‘All the Horrors of the Final Conflagration’ – The Federals Enter Richmond

April 3, 1865 (Monday)

Ruins of Richmond, Va., April 1865 by Andrew J. Russell.
Ruins of Richmond, Va., April 1865 by Andrew J. Russell.

From the memoirs of Sallie A. Brock:

As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. To speed destruction, some malicious and foolish individuals had cut the hose in the city. The fire was progressing with fearful rapidity. The roaring, the hissing, and the crackling of the flames were heard above the shouting and confusion of the immense crowd of plunderers who were moving amid the dense smoke like demons, pushing, rioting and swaying with their burdens to make a passage to the open air. From the lower portion of the city, near the river, dense black clouds of smoke arose as a pall of crape to hide the ravages of the devouring flames, which lifted their red tongues and leaped from building to building as if possessed of demoniac instinct, and intent upon wholesale destruction. AH the railroad bridges, and Mayo’s Bridge, that crossed the James River and connected with Manchester, on the opposite side, were in flames.

The most remarkable scenes, however, were said to have occurred at the commissary depot. Hundreds of Government wagons were loaded with bacon, flour and whiskey, and driven off in hot haste to join the retreating army. In a dense throng around the depot stood hundreds of men, women and children, black and white, provided with anything in which they could carry away provisions, awaiting the opening of the doors to rush in and help themselves. A cascade of whiskey streamed from the windows. About sunrise the doors were thrown open to the populace, and with a rush that seemed almost sufficient to bear off the building itself, they soon swept away all that remained of the Confederate commissariat of Richmond.

By this time the flames had been applied to or had reached the arsenal, in which several hundred car loads of loaded shell were left. At every moment the most terrific explosions were sending forth their awful reverberations, and gave us the idea of a general bombardment. All the horrors of the final conflagration, when the earth shall be wrapped in flames and melt with fervent heat, were, it seemed to us, prefigured in our capital.

Ruins of Richmond, Va., 1865
Ruins of Richmond, Va., 1865

Capt. Warren M. Kelley, of the Tenth New Hampshire Regiment:

I immediately rode along the picket-line and gave the order as I received it. Early daylight was near 4 o’clock at that time of year in Virginia. We had seen the rebel picket fires during the night, showing them still at their posts, but the boys, all old veterans, were ready to obey the order.

We held nearly one half-mile of line along the rebel front, and as we advanced toward the enemy’s pickets, we saw in the direction of Richmond, a light, and heard a rumbling sound. As we came near the rebel line, their fires were still burning, but no soldiers could be seen around or near them. We soon came to their breastworks, and Fort Gilmer, which was near the centre of our line, but found all vacated by the rebels, who had left their tents and cannon behind them, and everything indicated a hasty retreat.

From here we marched rapidly on, the boys all eager to gain the rebel capital, about seven miles distant, as soon as possible. We met with no opposition nor received any orders from any one. The first soldiers I saw were a colored guard coming up in our rear, that belonged to General Weitzel’s command. At this point we entered the main road, and I called my men from skirmish line to column of fours. We soon neared the outskirts of the city, and entered it near where two roads crossed, marching through what was called “The Rocketts,” which seemed to be a kind of landing place for rebel gun-boats and other craft. From this place we saw in the distance some negroes unrolling something. As we neared them, we saw it was an old United States flag. I brought my command to a halt, which was the first I had made since we started.

I had about two hundred men when I gave the order to advance, but nearly fifty had fallen out, as we marched nearly half the way on a “double-quick.” I requested the negroes to go upon the top of the building, which had a flat roof, and raise the old flag, which they immediately did. I then commanded my men to give the flag three cheers, which being done with a will, we marched on, going up Main street, passing the State House and grounds.

Ruins of Richmond, April, 1865
Ruins of Richmond, April, 1865

From a post-war letter by General Godfrey Weitzel:

When we entered Richmond we found ourselves in a perfect pandemonium. Fires and explosions in all directions, whites and blacks either drunk or in the highest state of excitement, running to and fro on the streets, apparently engaged in pillage, or in saving some of their scanty effects from the fire. It was a yelling, howling mob. Major Graves had reconnoitered up to the Capitol square in the city. Outside the city he had been met by Mayor Mayo and others of Richmond, and received its surrender.

When the mob saw my staff and myself, they rushed around us, hugged and kissed our legs and horses, shouting “Hallelujah!” and “Glory!” I escaped considerable of this disagreeable infliction by an amusing circumstance. Maj. William V. Hutchings, of Roxbury, Mass., rode by my side. He was dressed in full uniform, except epaulettes, and had the regulation equipments, etc., on his horse. He had quite a venerable and handsome appearance. I was in undress uniform. The mob naturally supposed Hutchings to be the general, and he received the bulk of kisses and attentions. Colonel Adams asked, as a special favor, to be allowed to march his regiment through the city, and I granted it. I was told that this fine regiment of colored men made a very great impression on those citizens who saw it.

Views of ruins of the Arsenal, Richmond, Virginia, April, 1865
Views of ruins of the Arsenal, Richmond, Virginia, April, 1865

From A Virginia Girl in the Civil War:

It was not a very large body, they rode slowly, and passed just beneath my window. Exactly at eight o’clock the Confederate flag that fluttered above the Capitol came down and the Stars and Stripes were run up. We knew what that meant! The song ” On to Richmond!” was ended— Richmond was in the hands of the Federals. We covered our faces and cried aloud. All through the house was the sound of sobbing. It was as the house of mourning, the house of death.

