Leaving Richmond

Good morning, it’s Thursday, April 2, 2020. On this date in 1865, U.S. Army forces under the command of Ulysses S. Grant ended a 10-month siege by overrunning rebel lines at Petersburg, Va. “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight,” Robert E. Lee stated matter-of-factly in a telegram to Jefferson Davis.

Both men knew what this terse message foretold: the immediate evacuation of Richmond, the South’s capital, and the imminent collapse of the Confederacy.

As leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis had been president longer than Abraham Lincoln: Davis took his oath of office on February 18, 1861, two weeks before Lincoln’s inauguration. But as I noted in this space five years ago, on April 2, 1865, his time was up.

Davis was attending Sunday services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street in Richmond when he was informed that Grant’s men had overwhelmed Lee’s troops at Petersburg. The news left the Confederacy’s highest civilian authority conflicted. In one sense, he knew this day had been coming — he’d sent his wife out of the city a month earlier. Yet, his confidence in Robert E. Lee was so absolute that he delayed his own departure on the Danville train until an hour before midnight, still hoping for better news from the battle lines 25 miles away.

“Up to the hour of their departure from Richmond,” wrote Frank Lawley, a Times of London correspondent reporting from the city, “I can testify that Mr. Davis and the three most prominent members of his cabinet went undaunted forth to meet the future, not without hope that General Lee would be able to hold together a substantial remnant of his army.”

By then, fires were burning in the city. They’d been set deliberately by Confederate officials who incinerated documents and supplies — or were ignited accidentally by half-starved civilians desperate to get their hands on foodstuffs and other essentials.

“The most revolting revelation,” recalled Gen. George Pickett’s wife, LaSalle, “was the amount of provisions, shoes and clothing which had been accumulated by the speculators who hovered like vultures over the scene of death and desolation.

“Taking advantage of their possession of money and lack of both patriotism and humanity,” she added, “they had, by an early corner in the market and by successful blockade running, bought up all the available supplies with an eye to future gain, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and starving.”

Without soldiers around to keep order, the mood on the streets turned menacing. Looting broke out; the fires raged out of control. The next morning, Richmond’s hard-pressed populace was greatly relieved when Union troops under Gen. Godfrey Weitzel marched into the city.

“We took Richmond at 8:15 this morning,” Weitzel telegrammed Grant. “I captured many guns. The enemy left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. Am making every effort to put it out. The people received us with enthusiastic expressions of joy.”

After his troops had worked feverishly to tame the fires, Weitzel, a career Army officer and West Point man, took stock of the extraordinary spectacle before him. “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it,” he wrote, “was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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