From the Richmond Dispatch, 4/1/1883, p. 1, c. 3
EVENTS OF THE EVACUATION.
TESTIMONY OF WITNESSES AS TO THE BURNING OF THE CITY.
Descriptions of Richmond in the Last Days of the War – How She Was Surrendered.
Eighteen years since the Evacuation of Richmond! The children of that day are men and women now. How time flies!
The “lines” have been broken through in many places by the hand of the husbandman. The early wheat is bursting into life from the ground where rifle-pits were thick. Upon the batteries, half overgrown with trees, the buds are opening and the birds singing. The plowman afield now and then ceases to whistle, and raises from the furrow a stray bullet, a broken canteen, a rusty bayonet, or the thigh-bone of a soldier.
The river is open from falls to mouth. The forts are silent, and the earthworks washing away. The iron-clads have gone. Their last shells have burst. A few piles on either shore, seen only at low water, mark where the pontoon and military bridges stood. There is not a tent or campfire on the banks of the river. All the great hosts are absent – many no more to answer a roll-call in this life.
In and about the city there is life, but it is not the life of our Troy. The pickets watch the roads no more. No courier waits eager to take the first alarm of danger to the capital. The provost guard is disbanded. On the street no demand is made for “your papers.” At the cars you are not asked for your passport. Gone are the sun-bronzed men in homespun gray. Their faded, trench-stained suits; their brown blankets twined from shoulder to hip; their haversacks with bare supply of hardtack and, on lucky days, bits of meat; their muskets – constant companions in battle and bivouac – all have disappeared.
In the poignancy of our early grief we swore that they should ever live in our memory. We declared that come oppression, woe, contumely, and poverty, we would never forget their sufferings, watches, wounds, death. Yet no stone has been laid in Richmond in a monument to Lee and his veterans! Yet it is a yearly struggle to get the few dollars necessary to “keep green their graves!”
These thoughts will rise as the anniversary of Evacuation-Day approaches.
It was Sunday morning, April 2, 1865 – a fair spring day. The trees on the Capitol Square were quickening from bud to leaf. The church-bells rang out their monition to cease from labor and invitation to worshippers. Hundred of the women who entered the houses of God were in black. Indeed, nearly all wore black, and those who were not in mourning and those who were only distinguished by some bright trimming – a red band or gold military braid – on the dresses or wraps of such girls as had not been called upon to mourn father or brother or betrothed.
The men were nearly all in uniform. They were regular officers and soldiers of the post or from the hospitals of Chimborazo, Howard’s Grove, or Camps Jackson or Winder, or members of the local brigade, organized from the employes of the Tredegar, Armory, and Arsenal, and from the clerical forces in the War, Navy, State, and Post-Office Departments, and of boys and men of the city who were either too young or too old for regular service in the army in the field. Hundreds of men walked on crutches; many more carried one or other of their arms in slings – signs of wounds received in battle.
Though no record of the texts of that day remains, it may be fairly inferred that the preachers besought the people to be courageous, to be prayerful, to be submissive. It was a time of great distress. The storehouses were nearly exhausted. The raiders, by invading the country and stealing horses and burning farm-houses and barns and carrying off the only agricultural laborers (the slaves), had put a stop to production, while blockaded ports prevented help from the outer world.
The army suffered for food, but in the city the poor women and children, deprived by the necessities of war of their natural protectors, and often forced to call at “the Commissary” for help, suffered yet more. Confederate currency was good for gold only at a rate of from sixty to sixty-five for one, and speculators had “cornered” many articles now regarded as of prime necessity.
For the people generally, coffee had long been banished; tea was just as scarce and high. They drank, and many learned to like, a mixture made from grains of wheat, or rye, or beans, first toasted and then ground and mixed as coffee. Rye was regarded as best. Potatoes were sometimes used. Sugar was very precious. Eight-tenths of the people did not use it at all. That to be obtained was very coarse, and sorghum took its place.
