The Fall of Richmond
by Horace Greeley and Edward Pollard
Petersburg was still held by the rebel army; but Lee saw that it could not be held much longer. His heavy losses-by this time exceeding 10,000 men-and the utter demolition of his right, rendered it morally certain that to hold on was to insure the capture or destruction of his army; and well he knew that his veterans were the last hope of the Rebellion. For Grant was now at liberty to throw forward his left to the Appomattox; while it was morally certain that his cavalry would soon clutch the railroad junction at Burkesville, which had now become the jugular vein of the gasping Confederacy. At 10.30 A. M., therefore, he telegraphed to Davis in Richmond a dispatch, containing very near these words:
"My lines are broken in three places. Richmond must be evacuated this evening."
That message found Mr. Davis, at 11 A. M., in church, where it was handed to him, amid an awful hush; and he immediately went quietly, soberly out-never to return as President of the Confederacy. No word was spoken but the whole assemblage felt that the missive he had so hastily perused bore words of doom. Tho the handwriting was not blazoned on the wall, it needed no Daniel to declare its import.
Let no one can duly depict that last afternoon and night of Confederate rule in Richmond but an eye-witness: so let Pollard narrate for us the visible collapse and fall of the Slave Power in its chosen metropolis. After stating how, upon Mr. Davis's withdrawal from church, "the rumor was caught up in the streets that Richmond was to be evacuated, and was soon carried to the ends of the city," he proceeds:
"Men, women, and children rushed from the churches, passing from lip to lip news of the impending fall of Richmond. And yet, it was difficult to believe it. To look up to the calm, beautiful sky of that spring day, unassailed by one single noise of battle, to watch the streets, unvexed by artillery or troops, stretching away into the quiet, hazy atmosphere, and believe that the capital of the Confederacy, so peaceful, so apparently secure, was in a few hours to be the prey of the enemy, and to be wrapt in the infernal horrors of a conflagration!
"It was late in the afternoon when the signs of evacuation became apparent to the incredulous. Wagons on the streets were being hastily loaded at the departments with boxes, trunks, etc., and driven to the Danville depot. Those who had determined to evacuate with the fugitive government looked on with amazement; then, convinced of the fact, rushed to follow the government's example. Vehicles suddenly rose to a premium value that was astounding; and ten, fifteen, and even a hundred dollars, in gold or Federal currency, was offered for a conveyance. Suddenly, as if by magic, the streets became filled with men, walking as tho for a wager, and behind them excited negroes with trunks, bundles, and luggage of every description. All over the city it was the same wagons, trunks, bandboxes, and their owners, a mass of hurrying fugitives, filling the streets. The banks were all open, and depositors were as busy as bees removing their specie deposits; and the directors were equally active in getting off their bullion. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of paper money was destroyed, both State and Confederate. Night came; and with it came confusion worse confounded. There was no sleep for human eyes in Richmond that night.
"The City Council had met in the evening and resolved to destroy all the liquor in the city, to avoid the disorder consequent on the temptation to drink at such a time. About the hour of midnight the work commenced, under the direction of committees of citizens in all the wards. Hundreds of barrels of liquor were rolled into the street, and the heads knocked in. The gutters ran with a liquor freshet, and the fumes filled and impregnated the air. Fine cases of bottled liquors were tossed into the street from third story windows, and wrecked into a thousand pieces. As the work progressed, some straggling soldiers, retreating through the city, managed to get hold of a quantity of the liquor. From that moment law and order ceased to exist. Many of the stores were pillaged; and the sidewalks were encumbered with broken glass, where the thieves had smashed the windows in their reckless haste to lay hands on the plunder within. The air was filled with wild cries of distress, or the yells of roving pillagers.
"But a more terrible element was to appear upon the scene. An order had been issued from General Ewell's headquarters to fire the four principal tobacco warehouses of the city-namely, the public warehouse, situated at the head of the basin, near the Petersburg railroad depot; Shockoe warehouse, situated near the center of the city, side by side with the Gallego flour-mills; Mayo's warehouse, and Dibrell's warehouse, on Cary Street, a square below Libby prison.
"Morning broke upon a scene such as those who witnessed it can never forget. The roar of an Immense conflagration sounded in their ears; tongues of flame leapt from street to street; and in this baleful glare were to be seen, as of demons, the figures of busy plunderers, moving, pushing, rioting, through the black smoke and into the open street, bearing away every conceivable sort of plunder.
"The scene at the commissary depot. at the head of the dock, beggared description. Hundreds of government wagons were loaded with bacon, flour, and whisky, and driven off in hot haste to join the retreating army. Thronging about the depot were hundreds of men, women, and children, black and white, provided with capacious bags, baskets, tubs, buckets, tin pans, and aprons; cursing, pushing, and crowding; awaiting the throwing open of the doors, and the order for each to help himself.
"About sunrise the doors were opened to the populace; and a rush that almost seemed to carry the building off its foundation was made, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of bacon, flour, etc., were soon swept away by a clamorous crowd."
Our lines opposite Richmond-that is, north of the James-had been held since Ord's withdrawal southward, by General Godfrey Weitzd, with Kautz's division of the Twenty-fourth and Ashborne's and Thomas's divisions of the Twenty-fifth Corps, under instructions from Grant to make the utmost show of strength and purpose to assault, so as to keep the enemy here in force, while the bulk of our army should be flanking and fighting him out of Petersburg. These instructions had been faithfully, efficiently obeyed; tho Longstreet, confronting Weitzel, had at length suspected the true character of Grant's strategy, and had himself, with a part of his force, moved southward to the help of Lee at Petersburg. Weitzel, however, persisted in speaking daggers, but using none; and, throughout the memorable Sunday evening of the rebel hegira, tho his guns were silent, his bands were vocal far into the night, treating our friends behind the opposite entrenchments with variations and iterations of "Hail, "Yankee Doodle," and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in utter disregard of Shakespeare's dictum averring a natural antagonism between Treason and Melody. No one on our side seems to have suspected that the rebel soldiery were even then stealthily withdrawing from their works in our front, preparatory to hastening after their comrades who had already filed hurriedly and dolefully out of the opposite portals of Richmond. . .
The rebel defenses appeared to have been while manned, almost impregnable. Two separate lines of abatis, three lines of rifle-pits and earth-works-the first and second connected by regular lines of redans-with a fort or very strong earthwork on every elevation-such were a part of the impediments which had so long kept our soldiers out of Richmond. If one of these lines had been carried, it was completely commanded by the next behind it; so that our loss while holding it must have been ten to one; while to advance and storm the next barrier must, for the moment, have involved still greater prodigality of life. Yet these works our troops had lain down the previous night expecting to assail at daybreak in the morning. .
Before noon of that day the news of Richmond's fall had been flashed across the loyal States, and it was soon confirmed by telegrams from President Lincoln, then at City Point, and from the Secretary of War at Washington. In New York an impromptu gathering of many thousands immediately filled Wall Street, and listened, with cheers and thanksgiving to dispatches, addresses, etc. while the bells of Trinity and St. Paul's chimed melodiously with the general joy and praise. So in Washington and other great cities, the popular feeling af relief and gratitude found many modes of expression, wherein the readers of next day's journals will detect no unmanly exultation over the fallen, and scarcely a word bespeaking wrath or bitterness, or demanding vengeful inflictions on those whose unhallowed ambition had so long divided, so widely devastated, and so nearly destroyed, the republic.