The Calm Before the Storm in the Capital of the Confederacy

Sallie A. Brock’s narrative of the final days of the Confederacy in Richmond was published in 1867 and based largely on Edward Pollard’s The Last Year of the War. The author’s description tells us quite a bit about the drastic changes that took place beginning on April 2, but it also tell us as much (if not more) about how Brock and others chose to remember so soon after the Confederacy’s fall.

The morning of the 2d of April, 1865, dawned brightly over the capital of the Southern Confederacy. A soft haze rested over the city, but above that, the sun shone with the warm pleasant radiance of early spring. The sky was cloudless. No sound disturbed the stillness of the Sabbath morn, save the subdued murmur of the river, and the cheerful music of the church bells. The long familiar tumult of war broke not upon the sacred calmness of the day. Around the War Department, and the Post Office, news gatherers were assembled for the latest tidings, but nothing was bruited that deterred the masses from seeking their accustomed places in the temples of the living God. At St. Paul’s church the usual congregation was in attendance. President Davis occupied his pew. (p. 362)

The clearness of the morning sky, a quite military front and a city headed to church helps to create a defined space between four years of war and the final chapter that is about to be unleashed on the city. It’s a moment that the reader can’t help to anticipate, but Brock also hopes to evoke the innocence of the Confederacy and the virtuousness of its cause. It is the Confederacy’s that is about to be swarmed by overwhelming numbers of Yankees, who had been kept at bay for so long. It is their civilization that is about to be upended.

Within no time…

  • Black and white Union soldiers will march down Broad Street.
  • Abraham Lincoln himself will enter the capital and sit in Jefferson Davis’s chair.
  • Warehouses and other buildings in the city’s financial district will be engulfed in flames.
  • The government and military will abandon the city.
  • In one week Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia will surrender.
  • Richmond’s slave population will be freed.

For white Southerners their world was about to be turned upside down even as black Richmonders would come to view the next few days and weeks very differently.

Finally, it is also worth remembering that Sallie Brock wrote this passage and account of Richmond’s destruction and the end of the Confederacy as an actor in an unfolding drama. The year that Brock published her narrative saw the beginning of Military Reconstruction throughout much of the South.

Sallie may have wondered whether she would ever again experience the peacefulness and beauty of April 2, 1865.

14 comments… add one
  • The fact that Confederates would soon ignite fires that would consume a tenth of the city, that her fellow Richmonders would loot the houses of their neighbors, and that the disorders would only be brought under control by black troops commanded by an immigrant Union general had too much dissonance for her.

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  • I’ve not read Brock, but I see the same general description of that morning provided by Magill. To Magill’s credit, however, she makes it quite aware that, at the time she publishes her work (1871) she is still amazed at the civilians in the way that they had “closed their eyes to the truth, and went on laughing and singing…”

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  • I should have added… I’m not so sure (and perhaps I need to read a little more of Brock to see) she is really “invoking the innocence of the confederacy and virtuousness of the cause,” as it sounds little different from Magill. Is too much being “read into” what Brock says? Could it not actually be nothing more than a description of the morning as it unfolded, and then (in hindsight) the realization of how horrible things turned, standing in such contrast with the morning?

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    • Hi Robert,

      First, thanks for your post on Pegram yesterday, which I greatly enjoyed.

      It certainly may be the case that I am reading too much into it, but at the same time I do think it is worth exploring how Brock chose to open this particular chapter two years after the fact. In fact, I think it is worth questioning whether she is taking certain liberties here. Did she really remember this particular morning or is this a construction based on Pollard and other accounts? I don’t know, but I do believe the choices that went into this narrative are worth considering.

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  • Glad you enjoyed the Pegram post, Kevin.

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m beating this into the ground, but when it comes to Brock, I guess I’m seeing how Magill… if she did the same thing Brock did (using Pollard, but 6 years after the war as opposed to 2 years), was able to dispel (somewhat) any suggestion that some sort of metaphor could be suggested. I’d be curious to see if I could find any other works that might be slipped in besie both Brock and Magill, for comparison.

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    • Please beat away. Let me put it another way. Was April 2 the only clear morning that week and should we really except that news from the front was so quiet. This seems like a literary device to me. She seems to be playing with the emotions of her readers given that they know what is about to transpire.

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      • Well, even if there had been sunshine five days straight, we all know that there are days within a similar five day stretch that might seem more spectacular than others… prime example being here in the Valley when the temps are warm, but the humidity is low and the mountains are all the more beautiful within one of those five days. A twist, of course, is that it also falls on a Sunday. I don’t know that Brock can be properly assessed without considering other works (such as Magill’s… and others) within the same parameters.

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        • I don’t know that Brock can be properly assessed without considering other works (such as Magill’s… and others) within the same parameters.

          It would be interesting to be able to piece together the extent to which these narratives overlap in structure and content. To that extent it seems to me to support my approach this particular text.

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          • O.K., but, understand my position on this as devil’s advocate in nature. I see that you’ve come to the conclusion, early on in your post, that “Brock also hopes to evoke the innocence of the Confederacy and the virtuousness of its cause”. Does she really, or is it something that actually warrants more in-depth understanding via that piecing together of narratives before drawing that conclusion?

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            • Does she really, or is it something that actually warrants more in-depth understanding via that piecing together of narratives before drawing that conclusion?

              I am certainly open to being corrected based on further research along the lines that you have suggested. Of course, my reference to the Confederacy is based on my reading of the entire chapter. As a blog post it was intended to spur conversation and simply share how I reacted to it. Thanks.

          • … and please understand that my comment was not mean-spirited. I think historians are all susceptible to this sort of “trap”, and I think even more so in blogging.

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            • Not at all. I value your thoughts and appreciate you taking the time to share them here.

      • Perhaps this is what the English teachers call dramatic irony, that is, the contradiction between what the audience knows, and what the characters in the story know. Because we know how the acw turned out, telling its history it affords many opportunities for dramatic irony.

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  • 150 years ago my great-great grandfather, Color-Corporal John McKenzie (Kinsey in the records), 45th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, was fighting for his life during the 2nd Division, IX Corps, assault on Fort Mahone (aka Fort Damnation). I doubt he shared her idyllic thoughts as he waited in the assault column for charge to be sounded. The artillery barrage began at 4am. Not a peaceful morn for the victors.

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