Incidents of the Capture of Richmond
[THE following informal relation of incidents in the capture of Richmond was not intended for publication, and was never revised. It was hastily prepared for a few friends composing a literary club in Portland, Maine, of which the writer was a member, and is now printed, after his decease, at their request.]
During the last year of the war of the rebellion, the public interest was so completely centred in the movements of the Army of the Potomac, the campaign of General Sheridan, and General Sherman’s march to the sea that the Army of the James attracted comparatively little attention, until one bright Monday morning, on the 3d of April, 1865, the country was electrified with the intelligence that General Weitzel was in occupation of Richmond, and that the flag of the Union was waving over the capital of the Southern Confederacy.
So much blood and treasure had been poured out in the struggles for the capture of the rebel capital; the Union army had been so repeatedly driven back from the almost impregnable defenses of this fortress of the South; the cry of " On to Richmond! ” had been for so many years ringing in the ears of the people, only to be followed and associated with baffled expectations and defeated hopes, that when at last the glad news came that General Weitzel was in Richmond and Jefferson Davis a fugitive, a shout of exultant joy went up from every loyal heart in the North, such as had never been heard before, and which was hardly equaled by that which welcomed the subsequent intelligence of the surrender at Appomattox.
A short chapter of the unwritten history of the Army of the James during the few days preceding and following the capture of Richmond, from one who had the best means of knowledge, may not be devoid of interest, and may supply the place of a more labored essay which the overtasked and wearied brain of a plodding judge refuses to produce in the few hours to be snatched from the ever-increasing throng of litigants clamoring for speedy judgments.
On Saturday, the first day of April, what remained of the Army of the James, after being depleted by the detachment of two divisions, — one from the twentyfourth and one from the twenty-fifth corps, — under the command of General Ord, who had moved across the river to reinforce the Army of the Potomac, was encamped on the north side of the James River, on a line extending from Drury’s Bluff to Deep Bottom, and directly in front of Longstreet’s corps, which occupied a strongly fortified position between these two points. We were under orders from General Grant to attack, on the following Monday, General Longstreet’s lines, and endeavor to carry them by assault.
Longstreet was intrenched behind the strongest of all those works so admirably constructed by the best engineers of the regular army, — including Beauregard, who had devoted to the work of destroying the republic the results of an education at West Point, obtained at the expense of the Union, and intended to be used in its defense. In front of a perfectly constructed parapet, armed at all points with the best guns of heavy calibre, was a deep and wide ditch; in front of the ditch was a double row of abatis, and buried in the ground, at a distance of eighteen inches apart, between these rows, were torpedoes, which would explode under a pressure of five and seven pounds respectively. At all exposed points, where the nature of the ground in front did not exclude the probability of an attack, were chevaux-de-frise outside of the line of abatis.
The force of Longstreet behind this intrenched line was much larger than our own, which was ordered to make the assault. The prospect was not a pleasant one. The attack was not to be made in the expectation of carrying the enemy’s line, but with the absolute certainty of being repulsed with great slaughter. Why then ordered ? It was one of those necessities of warfare which require the sacrifice of a few to save many, — the destruction of a portion of an army to insure the victory of the remainder. Grant was every day drawing closer and closer the lines which were encompassing the armies of General Lee on the south side of the James. If Lee could not break through these, he must fail; for all his sources of supply had been cut off by the operations of Sheridan.
The attempt was then making to force these lines. The decisive battles of the war were then being fought. It was all important at this crisis that Lee should not be strengthened by reinforcements drawn from Longstreet’s army on the north of the James. To this end we were to be hurled against Longstreet’s intrenchments; not as a feint to distract attention from another point of real attack, but in a persistent and deadly assault, which, regardless of losses to the attacking force, was to keep Longstreet’s corps occupied all along his line, and to exclude the possibility of the withdrawal of any of his troops to reinforce Lee.
Every preparation had been made for this assault. Under orders I had placed ten days’ rations in the square redoubts along our line, that in the event of repulse and defeat the remnant of our army might take refuge in them, and perhaps sustain themselves until the anticipated successes of General Grant’s operations on the south side should enable him to detach a force for our relief. All the impedimenta of the army had been sent down to Norfolk. Every soldier had been reduced to the contents of his knapsack and haversack, and every officer to what he could carry on his person and his horse.