At one time a great crowd of women – many of them excellent women, all assertions to the contrary notwithstanding – in a paroxysm of distress and rage against the speculators rioted in the streets, clamoring for bread. Governor Letcher’s appeal to their patience and patriotism more than the menace of bayonets by the Public Guard dispersed them.
In these days no man kept a family carriage. The horses had all been “pressed” for army service, and spectral-looking objects they were; needing food as did their riders. The iron of the street-car tracks (laid from Ninth street to Libby Hill) had been taken up for use either as armor for an iron-clad or to put upon a battery at Drewry’s Bluff.
A SAD OUTLOOK.
Privation, wounds, desertion, and death had wasted Lee’s army. For Grant’s army the winter of ‘64 had been one of accretion; for Lee’s one of depletion. Grant had lengthened the lines till Lee had not the men to properly man his. The time long foreseen had come. Lee must drive in Grant’s left wing, or his own communications would be ruined. He massed several divisions and fell upon the enemy; but the object could not be accomplished. Retreat only was left.
President Davis, sitting in St. Paul’s church April 2, 1865, received from Lee a telegram telling him that he could no longer hold his position. Soon thereafter the evacuation of Richmond was begun. The horrors of that afternoon and night no man of feeling then present can efface from his recollection. One of the departments of the Government was in the present St. Claire Hotel, and at the corner of Ninth and Grace they commenced to make a bonfire of their papers. This advertised the news. Panic followed. Later the warehouses were fired by governmental orders, despite the protests of Major I. H. Carrington, Provost Marshal, but before that rioting had commenced. All authority was at end. Hangers-on of the army, city roughs, and desperadoes who had made their headquarters here, commenced to pillage. Honest men, and women too, believing that the fire would destroy everything, thought they might as well help themselves to food and clothing from the stores, and so they did.
THE BURNING CITY
The city afire lighted the country for miles around. From zenith to horizon the heavens reflected the flames. As morning advanced out of the hideous night the great Confederate storehouse of powder, the poor-house magazine, was fired and exploded, and shook every building in the city and all but demolished some. Then followed the explosion of the iron-clads and war-ships in the river. Then the fire reached the arsenal and armory, and the shells there stored commenced bursting.
THE CONVICTS LOOSE.
The Public Guard having been withdrawn from Richmond, the care of the prisoners in the penitentiary devolved upon a few officers of that institution, who long held them in subjugation; but the prisoners saw that the city was burning and discovered the absence of the guard, and raised a mighty clamor for release. Pillagers entered the institution, and between them and the prisoners who freed themselves the shops and other buildings were robbed and fired. The convicts then spread themselves over the city. After doing much mischief, many escaped entirely. Others were recaptured through the efforts of Officer Caleb Jacob and by the help of the military.
The conflagration at the penitentiary was only suppressed after great loss had been inflicted.
OH, IT WAS FEARFUL!
No man knew where the fire would end. No man knew what the enemy, upon entering, would do. Hundreds were homeless, and had what they had saved in the Capitol Square, subject to the general pillage. The roads west of the city were filled with fugitives. The prominent men went out on cars or horses; common-folk fugitives footed it up the canal-bank or over the Danville railroad. Very few Confederate troops passed through Richmond. From the lines north of the James most of them crossed the river on the military bridges.
As for the fire, it swept from Mayo’s warehouse up to the Tredegar in one direction and to Main street in the other. On Cary and the south side of Main it extended from Fourteenth to Ninth; on the north side of Main from about where Randolph & English’s now is to the corner of Eighth, and on Bank street from Twelfth to Eighth. Nearly the entire square on which the St. James Hotel stands was destroyed. The present front and columns of the Exchange (First National) Bank withstood the flames. The post-office was very little hurt. The Mechanics’ Institute (War Dpeartment), on Ninth street, went down, and Dr. Read’s church, at the northwest corner of Franklin and Eighth streets, was destroyed.
