The Richmond Campaign


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The Civil War Richmond Campaign

Richmond, CAMPAIGN AGAINST. The first collisions between the two great armies on the borders of the Chickahominy River occurred on May 23 and 24, 1862—one near New Bridge, not far from Cold Harbor, between Michigan cavalry and a Louisiana regiment, when thirty-seven of the latter were captured.

Richmond During the Civil War


The other was at and near Mechanicsville, 7 or 8 miles from Richmond, where a part of McClellan's right wing was advancing towards the Chickahominy. There was a sharp skirmish at Ellison's Mill (May 23), a mile from Mechanicsville. To this place the Confederates fell back, and the next morning were driven across the Chickahominy. On the same morning General McClellan issued a stirring order for an immediate advance on Richmond; but the overcautious commander hesitated to move until the golden opportunity had passed. President Lincoln telegraphed to the general, "I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington."

The National and Confederate armies had three times run a race for Washing-ton. After the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, they entered upon a race for Richmond, then the Confederate capital. Grant determined to transfer his army to the south side of the James River, cutoff the chief sources of supply for the Confederate army from the south, and attempt the capture of Richmond from that direction. He disencumbered his army of about 20,000 sick and wounded, who were sent to the hospitals at Washington and elsewhere, and with 25,000 veteran recruits, amply supplied, and 30,000 volunteers for 100 days joining his army, he began another flank movement on the night of May 20-21, 1864, Hancock's corps leading. General Robert E. Lee had kept a vigilant watch of the movements of the Nationals, and sent General James Longstreet's corps to march southward parallel with Hancock. Warren followed Hancock, and General Richard Ewell followed Longstreet's troops. On May 21 the race was fairly begun, the Confederates having the more direct or shorter route. General Lee outstripped his antagonist, and when the Nationals approached the South Anna River the Confederates were already strongly posted there on the south side of the river, where Lee had evidently determined to make a stand.

Grant proceeded to attempt to dislodge him. In attempts to force passages across the stream, very sharp engagements ensued. Having partly crossed the North Anna, the Army of the Potomac was in great peril. Its two strong wings were on one side of the stream, and its weak centre on the other. Perceiving this peril, Grant secretly recrossed the river with his troops, and resumed his march on Richmond by a flank movement far to the eastward of the Confederate army. The flanking column was led by Sheridan, with two divisions of cavalry. On the 28th the whole army was south of the Pamunkey, and in communication with its new base at the White House.

This movement compelled General Lee to abandon his strong position at the North Anna, but, having a shorter route, he was in another good position before the Nationals crossed the Pamunkey. He was at a point where he could cover the railways and highways leading to Richmond.

The Nationals were now within 15 miles of Richmond. Their only direct pathway to that capital was across the Chickahominy. There was much skirmishing, and Grant was satisfied that he would be compelled to force the passage of the Chickahominy on Robert E. Lee's flank, and he prepared for that movement by sending Sheridan to seize a point near Cold Harbor, where roads leading into Richmond diverged. After a fight with Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, it was secured, and on the same night (May 30, 1864) Wright's corps pressed forward to the same point. A large body of troops, under Gen. W. F. Smith, called from the Army of the James, were approaching Cold Harbor at the same time. These took position on Wright's right wing.

Richmond Civil War Battle Map


There a terrible battle occurred (June 1-3, 1864), in which both armies suffered immense loss. It was now perceived that the fortifications around Richmond were too formidable to warrant a direct attack upon them with a hope of success, so Grant proceeded to throw his army across to the south side of the James River, and to operate against the Confederate capital on the right of that stream. It was near the middle of June, 1864 before the whole National force had crossed the Chickahominy and moved to the James by way of Charles City Courthouse.

There they crossed the river in boats and over pontoon bridges; and on June 16, 1864, when the entire army was on the south side, General Grant made his headquarters at City Point, at the junction of the Appomattox and James rivers. A portion of the Army of the James, under General Butler, had made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Petersburg, where the Confederates had constructed strong works. Before them the Army of the Potomac appeared on the evening of June 16, and in that vicinity the two armies struggled for the mastery until April the next year, or about ten months.

Governor Smith Evacuating Richmond During Civil War

Governor Smith Leaving Richmond, VA

Sunday morning, April 2, 1865, while attending service at St. Paul's Church, President Jefferson Davis received this message from General Lee: " It is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight, or run the risk of being cut off in the morning.

