June 1865 The Civil War

Late Scenes in Richmond

A reporter describes the rebels’ flight from Richmond, and Lincoln’s surprise visit two days later.

Just after the Confederate government fled Richmond, President Lincoln made a surprise visit. The artist Lambert Hollis, who was on the scene, depicted crowds rushing to the president’s side in numbers that alarmed his bodyguards. Here Lincoln is holding the hand of his son Tad, who was celebrating his 12th birthday. (Lambert Hollis/National Portrait Gallery)

Early in the war, the North set its sights on capturing Richmond, the Confederate capital, believing that doing so would mean victory. But over time, it became clear that the war was about far more than any particular city, and that winning would in fact require conquering an entire army and a way of life.

In “Late Scenes in Richmond,” the war reporter Charles Carleton Coffin explained how the Union had come to shift its aims, especially after General Grant took command. Coffin, who has been called the Ernie Pyle of the Civil War, witnessed and wrote about many of the war’s key battles and was close friends with Grant. In this excerpt, he recounted a late-night conversation he’d had with Grant about the general’s endgame, and chronicled not only the Confederates’ chaotic flight from Richmond on April 2, but also President Lincoln’s triumphant visit two days later.

—Sage Stossel

It was a natural cry, that slogan of the North in the early months of the war; for, in ordinary warfare, to capture an enemy’s capital is equivalent to conquering a peace. It was thought that the taking of Richmond would be the end of the Rebellion. Time has disabused us of this idea. To have taken Richmond in 1861 would only have been the repacking of the Department trunks for Montgomery or some other convenient Southern city. The vitality of the Rebellion existed not in cities, towns, or capitals, but in that which could die only by annihilation,—Human Slavery …

The nation was long in awaking to the consciousness that driving Lee out of Richmond would not end the Rebellion …

After the disaster at Chancellorsville, there came a season of sober reflection, and men began to understand that this is God’s war. Then there came a commander who believed that the power of the Rebellion lay not in Richmond, but in the Rebel army, and that the taking of Richmond was altogether a secondary consideration,—that the only way of subduing the Rebellion was to fight it down. He was ready to employ soldiers of every hue …

how richmond was taken

General Grant, fresh from his great success at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, having shown that he had military genius of a high order, was created Lieutenant-General, and appointed to the command of all the armies of the Union in the field. It was the beginning of a new régime. Up to that time there had been little concert of action between commanders … But when the President appointed General Grant to the command, he gave up his own plans … There was not merely concert of action, but unity of action, under the controlling force of an imperial will …

The appointment of General Grant to the command of all the armies was not only the beginning of a new régime, but the adoption of a new idea,—that Lee’s army was the objective point, rather than the city of Richmond.

“The power of the Rebellion lies in the Rebel army,” said General Grant to the writer one evening in June last. We had been conversing upon Fort Donelson and Pittsburg Landing. One by one his staff officers dropped off to their own tents, and we were alone. It was a quiet, starlit night. The Lieutenant-General was enjoying his fragrant Havana cigar, and was in a mood for conversation, not upon what he was going to do, but upon what had been done. He is always wisely reticent upon the present and future, but agreeably communicative upon what has passed into history.

“I have lost a good many men since the army left the Rapidan, but there was no help for it. The Rebel army must be destroyed before we can put down the Rebellion,” he continued.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] I write from memory, not pretending to give the exact words uttered during the conversation.

There was a disposition at that time on the part of the disloyal press of the North to bring General Grant into bad odor. He was called “The Butcher.” Even some Republican Congressmen were ready to demand his removal. General Grant alluded to it and said,—

“God knows I don’t want to see men slaughtered; but we have appealed to arms, and we have got to fight it out” …

Surprise is expressed that the Rebellion went down so suddenly, in a night, at one blow, toppling over like a child’s house of cards … but the calculations of General Grant were to give a finishing stroke …

Came the order from Grant, “Attack vigorously all along the line.” How splendidly it was executed! The Ninth, the Sixth, the Second, the Twenty-Fourth Corps, all went tumbling in upon the enemy’s works, like breakers upon the beach, tearing away chevaux-de-frise, rushing into the ditches, sweeping over the embankments, and dashing through the embrasures of the forts. In an hour the C.S.A.,—the Confederate Slave Argosy,— … was thrown a helpless wreck upon the shores of Time! …

scenes in richmond

“My line is broken in three places, and Richmond must be evacuated,” was Lee’s dispatch to Davis, received by the arch-traitor at eleven and a half o’clock in St. Paul’s Church. He read it with blanched cheeks, and left the church in haste.

Davis had robbed the banks of Virginia a few days before, seizing the bullion in the name of the Confederacy; and his first thought was how to secure the treasure.

He hurried to the executive mansion, passed up the winding stairway to his business apartment, seated himself at a small table, wrote an order for the removal of the coin to Danville, and for the evacuation of the city.

There was no evening service in the churches on that Sunday. Ministers and congregations were otherwise employed … The whole Rebel Government was on the move, and all Richmond desired to be. No thoughts of taking Washington now, or of the flag of the Confederacy flaunting in the breeze over the old Capitol! Hundreds of officials were at the depot, to get away from the doomed city. Public documents, the archives of the Confederacy, were hastily gathered up, tumbled into boxes and barrels, and taken to the trains, or carried into the streets and set on fire. Coaches, carriages, wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, everything in the shape of a vehicle was brought into use. There was a jumble of boxes, chests, trunks, valises, carpet-bags,—a crowd of excited men sweating as they never sweat before,—women with dishevelled hair, unmindful of their wardrobes, wringing their hands,—children crying in the crowd,—sentinels guarding each entrance to the train, pushing back at the point of the bayonet the panic-stricken multitude, giving precedence to Davis and the high officials, and informing Mr. Lumpkin that his niggers could not be taken …

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