Among other structures destroyed were the Danville and Petersburg depots, American and Columbian Hotels, Dispatch and Enquirer and Examiner offices, Mayo’s, Shockoe, Public, and some other warehouses’ Mayo’s, Danville, and Petersburg bridges; Gallego Mills, and the State Armory. Some warehouses on Cary street between Twentieth and Twenty-second were also fired and burnt, as were the Confederate navy-yards on both sides of the river at Rocketts and tobacco factories by the dozen.
History of the Evacuation Fire.
The best history of the firing and burning of Richmond is in the following testimony taken in 1879 by that thorough and able lawyer, John Howard, Esq., in suits pending between Graeme and Vials, executors, and the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia, in which the liability of the Society for certain buildings then destroyed was tried. The depositions here given therefrom are those of Colonel Ewell, of the staff of General Ewell; Hon. John A. Meredith, Judge of the Circuit Court; James A. Scott, Esq., of the City Council, and Dr. Davidson, dentist, and Major I. H. Carrington, Provost Marshal, and are as follows:
COLONEL BENJAMIN S. EWELL.
Shortly after the capture of Savannah by General Sherman a law was passed by the Confederate Congress requiring military commanders to destroy all articles of value within their commands rather than let them fall into the hands of the hostile forces.
A month or two before the evacuation of Richmond General Lee sent a notice to General Ewell of this law, with directions that steps be taken to carry it out should it become necessary to give up the city.
It was suggested that to prevent risk as far as possible of a general conflagration the city authorities be at once consulted, and the articles to be destroyed – tobacco, of which there was a large quantity in the city, and which could only be destroyed in the city, and which could only be destroyed at short notice by firing, was especially mentioned – stored in isolated buildings.
General Ewell had frequent consultation with the Mayor and other city authorities, and with the holders of the tobacco, which resulted in the selection of certain warehouses from which the flames would not it was hoped spread, should it become necessary to apply the torch for the purpose of destroying the tobacco they contained.
Every step was taken by General Ewell to prevent disastrous results in the event of executing this order. It was a matter that gave him much anxiety, and to which he gave much time and attention.
The final orders were given on the night of the evacuation of the city by the Confederate forces by General Ewell, he acting under the commands of his military superiors, to apply the torch, and it was done about daybreak on Monday morning.
The fire spread rapidly. Even the wind from the southeast became brisker, and the entire city – the flames began at the southeast – was in imminent danger of falling a prey to the advancing conflagration.
It was checked about 1 o’clock P. M. of Monday, principally by the exertions of the division of the United States army that belonged to the command of General Wetzel [Weitzel], and which first entered the city.
To the credit of this officer, it ought to be known that when his command, consisting of two divisions – one white, the other colored troops, the latter being in front – approached the city he changed the order of his march, and put the white soldiers in front when he saw the fire, as being less likely to commit excesses, and being more skilled and experienced in extinguishing fires.
This is the substance of my knowledge of the burning of the city.
JUDGE JOHN A. MEREDITH.
I was residing in the city on the 2d and 3d of April, 1865, and was requested on the evening of the 2d of April by the City Council to accompany the Mayor, Judge Lyons, and a portion of the Council to meet the Federal troops and surrender the city, and ask for protection to persons and property. A letter to that effect was prepared that night, and the next morning delivered by the Mayor to the officer commanding the first detachment of troops that entered the city.
We left the city about half-past 2 o’clock in the morning of the 3d, and reached the outer line of fortifications before daybreak, and before sunrise the last detachment of Confederate cavalry, under General Gary, passed us on their way to Richmond.
A short time thereafter a company of Federal cavalry, commanded by Major Stevens, appeared. We met them, and the Mayor handed the letter to him. On reading it he remarked that they had learned that morning of the evacuation of the city, and that stringent orders had been issued to protect persons and property, and that we need not feel any apprehension on that subject.
After some conversation about the best mode of preserving order in the city he proposed to the Mayor to accompany him, and they moved rapidly on to the city. The rest of us followed in carriages.
We went immediately to the City Hall, where we found the Mayor and Major Stevens. The latter was then dictating a very stringent order for the protection of the citizens of the town and their property.
