Not Your Grandfather’s ‘Fall of Richmond’

The week-long commemoration marking the fall and liberation of Richmond, the evacuation of Petersburg by Lee’s men and its eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House is in full swing. A slew of events marking this important moment in American history are being offered by a wide range of organizations. Taken together these programs offer the public a tapestry of narratives that reflect the many ways in which the events of early April 1865 were experienced.

Such a project is not without its challenges given the strong emotions that often shape the responses of people who are invested in certain narratives of the war. It is easy to focus on moments of conflict, but from what I’ve read thus far I can’t help but conclude that Richmonders and many others are taking full advantage of this opportunity to learn about the many voices that could be heard in this final chapter of the war. [I say this even as I make my way through Greg Downs’s new book. More on this at a later time.] Through social media and news articles I am seeing and reading about large and enthusiastic crowds. With this in mind it might be helpful to place this commemoration alongside that of the centennial. Consider the following excerpt from a speech delivered by C. Hobson Goddin, Vice – Chairman, Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee, in 1961.

On a quiet morning – Sunday 2 April – a messenger came up Ninth Street and moved swiftly down the aisle of Saint Paul’s with a fateful message for President Davis. The City must be evacuated! Imagine the excitement and the distress of the people as they came out onto the sidewalk to discuss &what could be done. Richmonders, so long accustomed to their successful defenses and with their faith in General Lee and his heroic army, could scarcely believe that Richmond, at last, had to be abandoned.

As the remaining troops of the Confederate Army left the City by Mayo’s Bridge, General Dick Ewell’s men began putting the torch to the cotton and tobacco warehouses, the arsenal and the powder magazines. Lawless elements began looting the commissaries and the stores. A half-starved population became a vast uncontrollable, leaderless mob. In such chaos no one could think of sleeping. The fires raged beyond control, munitions were blowing up– many took what scant belongings that they could gather and sought refuge in Capitol Square to escape the flames. For hours the City was without law and order. A pure state of anarchy existed!

Early the next morning and at the height of the blaze, in marched the Yankee forces. Up Main Street and onto Ninth and thru the entrance gates in front of the Square, they came. Down came the Confederate flag from the roof. Up went the flag of the United States of America— for the first time in four years, raised by a Massachusetts trooper who had carried this flag for many months hoping just for this occasion. The Federal troops under Major General Godfrey Weitzel set about to put out the fires, to restore law and order, to protect the women and weak and to issue food to the half-starved populace.

Gone was the heart of the business district, completely destroyed. The areas from the north side of Main Street to the James River, 8th thru 15th and from 4th thru 10th, south of Canal Street, were nothing but smouldering ruins and ashes —- over 900 houses had been destroyed!

The final entry in the minutes of the City Council for 3 April 1865 read most appropriately “there was no meeting of the City Council today, as Federal Troops occupied the City”.

On Wednesday 5 April, President Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond for the first and last time as he was to be assassinated within a fortnight. He walked, slowly and bravely, with his little son Tad holding his hand, up Main Street, thence up Governor Street to Jefferson Davis’ White House. Later he rode in an open carriage along Grace Street, viewing the shell of a city.

Just a few days later, mounted on his faithful Traveler, General R. E. Lee turned, rain–soaked, into Franklin Street—- Home from Appomattox—-Home after four years of war.

But from the ashes of defeat, Richmond has risen again to a place of prominence in the South and in the Nation. We pause in these Centennial Years to commemorate the valiant deeds and sacrifices of the men and the women of this City, the once proud Capital of the Confederacy, for their dedication to a cause in which they believed.

Granted it is only one speech, but I am confident that to the extent that Richmonders commemorated this moment at all in 1965 it did not extend beyond the narrow focus articulated by Goddin. It cannot begin to compare to more recent efforts to highlight the complexity, confusion, horror and promise that animated the people of the city and the rest of the Confederacy. No one should question that this reflects great progress from developments on the scholarly level to the creative ways in which the National Park Service and so many other institutions are now engaging people from all walks of life.

Thanks to all of you for all your hard work. Wish I could be with you.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the annual celebration of another story of liberation. It is fitting that the 150th anniversary of the liberation of so many Richmonders comes on the eve of Passover. Happy Pesach to all my Jewish readers.

9 comments… add one
  • James Harrigan Apr 3, 2015

    I’m going to Richmond tomorrow with my family to take part in the last day of the events commemorating the fall-liberation of the city. Among other things, we’ll be joing a tour at 4pm that will follow Lincoln’s steps on his visit. I can’t wait, and will report back.

  • Brad Apr 4, 2015

    Happy Pesach back Kevin.

    I think the account you posted is interesting reading, typical of popular history of that time, with the flamboyant writing and use of adjectives. Thanks for posting.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2015

      Fifty years later it is striking just how much it leaves out.

      • Brad Apr 4, 2015

        Like the now freed slaves but I guess thst was in line with the dominant historical theme of the time: reconciliation, “the recent unfriendliness,” etc.

  • Nathan Towne May 7, 2015

    Mr. Levin,

    May I ask a question so as to clarify your underlying position with regards to your perspective on the historiography of the war?

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin May 7, 2015

      Sure.

      • Nathan Towne May 14, 2015

        I appreciate it.

        My perception of one of your positions on the historiography of the war, based on statements that you have made in several posts that you have written and gleaned a little bit from your book (less so in my eye though) is that you essentially see the course of the historiography of the war as being overwhelmingly influenced by the agenda of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and its interpretations of the war which would remain the dominant interpretation of the conflict until about, say the 1940’s/1950’s in which it began to be challenged by historians in the field. At this point, the significance of the conflict began to be reshaped in a process that has continued, incrementally, since.

        Would this be a generally accurate, albeit brief, portrayal of your basic view or not?

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin May 14, 2015

          The Lost Cause has certainly had a significant impact on popular culture and memory, but I think it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to the historiography of scholarly studies.

          • Nathan Towne May 14, 2015

            I certainly appreciate the clarification. As a general outline I think that my synopsis covers how I was taught growing up and unfortunately I have come to reject much of that thesis as largely inaccurate and/or misleading. I actually find the pre-1940 literature, taken as a whole, to be quite Unionist although emphasis has obviously dramatically changed.

            In fairness to my early year grade school teachers though, it isn’t an easy task to summarize such things quickly while verifying the veracity of every theme you are to pass off, which may require hundreds of hours of reading to reinforce or discount.

            Nathan Towne

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