The Fall of Richmond
In the early hours of 12 April 1861, Union soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter, on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina, were awakened by the sound of Confederate batteries opening fire upon them. The Union forces were bombarded for the next 34 hours until they finally surrendered.
This surprise attack signaled the beginning of dark times for the United States. The American Civil War would divide a nation, pitting friend against friend and brother against brother.
After four long years, the war ended with the Confederate South surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse shortly after Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States, fell to the Northern forces.
The Jewel of the South
Before the Civil War, Richmond was a bustling city with a thriving international import/export trade. In exchange for Southern cotton and tobacco, Richmond and the rest of the South received regular supplies of coffee, spices, slaves and other products from different countries.
Richmond’s business district included carriage manufacturers, slave traders, hotels, newspapers, restaurants, private schools, druggists, doctors, saloons, dentists, five foreign consulates, flour mills, a paper mill, saddle and harness makers, gunsmiths, a sail maker, soap and candle manufacturers, two rolling mills, a canal and five railroads including the Richmond and Danville Railroad. This railroad was vital during the war in connecting Richmond to the rest of the Confederate states.
Geared for War
Thirteen working foundries made Richmond the iron-manufacturing capital of the South. The Tredegar Iron Works produced over 1,100 cannons as well as mines, torpedoes, propeller shafts and other war machinery. Richmond Laboratory manufactured more than 72 million cartridges in addition to grenades, gun carriages, field artillery and canteens. The Richmond Armoury had an production capacity of 5,000 small arms a month.
Just a Small, Southern Town
With a population of 38,000 before the war boom, Richmond was the second largest city in the Confederacy just behind New Orleans. Despite having all the trappings of a cosmopolitan metropolis, Richmond still retained its small-town charm. This can be attributed to the continuity of the citizenry with the leading, socially-elite families having known each other for decades.
Richmond was the quintessential Southern belle: charming, fashionable, unassuming.
Richmond Becomes the Confederate Capital
Because of its importance and proximity to the majority of the fighting, in May 1861, the Confederate Congress voted to moved the capital of the Confederate States from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia.
Overnight, Richmond became the capital, military headquarters, transportation hub, industrial heart, prison, and hospital centre of the Confederacy. This distinction made Richmond a prime target for the Northern military.
Washington D.C., the Union capital, and Richmond were only 100 miles apart. But unlike Richmond, who had witnessed more than its fair share of fighting, Washington was never seriously threatened.
War Brings Change
War brought many changes to Richmond. The most notable could be seen amongst its citizenry. The population rose sharply from 38,000 to 128,000 putting a strain on the city’s infrastructure and its resources.
In addition to hundreds of military regiments from other Confederate states stationed in Richmond, there were hundreds of workers for the government offices supporting the war. Soon less desirous denizens also began pouring into the city.
Speculators, gamblers, drifters, prostitutes, all manner of unsavoury characters arrived daily to make Richmond their home. In their wake, saloons, gambling halls, billiard parlours, cockfighting dens and brothels sprung up around the city to cater to these people.
One city editor summed up the situation thus, ‘'With the Confederate Government came the rag, tag and bobtail which ever pursue political establishments. The pure society of Richmond became woefully adulterated. Its peace was destroyed, its good name defiled; it became a den of thieves, extortioners, substitutes, deserters and blacklegs.'
The once demure Southern belle had grown into a brazen harlot.
The End is Nigh
Confederate victory seemed almost assured as the Southern armies won some notable battles. The beginning of 1865 saw events on the battlefield take a turn for the worse.
Fort Fisher in Wilmington, North Carolina ensured their port remained open to blockade runners; those questionable 'heroes' of the South who smuggled goods and supplies past the Union blockade to the military and civilian population.
In January 1865, Fort Fisher was taken by the Union forces with the crippling repercussions felt in Richmond and the rest of the South.
The economy went into meltdown and inflation spiralled out of control. Even the most basic of foodstuffs became virtually impossible to obtain. When they were available, buyers could expect to pay $1,500 for flour, $12-$15 and $20 per pound for beef and butter, respectively.
Boots sold for $500 a pair. Neither soldiers nor their families could hope to acquire new boots at this price so the troops made do with what they had; repairing their old boots as best they could. When repairs were no longer possible, the ‘lucky’ ones would acquire new-ish boots from dead soldiers. The less fortunate would be reduced to tying rags on their feet in an effort to feet in an effort to protect and keep them warm. It was a disheartening sight for the officers to come across bloody footprints in the snow where their men had been patrolling.
With prices so prohibitive, Southerners had little choice but to live as frugally as possible.
Meat was a rare commodity as farm animals had either been commandeered by the military or already eaten by the family. Meals consisted of cornbread dunked in bacon drippings, dried beans, and a concoction of brewed roasted chicory, roasted acorns, yams and/or a variety of local grains, which passed for coffee.
Mrs. William A. Simmons, whose husband was serving in the trenches, summed up the situation succinctly in a diary entry dated 23 March 1865: ‘Close times in this beleaguered city. You can carry your money in your market basket and bring home your provisions in your purse.'