He advised us to repair to the fire, and set an example to the people of the city to arrest, if possible, the progress of the fire. All of us, except the Mayor, at once repaired to the fire. We found the engine at work on Thirteenth street between Main and Cary streets, near the corner of Main. We went to work, and continued at work about fifteen minutes, when the fire, which was then advancing from Cary to Main street, forced us to move the engine to another point.
I then left for breakfast, having been up all night, and without anything to eat. As soon as I had breakfasted I returned to the fire, and found the engine on Ninth street between Main and Cary. I remained there but a short time, as we were forced to move by the advance of the fire and the explosion of shells which had been stored by the Confederate authorities in a building near by. This was between 10 and 11 o’clock, I think.
I then repaired to the Capitol Square, the lower side of which was covered with furniture removed for safety from the adjoining buildings. I soon saw that the State Court was in danger, the fire having progressed to the corner of Twelfth and Franklin streets. The portico of the State court-house soon caught on fire, and I then united with the clerk and such other persons as I could induce to aid us in removing many of the papers, and depositing them in the Auditor’s office.
About this time I saw Mr. H. Exall in the southern portico of the Capitol, and learned from him that one of the windows of the Capitol had been on fire. Near the same time the railing around the steeple of St. Paul’s church caught on fire.
In returning to the city that morning I saw that the city was on fire, and when I entered the city the fire had crossed Cary street towards Main, and was above and below Thirteenth street.
There was a brisk wind blowing from the river over the city when I entered the city. I noticed it several times during the morning, because I believed it would be almost impossible to arrest the fire until the wind lulled. I am satisfied the wind was strong enough to carry the sparks over several buildings and catch at more remote points, and that the fire was by that measure spread over a larger extent.
My impression is that the wind lulled about 12 o’clock, and that the progress of the fire was arrested about 1 o’clock, chiefly by the exertions of the Federal troops.
Mr. James A. Scott deposed that he was a member of the City Council committee appointed to surrender the city; that sometime after midnight he, with others, proceeded to discharge that duty; that they went down the Osborne turnpike about two mile from the corporation line, and there waited the approach of the enemy, when the formal surrender was made; that the Federal commander stated to Mr. Mayo he would send a party to destroy all the liquor in the city before the arrival of the main body of troops, when he was informed by Mayor Mayo that his action had been anticipated by the City Council, and that returning to the city he saw the tobacco-warehouses on fire. This was about sunrise.
In other respects Mr. Scott’s testimony was about the same as Judge Meredith’s.
Various parties have estimated the loss by the evacuation fire at from $5,000,000 to $10,000,000.
DR. F. DAVIDSON.
There was a great fire on that day, and I had occasion to observe it very particularly. I was coming up Cary street just about daylight. When we came by Shockoe Slip a man went by with a torch into the warehouse, and before we reached Tenth street we looked back to see if the warehouse had been fired, as we supposed it was his intention to fire it when he went in there, and we saw the smoke issuing to a great height from that warehouse.
I then came home, and went up to the upper part of my house and looked out, and saw the column of smoke rising perpendicularly. For some time it seemed to stand perfectly still and straight, without moving, except upwards. In a little while it commenced to bend towards Main street. Very soon I could feel the wind blowing – the morning had been very still before – and the smoke was drawn up toward my house and over the city by the wind.
After breakfast I went down to Cary street near the Gallego mills. The wind blew the flame right in against these mills, and very soon they were fired. The fire progressed in the mills, until very soon the roof fell in.
When the roof fell in a shower of fire – that is, of coal and shingles, chunks or burning brands – and coals were carried by the wind over toward Main street, and fell on the tops of houses even beyond Main street.
As soon as I saw the mills were fully on fire I left and went back to my house, and watched the fire from there. In the mean time the canal company’s shed took fire, and all the buildings near the mills.
When the roof of the mills fell in I was at my house. Some of the coals of fire were driven through the open dormer-windows of my house, and my house caught on fire. I think it was about the first house that caught fire on that square.
We put the fire out, and then I got on top of my house and fought the fire – that is to say, put out the coals and shingles with buckets of water as they fell on top of my house. A great many persons were engaged in this way on the houses on that street. As the fire increased the shower of coals also increased.
