From the Richmond Dispatch, 4/13/1884, p. 3, c. 3
ORIGIN OF THE FIRE.
AN EVACUATION-DAY REPORT.
Extract from an Official Letter of General Ewell Setting Forth Facts as to the Burning of Richmond.
The Dispatch has received the following:
NASHVILLE, TENN., April 10, 1884.
On a recent visit to Richmond I learned that there was an impression on the minds of some persons that my late kinsman and former commander, General R. S. Ewell, caused the burning of the city at the time of its evacuation in April, 1865.
From his official report – which, I believe, has not heretofore been published – I make the enclosed extract, and beg for it a place in your columns, in vindication of the memory of one of the truest sons of Virginia, one of the most thorough soldiers, and one of the noblest, kindest, and most unselfish men that our great civil war brought into notice. The portions of his report which I have italicized show plainly what was his action, and what the spirit which animated him. I can positively state, as a matter within my own knowledge, that from the moment of receiving the orders transmitted to him by General Lee, but issued in peremptory terms by the Confederate Congress, his efforts were addressed to having them so modified as to leave him with some liberty of action. As appears by his report, he assumed the responsibility of largely exercising this discretion, and a number of buildings containing public stores were spared by his orders – some to escape the torch entirely, others to be destroyed by the mob.
The militia referred to by General Ewell as having dispersed was the First Regiment of Virginia Militia, which, by the terms of its organization, could only be required to defend the city or to do duty within its limits.
General Ewell once heard that he was accused of burning Richmond, and felt the charge very keenly. But he never on any occasion, during or since the war, though more than once unjustly censured, undertook his own vindication. At the time to which I refer one of his friends procured of him and published the substance of the accompanying statement, and it was supposed by General Ewell and myself that the misapprehension was then removed. My impression is that the story of the preservation of the Tredegar Works was told to General Ewell by General Anderson himself, but of this I am not certain. It was on authority which appeared to him unquestionable.
I was a member of General Ewell’s staff from July, 1861, to April, 1865, and with short intervals an inmate of his home until his death, in 1872. Of all the men I have known he appeared to me to have the most uncomplaining, unhesitating devotion to duty, and under a somewhat rugged exterior and rough manner he hid as tender and warm a heart as ever beat. The last days of his command in Richmond were among the most painful in his life, and I never knew him to approach any other duty so unwillingly as that of destroying the public stores and preparing for the evacuation. His report shows that he foresaw the scenes of disorder and violence which ensued, and that he did all in his power to avert them. It would be peculiar injustice to hold him responsible for their occurrence.
Spring Hill, Tenn., March 28, 1884.
SPRING HILL, TENN.,
December 20, 1865.
General R. E. Lee, Lexington, Va.:
General, - About the middle of February last I received a communication from you enclosing a law which I was directed to carry out. This law required “preparations to be made for destroying the cotton, tobacco, &c., which the owners could not remove, in places exposed to capture by the enemy.”
I immediately sent Major Brown, of my staff, to Mayor Mayo with the document, and requested him to call a meeting of the Common Council to give their opinion as to the measures proper to be taken. After a free discussion with some of the council, and by their advice, I issued a circular to the “merchants and owners of cotton and tobacco,” embodying the substance of your order and the law that accompanied it. This I entrusted to those gentlemen and to Maj. Isaac H. Carrington, provost-marshal, for distribution. Being informed a few hours later that it was misunderstood as to take effect at once, I substituted another, stating expressly that “the necessity had not yet arisen.”
Together with Mr. Scott, a tobacco owner and councilman, I visited and inspected all the warehouses containing tobacco, and after consulting the keepers we concluded they could be burned without danger of a general conflagration. I gave instructions to Major Carrington to make the necessary arrangements, and requested Mr. Scott and the other members of the council to consult with him and give him their views. The Ordnance Department offered to furnish barrels of turpentine to mix with the tobacco, so as to insure its burning; but this I declined for fear of setting fire to the city.
I sent for the mayor and several of the most prominent citizens, earnestly urged upon them the danger of mob violence, should we be forced to evacuate, and the entrance of Federal troops be delayed, and begged them to endeavor to organize a volunteer guard force for such an emergency, proffering the necessary arms. I regret to say but one man volunteered, and the rioters, as predicted, were unchecked.