Hastily reading it he left the church, quickly followed by others, and the service was abruptly concluded. Rumors that Richmond was to be evacuated were soon succeeded by the definite announcement of the fact. One special train carried  President Davis and the confederate cabinet, together with several million dollars in gold. Late in the afternoon Governor Smith and the members of the legislature embarked on canal-boats for Lynchburg. The roads from the city leading to the north and west were crowded with wagons, carriages, and carts, horsemen, and men and women on foot seeking for a place of refuge.

The night when the Confederate government fled from Richmond was a fearful one for the inhabitants of that city. All day after the receipt of Robert E. Lee's dispatch—" My lines are broken in three places; Richmond must be evacuated tonight "—the people were kept in the most painful suspense by the reticence of the government, then making preparations to fly for safety. That body employed every vehicle for this use, and the people who prepared to leave the city found it difficult to get any conveyance. For these as much as $100 in gold was given for service from a dwelling to the railway station. It was revealed to the people early in the evening that the Confederate Congress had ordered all the cotton, tobacco, and other property which the owners could not carry away, and which was stored in four great warehouses, to be burned to prevent it falling into the hands of the Nationals. There was a fresh breeze from the south, and the burning of these warehouses would imperil the whole city. General Richard Ewell, in command there, vainly remonstrated against the execution of the order. A committee of the common council went to Jefferson Davis before he had left to remonstrate against it, to which he replied that their statement that the burning of the warehouses would endanger the city was "a cowardly pretext on the part of the citizens, trumped up to endeavor to save their property for the Yankees." A similar answer was given at the War Department. The humane Ewell was compelled to obey, for the order from the War Department was imperative.

The city council took the precaution, for the public safety, to order the destruction of all liquors that might be accessible to lawless men. This was done, and by midnight hundreds of barrels of spirituous liquors were flowing in the gutters, where stragglers from the retreating army and rough citizens gathered it in vessels, and so produced the calamity the authorities endeavored to avert.

Libby Prison, Richmond Virginia, during Civil War


The torch was applied, and at daybreak the warehouses were in flames. The city was already on fire in several places. The intoxicated soldiers, joined with many of the dangerous class of both sexes, formed a marauding mob of fearful proportions, who broke open and pillaged stores and committed excesses of every kind. From midnight until dawn the city was a pandemonium. The roaring mob released the prisoners from the jail and burned it. They set fire to the arsenal, and tried to destroy the Tredegar Iron Works. Conflagrations spread rapidly, for the fire department was powerless, and by the middle of the forenoon (April 3, 1865) a greater portion of the principal business part of Richmond was a blazing furnace.

Between midnight and dawn the Confederate troops made their way across the bridges to the south side of the James. At 3 A.M. the magazine near the almshouse was fired and blown up with a concussion that shook the city to its foundations. It was followed by the explosion of the Confederate ram Virginia, below the city. When at 7 A.M., the troops were all across the river, the bridges were burned behind them. A number of other vessels in the river were destroyed. The bursting of shells in the arsenal when the fire reached them added to the horrors of the scene. At noon about 700 buildings in the business part of the city, including a Presbyterian church, were in ruins. While Richmond was in flames, National troops entered the city, and, by great exertions, subdued the fire and saved the city from utter destruction. Many million dollars' worth of property had been annihilated.

Gen. Godfrey Weitzel had been left, with a portion of the Army of the James, on the north side of that river, to menace Richmond, and he kept up a continual show of great numbers, which had deceived Longstreet, standing in defense of the Confederate capital. After midnight on April 3, a great light in Richmond, the sound of explosions, and other events, revealed to Weitzel the fact that the Confederates were evacuating the city.

Richmond in Ruins during Civil War


At daylight he put Draper's negro brigade in motion towards Richmond. The place of every terra-torpedo in front of the Confederate works was marked by a small flag, for the safety of their own men, and in their hasty departure they forgot to remove them. Cannon on the deserted works were left unharmed. Early in the morning the whole of Weitzel's force were in the suburbs of the town. A demand was made for its surrender, and at seven o'clock Joseph Mayo, the mayor, handed the keys of the public buildings to the messenger of the summons. Weitzel and his staff rode in at eight o'clock, at the head of Ripley's brigade of negro troops, when Lieut. J. Livingston Depeyster, of Weitzel's staff, ascended to the roof of the State-house with a national flag, and, with the assistance of Captain Langdon, Weitzel's chief of artillery, unfurled it over that building, and in its Senate chamber the office of headquarters was established. Weitzel occupied the dwelling of Jefferson Davis, and General Shepley was appointed military governor. The troops were then set at work to extinguish the flames.



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