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

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" | Source

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, they were looking forward to Lee launching an attack they were sure would smash Grant and end the threat.

In his contemporaneous account, Southern History of the War, Edward A. Pollard, who himself lived in Richmond at the time, writes that practically no one in the city had any inkling that its time as the capital of the Confederacy was about to expire.

View of Richmond from Gambles Hill, April 1865
View of Richmond from Gambles Hill, April 1865 | Source

A thunderclap from clear skies

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, informing Davis that the lines of Lee’s army had been broken in three places, and he could no longer protect the city. The Confederate government must be prepared to leave Richmond that very night.

Rumors of the impending evacuation spread quickly. The inhabitants of the city were so unprepared for such news that it burst upon them, as Pollard put 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 “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.

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.

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 Confederate capital

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 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 | Source

Poll Question

Were Confederate authorities right in blowing up military facilities in Richmond at the risk of destroying the city?

See results without voting

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 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 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!" | Source

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 | Source

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.

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

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24 comments

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 20 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

An excellent piece as always. This is very interesting and I learned a great deal about a real important event in our nation's history. Thank you


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Ericdierker. I'm always fascinated by people and how they reacted to the events that shaped our nation. That's why it's so interesting to be able to see those events through, what are to me, the very foreign eyes of folks like Jones and McGuire.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 20 months ago from sunny Florida

Ron, this is so interesting to read. I have been reading much history over the last six months or so trying to refresh my knowledge and to fill in gaps that are there.

I grew up in Virginia, lived there till I was 18. I read of the founding of the colony and of places like Williamsburg and Jamestown. We did not learn too much about the Civil War...by that I mean, not much in depth. We learned about it but much was missing that I now know.

Thanks for sharing another informative and interesting article.

Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

Voted up++++ shared Pinned to Awesome HubPages g+ twitter


CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 20 months ago from Orlando Florida

This is so very well done. It is history, but as exciting to read as a novel. I wonder what would have happened if the South had not lost. Would the Confederate States still be dealing in slaves? Would both the North and the South, now weakened by war and existing as two separate hostile countries, both have been conquered by another country? H+, voted up +++


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, pstraubie48. It's interesting that growing up in Virginia you didn't get more in-depth teaching on the Civil War since so many of the most important battles and events of the war took place there. Maybe it's not only because the outcome was unpalatable, but also that contention about issues surrounding the war is still very evident today.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 20 months ago from The Caribbean

I find the diary entries very interesting, and revealing of the emotional state of the writers (and likely many others). The dilemma of not knowing which leader to pray for is humorous, but it shows the residents' willingness to pray. You make such a great history reporter, Ron.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Catherine, I appreciate that. My opinion is that if the South had won, it still would have lost. Even during the war states like Georgia and North Carolina had severe differences with the Confederate government in Richmond. I think that having established the principle that dissatisfied states could leave any time they wanted, and no longer having a common enemy to unite them, the CSA would quickly have dissolved into a bunch of quarreling "nations" as states with grievances broke away. The South would have become an American Balkans. The whole North American continent would have been plunged into decades of instability as the Southern states, which already had a culture that encouraged hair-triggered combativeness, fell into ever more serious squabbles with one another. Hmmm, I feel another hub coming on!


CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 20 months ago from Orlando Florida

I'll definitely read that hub. You have very good insights. Perhaps an alternative history.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, MsDora. The prayer question became a very serious political issue. Union officials were not satisfied with the solution of not praying for either president. They eventually required that in any church where the liturgy required a prayer for the president, the prayer must be prayed, and prayed for the President of the United States. Some slight issue of separation of church and state there! But that policy reflected a very real concern that all relics of the rebellion must be uprooted as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Catherine, stay tuned!


stevarino profile image

stevarino 20 months ago from East Central Indiana

Columbia, SC, also burned after the departure of the Confederate Army, but it was believed to have been caused by the celebratory activities of freed Union POWs and slaves and exacerbated by unusually high gusts of wind - at least according to my recollection of past reading.

Thanks for yet another historical gem!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, stevarino, and thanks for reading and sharing. Actually, Columbia was burned by Sherman's soldiers after they occupied the town. There was a lot of good, Southern liquor flowing during the day, and that night they took their revenge on the place they blamed for the whole war, the place where secession started. Sherman didn't order the burning, but admitted afterward that it cost him no tears.


cam8510 profile image

cam8510 20 months ago from Columbus, Georgia until the end of November 2016.

Excellently written. You've touched on some historical points I had not considered before, such as people not allowed to pray publicly for the confederate president. Thanks for sharing such a scholarly piece of historical writing.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, cam8510. It's those "little" incidents, so easy to overlook in the shadow of great battles and political events, but of great importance to the people who lived through them, that make history so compelling for me.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 20 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

As far as anyone here could tell, the Confederacy was still alive and well in WWII when the US Army, USAAF and US Navy came to Britain before D-Day. Officers of the US forces told local publicans not to serve black soldiers and the rumour was spread that black US personnel were disease ridden (VD) in order to deter local women from socialising with them.

Then in the 60's we saw in the papers, on TV and in cinemas about the race riots in Alabama, along with bussing black kids to separate schools. On top of that Robert Kennedy had the 'front' to fly to South Africa and tell the government there of its error in pursuing apartheid.

Verwoerd would have felt like reminding him of matters at home, but he must have been too much of a gentleman. It was all smiles and hand-shaking, 'see him off and forget about it'.

Illuminating piece of writing, Ron. Worthy of the title 'journalism'.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Good observation, Alan. In many ways the CSA won the war after the war. When Federal troops were withdrawn from the South after Reconstruction, Southern whites were able to reinstate a level of control over the black population, by what today we would call terrorism, that came about as close to a continuation of slavery as could be imagined. Even today organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans continue to fight to keep the memory of the Confederacy not only alive but revered. IMO, in many ways it's fair to say that our Civil War is not really over yet. Thanks for reading and sharing.


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 20 months ago from Chicago Area

Just love your history hubs, Ron! Wonderful perspective and well researched. Voted up and interesting, of course. Happy Weekend!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, heidithorne. And happy weekend to you!


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

Beautiful, superbly written article. I spent a lovely morning in 1997 walking around the Five Forks battlefield where Phil Sheridan broke through rebel lines and forced the evacuation of Richmond. I saw the spot where Pickett and his entourage were enjoying a shad bake while his troops were getting worsted. You are lucky to be in a place where you can easily drive to these historical wonderlands. Great hub!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Mel. Your comment about Pickett reminds me that the fish he ate that day might be the most expensive shad in history. Robert E. Lee thought so: even as the Confederacy was dissolving around him, he took the time to cashier Pickett from the army. But things were so disorganized by then, Pickett hung on and apparently never had to bear the shame of being dismissed.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub Ron about your Civil War series. This was a great read and interesting too about what happened back then during our history. Voted up!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you so much, Kristen. I've never been able to fathom how anyone could think history dull!


Jennifer Mugrage profile image

Jennifer Mugrage 15 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

Thanks for this very educational Hub. I did not vote in the poll, not being a military strategist. Obviously, the hoped-for answer is that setting fire to Richmond was a dumb thing to do, but not being in their shoes, it's hard to know how realistic were the other considerations that they had.

It did strike me that, based on what little I know about the Confederacy, setting fire to their own city in order spite the North is highly symbolic of their whole M.O. In some ways, the entire war was like that.

But I also know that in moments of shock and crisis, people often do irrational things. Sometimes they will seize on a guiding principle and ride it to absurdity. Sounds like that's what happened here.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 15 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

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.

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