After awhile I could no longer stand upon my house, and had to give it up. Other houses on the street caught from the top about the same time as mine did. The wind was then blowing very strong. My house was consumed.
Was or not the wind strong enough from the first time you saw the fire after breakfast to carry the fire over the city of its own force?
Certainly it was, for it actually did carry the fire over the city. The wind grew stronger until somewhere toward 11 or 12 o’clock, by which time a large portion of the city had been burned. A great many persons carried their furniture to the Capitol Square, where they had to protect it from the falling coals blown by the wind. A good deal of this furniture, which was not properly protected, was burnt up. I remember to have seen a good many persons on the Square whose clothes were on fire, caused by coals dropping on their backs.
About the time the fire got to Ninth street the wind seemed to change its course, being more south or southwest. It came from the south or southeast before. The change of the wind gave the Federal troops an opportunity to stop the fire. They had been fighting it before in vain. They had tried to stop it on Tenth street. That was the first I saw of their attempts to stop it, but the wind was then too strong, and too many houses were on fire.
MAJOR ISAAC H. CARRINGTON.
I am requested to state my knowledge of facts connected with the fire of April 3, 1865, in the city of Richmond. I was at that date Provost Marshal of the city under appointment of the Secretary of War of the Confederate States. I reported to General Ewell as my commanding officer in all matters relating to the city.
Some weeks before the evacuation of Richmond General Ewell sent for me, and informed me that he had orders to destroy all tobacco, cotton, and military and naval stores in the city in the even that its evacuation became necessary. He instructed me to make inquiry as to the amount and location of these articles in the city.
I soon after reported to him that there was no considerable quantity of any of these articles excepting tobacco, of which there was a large quantity.
General Ewell took steps for having the leaf-tobacco in the city, as far as possible, kept in Shockoe and Von Groning’s warehouses, on Cary street, and in the warehouse at the Petersburg depot.
We had frequent conversations on the subject, in which he deplored the necessity for executing the order, and expressed the hope that it could be avoided.
On Sunday, April 2, 1865, General Ewell sent for me, informing me that the city must be evacuated, and directed me to prepare for burning the warehouses aforesaid, but not to apply fire until the last moment. I sent officers to these three warehouses with orders to prepare combustibles in such manner that they could be quickly fired, and to place a sufficient guard at each to prevent any disturbance.
I also sent an officer to communicate with the Chief of the Fire Department of the city to inform him of the location of fire, and to require him to have the firemen and their engines on the ground to prevent the spread of the flames. The officer reported that he had communicated with the person second in authority, the Chief of the Fire Department being out of the city.
During Sunday night I was several times at the office of the Secretary of War (General Breckinridge). I recollect that I informed him of the orders I had received, and of the action I had taken. He said that it was a necessity; that the orders must be carried out, with all precautions taken to prevent a spread of the fire.
My final orders from General Ewell were to remain in the city as long as I could with safety, and to preserve order as far as possible with the troops under my command, and to fire the tobacco before I left.
General Ewell and General Breckinridge left the city together, by way of Mayo’s bridge, about or a little before daybreak of Monday, 3d of April. I parted with them at the corner of Fourteenth and Cary streets as they rode off.
General Ewell said to me, just as he left, that the firing of the tobacco could not be longer delayed.
I gave the order to two of the men with me, and they at once communicated them to the officers on guard at the warehouses. The fire was applied at once to Shockoe and Von Groning’s warehouses.
The officers at the warehouse at the Petersburg depot sent me word that a number of wounded Confederate soldiers had been laid in that warehouse, and that they could not be removed. I directed the combustible collected at that place to be removed, and countermanded the order for burning it.
The night was remarkably still. I remarked the fact several times during the night that there was not a breath of air stirring. Very soon after the warehouses were fired the wind rose from the southeast, and in a short time quite a breeze was blowing from that direction.
I left the city just about sunrise Monday morning by the River road or Plank road, going up the river.