigned was to extinguish the fires which the enemy had kindled, and to aid in restoring order throughout the city. In less than forty-eight hours all this was accomplished. The evil disposed either fled the city or were unearthed from their hiding-places and received swift punishment at the hands of an authority that indulged in no triflings and whose judgments could neither be disregarded nor overruled. Human life and property became in that brief time as safe as in any city in the land, and Richmond enjoyed a safety and repose she had not known for years. Business soon resumed its sway, confidence was restored, and the people exulted openly in their escape from the despotism and outrages which they had experienced from the Confederate authorities. With so much destitution, misery and ruin there was of course great need of immediate relief; and this was freely given. An endless procession of citizens, rich and poor, black and white alike, presented itself daily at the depots for provisions and supplies, and received food, medicine, clothing, care and protection. A guard was placed over General Lee’s house when he returned to it a few days after the surrender, and he and his family were protected against intrusion and annoyance. All shared freely in the bounty of the government which they had fought desperately for four years to destroy. History may be searched in vain for a similar illustration of obedience to the divine injunction to forgive and feed one’s enemies.
The behavior of the Northern troops was all that could be desired. No brawls, disturbances, or conflicts with the citizens occurred, and ladies walked the streets unattended and in perfect security. The loyal citizens, who all through the war had been suppressed and silent, now uttered their sentiments freely and without fear. The roll of the Northern drum was no sooner heard in the streets than this element broke forth impetuously and greeted it with heartiest cheers; loyal eyes grew dim at sight of the flag they had so long vainly hungered to behold, and as its protecting folds floated from roof and balcony and window, all rejoiced in its supremacy. Human slavery was forever ended, and God-given Liberty was henceforth the common heritage of all.
- Civil War Papers: Read Before the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 1, pages 47-72 ↩