Saturday afternoon General Weitzel and one or two of his general officers were occupied in a meadow near Dutch Gap, experimenting with chain-shot and every available form of projectile, — firing at a double line of abatis, wbich had been constructed for the purpose as nearly as possible like Longstreet’s, and endeavoring to break it down with cannon.
The experiments were not successful; chain-shot and Parrott shell and every other missile passed through the interlaced branches of the abatis, and left no visible break or opening. We retired at night-fall, with the conviction that artillery was useless to help us in making the breaches; and that they could be made only with axes in the hands of men exposed at short range to a deadly fire from troops perfectly protected, and exposed also to direct and enfilading fires from the mounted guns all along the enemy’s line. In such an assault of course the officers must lead, stimulate, and encourage the men.
Sunday was passed in preparations for the attack, and in letter-writing to the dear ones at home, whom many of us then little expected to see again. Sunday evening General Weitzel came into the hut of a general officer, who was then chief of staff of the Army of the James. He carefully examined the schedules this officer had made of the opposing force, and, expressing great surprise at their completeness and accuracy, asked how such results could be attained with so limited means of information.
The officer pointed to a large, tabulated sheet tacked on the rough timber walls of his hut, and explained that by inquiring of each spy, prisoner, and deserter from the enemy respecting his company, regimental, brigade, and division commanders, and also respecting the companies on his right and left flank, he was enabled, by a comparison of all the answers, to supplement the ignorance of some and correct the falsehoods of others, verifying each by the other, so as to arrive at an approximately correct result.
“ The result, general, is wonderful,” said Weitzel, “ and that is where the lawyer comes in.”
General Weitzel was deeply impressed with the responsibility of leading his troops, including his own twenty-fifth colored corps, into a battle where the slaughter must be fearful and a repulse almost certain. “ I have been trying,” said he, “to ascertain what troops passed through Richmond yesterday, and from what part of Longstreet’s line they were withdrawn. General Mulford, who is coming down from near Richmond with the flag-of-truce steamer loaded with exchanged prisoners, has been unable to obtain from the officers on board any information on the subject. I think if you were there you could find out.” I replied, “ General, I will make the attempt.”
Immediately calling for my horse and my orderly, I mounted, and started in the night through the woods for Aiken’s Landing, about four miles distant, where the flag-of-truce steamer, the City of Richmond, would land. On arrival I found the exchanged prisoners disembarking. The men, with the habits of old soldiers in the field, upon landing had built fires on the banks, and were grouped in small squads, talking and smoking around them.
I started to cross the gang-plank to see the officers, who remained on the steamer. The way was obstructed with exchanged prisoners lying across the plank, too exhausted and feeble from imprisonment to go ashore; these were the prisoners from Belle Isle. The elation and excitement of a restoration to liberty after long confinement in rebeldom was not sufficient to rouse these half-starved, malaria-stricken skeletons of soldiers from complete apathy and indifference to life or death; they seemed not to care to drag their weary limbs any further, nor to make any exertion to save themselves from falling into the water. Afterwards, in Richmond, I saw the little pestilential island in the river where these poor fellows had been huddled together, closely packed in the low, swampy, feverbreeding inclosure, while on the high bluff, directly above them, was a large plain, where they could easily have been placed, with abundance of room, pure air, and dry ground.
Having seen this within sight of the dwellings of Davis and General Lee, and having learned that to both of these men official communication had been addressed from rebel officers, detailing the horrors of Andersonville and remonstrating against them, and that the only reply was a promotion of the infamous Winder and an approval of his course, I may be pardoned if I fail to agree with those who think that the president of the Confederacy and the commanding general of the rebel army are not responsible for the twelve thousand nine hundred and twenty martyrs of Andersonville, and the thousands of other victims of Libby and Belle Isle.