A foreign businessman who had business dealings in Richmond transferred his paper money to coined currency on the advice of his banker as Confederate legal tender was becoming worthless.
Petersburg Under Siege
The Confederate capital of Richmond had long been a valued prize for the Union forces, but she proved difficult to capture. The Confederate government had allocated a significant portion of men and resources to ensure Richmond would not fall into Union hands. After failing to take her during the Overland Campaign (4 May-12 June, 1864), Union General Ulysses S. Grant changed tactics and headed for Petersburg.
Petersburg’s many railroads were critical in bringing supplies to Richmond and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Capturing Petersburg and her railroads would further debilitate Richmond and force General Lee to either relinquish her or meet General Grant on open ground.
For nearly a year, General Grant laid siege to Petersburg and General Lee’s army. Despite the bitter fighting in the trenches surrounding Petersburg, the Confederate army successfully rebuffed all Union attempts to cut the rail lines and capture Petersburg.
However, by March, 1865, desertion, illness and injury had seriously weakened General Lee’s army leaving him with only 44,000 exhausted, hungry men and no hope of getting fresh recruits or supplies. Against General Grant’s 128,000 well-fed and well-equipped soldiers, it was a matter of when, not if, the Northern forces would break through. Still Richmond, and indeed most of the South, believed that General Lee and the Confederate army would never let their capital city fall.
As March wore on, many citizens, fearing the worst, made ready to flee Richmond. Red flags began to appear outside houses indicating furniture for sale and houses to rent. Though who they hoped to sell to at a time when there was no money to be had I cannot imagine.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had also begun preparations to move his wife and children from Richmond to Charlotte, North Carolina. He gave his wife, Varina, a pistol and showed her how to use it. If the worst should happen, he instructed her to take the family to the Florida coast and board a ship to another country if they could find no safe refuge.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
President Davis was attending church services on Sunday, 2 April, 1985 when a telegram was delivered to him. It was from General Lee informing him the Northern troops had broken through the lines around Petersburg. General Lee further advised that the defense of Richmond was no longer possible, and she would have to be abandoned.
President Davis and his aides left the church in the middle of the service. As they walked briskly up the aisle towards the exit, a ripple of whispers followed their progress. Once outside, he issued orders for the immediate evacuation of the government from Richmond. A new capital would be set up in Danville, Virginia.
President Davis then went home to tell his family they would be leaving.
The evacuation of Richmond would not be announced officially to the public for hours. However, the populous could not help but notice fires outside the government offices being fed countless documents pertaining to the war effort. Rumours began to circulate among the worried citizenry. Officials neither confirmed or denied any of them. One insider, though, did acknowledge there had been fighting near Petersburg and hinted that the government would most likely be gone within 24 hours.
By 4 o'clock that afternoon, official word of the Confederate government's departure was announced. Chaos soon followed. For the rest of the afternoon and all through the night, officials and the more prominent citizens packed what they could and employed all manner of conveyances to hasten their escape from Richmond.
Through it all, President Davis did not give up hope. Until the last minute, he kept expecting, praying for a telegram from General Lee informing him that the tide had turned in their favour, and Richmond was now safe. It never arrived.
While the citizens that were able to left Richmond, the remaining Confederate soldiers burned what they could to keep Southern assets out of enemy hands. Tea, cotton and still more government documents were fed to the numerous fires dotting the city. As they burned, the winds began to pick up sending embers which came to rest on surrounding structures. Soon the business district was alight.
Adding to the horror of this surreal nightmare came the sound of explosions. The Tredegar Iron Works had been set ablaze setting off the loaded shells that were stored there. The citizens' mild frenzy grew into outright panic.
A column of black smoke was soon seen rising near the railroad station as ironclads, steam-propelled warships fitted with iron armour, were consumed by flames. Soon the ships' munitions began to explode. Windows as far as two miles away were blown out, tombstones were overturned and doors torn from their hinges. The citizens who were forced to stay behind were nearly out of their minds with terror.
And yet, as the last of the Confederate troops of Richmond rode out to join General Lee, the people they left behind were convinced they would soon return to take Richmond back.
After the Fall
Early the next morning, the citizens saw soldiers marching towards Richmond. It was not the homespun cloth of the Confederate uniform coming back but the navy blue of the conquering Union troops.
The Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry were soon flying two guidons from the capital building. Soon after the remaining denizens of Richmond were looking upon the United States flag.
Shortly after the Union Army's arrival in Richmond, Union General Godfrey Weitzel sent a telegram to General Grant informing him that Richmond was theirs.
General Weitzel's first task was to restore order to what remained of Richmond.
Fires were still burning in the city. General Weitzel instructed his troops to put them out. Fortunately, the city's two fire engines were still in working order. Bucket brigades were formed to extinguish the flames. Unsafe buildings were knocked down and used as firebreaks to help prevent the fires from spreading further. It was an arduous task as the winds were still fanning the flames. Still the conquering army battled on. After five long hours, the winds finally shifted, and the Union troops were able to bring the fire under control.
It is a bittersweet irony that the grand dame of the South had almost been destroyed by those who had sworn to protect her and rescued by those who sought to bring her to her knees.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by Joan Baez
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