On the night of Saturday, April 1, I received a dispatch from General Longstreet telling me he was going to the south side with two divisions; that Kershaw would be left on the lines; directing me to move whatever troops I could collect down the Darbytown road, and to ride by his headquarters for further instructions. I left my staff to see to the movement and collection of troops (of which only the Cadets and three battalions of convalescents were in town) and rode down, but General Longstreet had gone before I reached his headquarters, and I received orders from his assistant adjutant-general, Colonel Latrobe, to relieve and send forward two brigades left on picket, which was done soon after sunrise by Colonel Shipp, commanding the cadets and convalescents.
At 10 a.m. of Sunday I received a message from Major Chestney, my assistant Adjutant-General, to return at once to the city, and on doing so received the orders for the evacuation, and to destroy the stores which could not be removed. All that time allowed was done. General G.W.C. Lee’s division, being mostly composed of heavy artillery, was almost without transportation, which was procured by impressing all that could be found.
All the guard forces were required to take the prisoners from the Libby and Castle Thunder, and as the militia had dispersed (being mostly foreigners) no troops remained in town, except a few convalescents. A mob of both sexes and all colors soon collected, and about 3 A.M. set fire to some buildings on Cary street, and began to plunder the city. The convalescents, then stationed in the Square, were ordered to repress the riot, but their commander shortly reported himself unable to do so, his force being inadequate. I then ordered all my staff and couriers who could be spared to scour the streets, so as to intimidate the mob by a show of force, and sent word to General Kershaw, who was coming up from the lines, to hurry his leading regiments into town. By daylight the riot was subdued, but many buildings which I had carefully directed should be spared had been fired by the mob. The Arsenal was thus destroyed, and a party of men went to burn the Tredegar Works, but were prevented by General Anderson’s arming his operatives and declaring his intention to resist. The small bridge over the canal on Fourteenth street was burned by incendiaries, who set a canal-boat on fire and pushed it under the bridge. This was evidently done in hopes of embarrassing our retreat, and General Kershaw’s division passed the bridge, while on fire, at a double-quick.
By 7 A.M. the last troops had reached the south side, and Mayo’s and the railroad bridges were set on fire.
From the hills above Manchester we watched for some time the progress of the flames, and all at once saw fire break out through the roof of one of the large mills on the side farthest from the burning warehouses, the flames from which scarcely reached half way up the sides of the mill. It was considered a fire-proof building, and extra precautions had been taken by the owners. I cannot conceive how it could have caught in such a place, unless set on fire. I have been told that Mr. Crenshaw found his mill full of plunderers, whom he got out by agreeing to give them all the provisions in the mill, and that they were in the act of building a fire on the floor of the upper story when discovered. I tried to find out if this were true, but no reply has come to the letters written for that purpose. If correct, it affords exact proof of what I am firmly convinced is the case--that the burning of Richmond was the work of incendiaries.”
[Signed] R. S. EWELL,
HOW THE FIRE SPREAD.
It has not been the opinion here in Richmond that the city was burnt by incendiaries. Depositions taken in the Graeme suit show that “the fire [said Major Carrington] was applied [by the authorities] at Shockoe and Von Groning’s warehouses.” * * * * * “The night was remarkably still but 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.” [The track of the fire was the course of the wind.} Colonel Ewell deposed that 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 P. M. by the United States troops. Judge John A. Meredith stated, “I am satisfied the wind was strong enough to carry the sparks over several buildings and catch more remote points, and that the fire was by that means spread over a larger extent.” Dr. F. Davidson: Saw the man go in to fire Shockoe warehouse. “Saw the smoke issuing to a great height from that warehouse. I then came home [south side Main between Ninth and Tenth], and went up to the upper part of my house and looked out and saw the columns 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 neea the Gallego Mills. The wind blew the flame right 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. * * The wind was then blowing very strong. My house was consumed. * * The wind grew stronger until somewhere toward 11 or 12 o’clock, by which time a large portion of the city had been burned. * * About the time the fire got to Ninth street the wind seemed to change its course, being more south or southwest. The change of wind gave the Federal troops an opportunity to stop the fire.”