April 3, 1865: Fall of Richmond

Fall of Richmond


After all the blood shed to take Richmond, its fall was anti-climactic.  Grant was moving his army in pursuit of Lee, and entry of Union troops was unopposed, the Confederate military and the civilian government having evacuated the city on the evening of April 2.  The mention of the fall of Richmond receives scant attention from Grant in his memoirs:

Soon after I left President Lincoln I received a dispatch from General Weitzel which notified me that he had taken possession of Richmond at about 8.15 o’clock in the morning of that day, the 3d, and that he had found the city on fire in two places. The city was in the most utter confusion. The authorities had taken the precaution to empty all the liquor into the gutter, and to throw out the provisions which the Confederate government had left, for the people to gather up. The city had been deserted by the authorities, civil and military, without any notice whatever that they were about to leave. In fact, up to the very hour of the evacuation the people had been led to believe that Lee had gained an important victory somewhere around Petersburg. 
Weitzel’s command found evidence of great demoralization in Lee’s army, there being still a great many men and even officers in the town. The city was on fire. Our troops were directed to extinguish the flames, which they finally succeeded in doing. The fire had been started by some one connected with the retreating army. All authorities deny that it was authorized, and I presume it was the work of excited men who were leaving what they regarded as their capital and may have felt that it was better to destroy it than have it fall into the hands of their enemy. Be that as it may, the National troops found the city in flames, and used every effort to extinguish them.

From the start of his Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864 Grant’s objective had been the destruction of Lee’s army, and that had not changed.

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  1. One minor outcome of the Richmond fire was the erasure of many of the state’s pre-war land records. When the war began the Virginia government ordered all land records moved to Richmond “for safekeeping”, and most towns followed the order. These records all went up in smoke.
    When George Washington was alive he was one of the major landowners in Virginia. So, would it be neat if you could search the records of your home and see if your yard was once owned by him? Yes, it would be, but it is quite out of the question now.

  2. While the fall of Richmond may have been anti-climactic to General Grant, it certainly wasn’t to the people who lived there. As I have noted before on this blog, a chapter of Jay Winik’s “April 1865” is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of this event, from the order to the Confederate government to evacuate, to the fires and chaos, to the Union troops arriving the next morning, and (spoiler alert) the arrival of Abraham Lincoln himself the day after that, to be greeted by throngs of jubilant, newly liberated slaves.

    I thought when I read this book, and still do, that this event comes about as close as any in American history to being a prefigurement (if that’s the right word) of the Last Judgment. The “last” — the slaves — became first, and the “first” — their owners — became last; the false system of the Confederacy and the evil upon which it was built (slavery) were at last destroyed; and while it was surely terrifying for those who lost their loved ones, their homes, and possessions, there was also unexpected mercy shown by the occupying Union army and by Lincoln himself. Some pictures of the most devastated parts of Richmond are hard to tell apart from pictures of Hiroshima or Nagasaki 80 years later. It must have felt like the end of the world to people who lived there, but since Richmond still survives today, it obviously wasn’t.

  3. Mr. McClarey, Today’s front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch is a reprint of the Daily Dispatch’s front page dtd Saturday, April 4, 1865. If you cannot access it online, I could mail it to your office. The 2 inch headline is “FLAMES!”.

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