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Richmond Burning

Updated on January 8, 2008

To many, the city of Richmond stood for the thing which they had all fought so hard; the Confederacy itself. Be it the soldier who guarded her, the citizens who lived within her, or the armies who sought to destroy her, to them Richmond stood as the last testament of a rebel nation and her fall could not have been more devastating or more beautiful. All who were witness to the smoke and fire that gutted her proud form knew the end had come to four long years of warfare. Be it in jubilation or resignation, all paid homage to a once proud and resilient ideal that had at last been defeated.

Through his continuous use of private memoirs, diaries, letters, and publications, Nelson Lankford, in his book Richmond Burning; The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, is trying to paint for the reader a clear and unbiased portrait of the fall of the Confederate capital during the Civil War. Lankford is able to describe the last days of the capital without crossing the line between pro-union loyalty and pro-confederate sentimentality. By reading this book, one can surmise the many faults and flaws of both the Union Army that overtook Richmond and the Confederate army that left it to join with Lee without worrying that their opinion of the event will be clouded by the personal thoughts of the author. His narrative gives the reader a chance to truly see the event as it unfolded, detail by detail. The reader can submerse themselves in the observations of the defeated Confederate soldiers in retreat from Richmond, the southern citizens left behind to fend for themselves, or the conquering army of the Union. He points out the contradictory details gathered from the many different renditions of this moment in history as well as the many different details given by people who witnessed it.

Langford's main objective is to satisfy the curiosity of all those who are interested in this event. To start, he creates for the reader an accurate timeline of the fall of the capital. He desires the reader to experience for themselves exactly what transpired during those weeks of April, 1865. He pulls the reader through each stage of events, from the evacuation, to the surrender, and finally the occupation of Richmond. His extended use of primary sources as well as his use of newly discovered diaries and letters allows the reader to understand more fully what occurred during each day as well as subsequent days thereafter. He permits them to see this event not only from the eyes of documented history but also through the eyes of those present.

Throughout Richmond Burning, Lankford strives to point out to the reader the importance of Richmond, Virginia to the Confederate cause and the desire of Unionist forces to destroy it. Many southerners saw Richmond as the cornerstone of the Confederacy. With Thomas Jefferson's neoclassical capitol building looming over Capitol Square and Thomas Crawford's bronze equestrian statue of George Washington gazing down upon its citizens, Richmond represented a place where nations were created and ideas were set into motion. As long as Richmond stood as the Capital of the Confederacy, the south still had a chance. This view was taken by Unionists as well. In order to destroy the Confederacy, they had to strike at the very heart of it, which was Richmond. If Richmond fell, the war would be over and the nation would be reunited once again. This assumption held true because, as Lankford describes, shortly after the fall of Richmond, Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox and a month later the war is over.

He also tries to convey the thoughts and emotions of the many that were affected by the evacuation and capture of the great city. He fills the pages with quotes, giving the reader an insight into minds of those who were witness. The reader is able to feel the hesitation of soldiers and city leaders to burn warehouses in order to destroy Confederate goods and evacuate their beloved city in the hopes that somehow they would prevail against the enemy. There are many other emotions prevalent throughout this book as well. The relief portrayed by Union soldiers who entered the city shows their desire to be done with fighting and a sense of accomplishment at being the ones who took down the Confederacy. The joy of several citizens reveals the union sympathizers within the Confederate stronghold. The switching of loyalties instantaneously proves that there were some who only cared for themselves. Finally, the depression and sorrow felt through the words of those very loyal southerners demonstrates the sense of defeat that they knew was not long in coming.

Lankford does not limit himself to focusing on one side or the other. He gives acknowledgment to both in hopes that one day people will acknowledge that this event was important to the entire nation, not just the "rebellious" south or the "domineering" north. From his eloquent description of Richmond to his dedicated rendition of events, Richmond Burning stands out as an unprejudiced and dramatic narrative bound for greatness in the world of history. This book teaches its audience about the importance of research, the use of first hand information, and the dedication required to write such a novel. One takes away from this experience a greater understanding and respect for all those who were a part of the Civil War and a pressing desire to learn more. Curiosity about the event will be sated and minds will be opened as to the true meaning behind the war that took so many lives. It was fought because of a need to preserve a way of life and its end proved to be a stepping stone for a country destined to become a world power.

This article is the opinion of the writer and the writer has sole ownership of this content.


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