Soon the streets were full of Federal troops, marching quietly along. The beautiful sunlight flashed back everywhere from Yankee bayonets. I saw negroes run out into the street and falling on their knees before the invaders hail them as their deliverers, embracing the knees of the horses, and almost preventing the troops from moving forward. It had been hard living and poor fare in Richmond for negroes as well as whites; and the negroes at this time believed the immediate blessings of freedom greater than they would or could be.

The saddest moment of my life was when I saw that Southern Cross dragged down and the Stars and Stripes run up above the Capitol. I am glad the Stars and Stripes are waving there now. But I am true to my old flag too, and as I tell this my heart turns sick with the supreme anguish of the moment when I saw it torn down from the height where valor had kept it waving for so long and at such cost.

Ruins of paper mill, near Richmond & Petersburg RR Depot, Richmond, Va. 1865 by Alexander Gardner.
Ruins of paper mill, near Richmond & Petersburg RR Depot, Richmond, Va. 1865 by Alexander Gardner.

Sallie A. Brock continues:

At an early hour in the morning, the Mayor of the city, to whom it had been resigned by the military commander, proceeded to the lines of the enemy and surrendered it to General Godfrey Weitzel, who had been left by General Ord, when he withdrew one-half of his division to the lines investing Petersburg, to receive the surrender of Richmond.

As early as eight o’clock in the morning, while the mob held possession of Main street, and were busily helping themselves to the contents of the dry goods stores and other shops in that portion of the city, and while a few of our cavalry were still to be seen here and there in the upper portions, a cry was raised: “The Yankees! The Yankees are coming!” Major A. H. Stevens, of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, and Major E. E. Graves, of his staff, with forty cavalry, rode steadily into the city, proceeded directly to the Capitol, and planted once more the “Stars and Stripes”—the ensign of our subjugation—on that ancient edifice. As its folds were given to the breeze, while still we heard the roaring, hissing, crackling flames, the explosions of the shells and the shouting of the multitude, the strains of an old, familiar tune floated upon the air—a tune that, in days gone by, was wont to awaken a thrill of patriotism. But now only the most bitter and crushing recollections awoke within us, as upon our quickened hearing fell the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.” For us it was a requiem for buried hopes.

As the day advanced, Weitzel’s troops poured through the city. Long lines of negro calvary swept by the Exchange Hotel, brandishing their swords and uttering savage cheers, replied to by the shouts of those of their own color, who were trudging along under loads of plunder, laughing and exulting over the prizes they had secured from the wreck of the stores, rather than rejoicing at the more precious prize of freedom which had been won for them. On passed the colored troops, singing, “John Brown’s body is mouldering in the grave,” etc.

uins of Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge, Richmond, Va., April, 1865 by Alexander Gardner.
uins of Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge, Richmond, Va., April, 1865 by Alexander Gardner.

Mrs. Mary A. Fontaine, Richmond, Va:

Then the Infantry came playing ‘The Girl I left behind me,’ that dear old air that we heard our brave men so often play; then the negro troops playing ‘Dixie,’ and they certainly were the blackest creatures I ever saw. I am almost inclined to the belief that they were a direct importation from Africa.

Then our Richmond servants were completely crazed, they danced and shouted, men hugged each other, and women kissed, and such a scene of confusion you have never seen. Imagine the streets crowded with these wild people, and troops by the thousands, some loaded with plunder from the burning stores, whole rolls of cloth, bags of corn, etc., chairs, one old woman was rolling a great sofa; dozens of bands trying to drown each other it seemed; gorgeously dressed officers galloping furiously about, men shouting and swearing as I never heard men do before; the fire creeping steadily nearer to us, until houses next to us caught and we prepared to leave; and above all, inconceivably terrible, the 800,000 shells exploding at the laboratory. I say imagine, but you cannot; no one who was not here will ever fully appreciate the horrors of that day.

Chester Morris, black reporter for the Philadelphia Press:

Richmond has never before presented such a spectacle of jubilee. What a wonderful change has come over the spirit of Southern dreams.

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10 thoughts on “‘All the Horrors of the Final Conflagration’ – The Federals Enter Richmond

  1. The comment by “Virginia Girl” referred to the Confederate Flag (?) as the “Southern Cross.” That’s the firs time that I have heard of that reference. Unless there was another rebel flag?

    1. Wow….. After following your great work for several years, plus reading the daily Newspaper articles on the American Civil War Gazette site, has given me a real appreciation of the human and historical side of the Civil War. Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address should be required reading for all students. And from the Gazette, I learned Lincoln was at City Point, Va. following these last few days and really appreciated his report of the battles in his official dispatches. I am happy to hear this will be repeated. I am sure I will even learn more the second time around.

      1. Thank you! I actually didn’t have any plans to rerun the blog on repeat. But now I’m considering it. It would restart in August, I think.

        Let me mull it over. It would be very little work for me, really. It still, maybe more work than I can actually put into it.

      2. Thank you! I actually didn’t have any plans to rerun the blog on repeat. But now I’m considering it. It would restart in November , I think.

        Let me mull it over. It would be very little work for me, really. It still, maybe more work than I can actually put into it.

        1. Sorry if I jumped the gun about restarting. Be aware I do not do any money things on line. I would be happy to send a contribution if I had an address to mail it to. Do not post this on line. From my last post I think you do control, what is posted?

  2. Thanks for publishing these images of the destruction of the CSA capital. I have never seen most of these. I presume there are more but thank you again!

    Well, as the War winds down… next year… IT STARTS OVER AGAIN!!!

    I only started following your web site two years ago…. so I missed 1860, 1861, 1862 and first half of 1863.

    1. I’m planning on rereading he blog for the 155th anniversary. I joined on April 12, 2010.

  3. Great work as always. I have truly enjoyed this site over the last few years and will be sad to see it go. I looked forward to re-reading it. Again, thanks for all your hard work.

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