With the help of my orderly carefully lifting these poor fellows from the gang-plank and placing them near the camp-fires, to be ministered to by their companions, I then went on board, but failed to obtain the required information. Divesting myself of shoulderstraps and all badges of rank, I passed about and conversed with the men in the small groups about the fires, and finally succeeded in finding a Yankee soldier, —a genuine Yankee, — who had kept his eyes and ears open. He had been a prisoner in Libby, and had been selected to go, under a parole, to carry the stinted rations to the other prisoners inside. He had seen the rebel soldiers, and learned their number and the name of their commander. With wliat I already knew, this enabled me to determine the precise point from which the troops had been withdrawn. But this information did not help us much, as they were taken from Field’s division, which occupied the strongest and most defensible position on the line, quite distant from the place decided upon as the point of our attack.
Remounting, I galloped back to camp. On the way old Charley diversified the ride by giving himself and me a cold bath: he found the water of a stream we were obliged to ford so agreeable, after the heated gallop I had given him, that he evidently thought it. would be pleasant to us both to lie down and roll over in it.
I found General Weitzel awaiting my return. After communicating the intelligence I had acquired, we conversed upon the subject of the expected battle and the rather disheartening outlook. Before midnight a dispatch from General Grant arrived, informing us that the operations on his left flank had been so successful that Weitzel might delay his attack until reinforcements could be sent from the Army of the Potomac. With the heavy weight of this responsibility lifted from him, Weitzel left for his own quarters.
I had a conviction in my own mind of the significance of the withdrawal of a part of Field’s division as indicating a desperate state of things. As soon as Weitzel left, therefore, I sent for Major Stevens, who had command of the provost guard and of the picket line, and ordered him, if any rebel prisoner or deserter were brought in that night, to bring him directly to me, and not delay him by the customary routine through brigade and division head-quarters. In case no prisoner or deserter from the enemy should be taken before two o’clock in the morning, he was authorized to offer a furlough of thirty days to any of the pickets who should bring one in. As no furloughs were then granted for any cause, and this would be a great boon to some soldier who wished to see, perhaps, a dying wife or child at home; and as the pickets of the respective ar mies were within talking distance of each other, so that they frequently exchanged coffee for tobacco, and our pickets regularly supplied me with the Richmond daily papers, obtained in exchange for such things as our soldiers were well provided with and the rebels were destitute of, I had no doubt that I should see a rebel soldier before morning. I then wrapped myself in my blanket, and lay down to await the result.
Between one and two o’clock Monday morning, Major Stevens came to my quarters, bringing with him a ragged specimen of a rebel soldier. I sprang to my feet, and asked, “ To what regiment do you belong ? ”
He answered, “ To the eighteenth Georgia battalion.”
“ The deuce you do ! ” said I. “That battalion is in Custis Lee’s division, and you are the man of all others in the world I want to see.” I said this because I knew that Custis Lee’s division occupied a point on the line which the enemy could not afford to weaken. “Where is your division?” I asked him.
He answered, “ All I can tell you, general, is that I was out on picket, and at one o’clock, when the relief should have come, the officer came and marched us silently inside of the parapet, and left nobody in our places. When I got in, I found my battalion marching outtowards Richmond. I had been conscripted and forced into the army, and had marched enough ; so I thought I would n’t march any more, but would come over to you uns.”
Then I knew that the road to Richmond was open. Imagine the feelings of a Union officer, upon whom, in an instant, before it was known to any other person on the Union side, there flashed the conviction that Richmond was at our mercy ; that we should go there the next day; and that in the stillness of that night, while the whole army was quietly sleeping, he was the sole possessor of the knowledge! I immediately dispatched to General Devens to have the twenty-fourth corps ready to move at daylight, gave the same orders to the twenty-fifth, and hastened to General Weitzel’s quarters. I found the general sleeping the profound sleep of a Teuton, or, as he sometimes playfully called himself, a “ long-legged Dutchman.” Pulling him out of his bunk, which was the only way to arouse him from the deep sleep which had followed his relief from anxiety and responsibility for his command, I shouted in his ear, “ General, we can take Richmond this morning ! ”
The news was too good and too sudden for ready credence. He would not believe it. Said he, “ General, you are dreaming.”
I replied, “ Come out and put your ear to the ground, and you shall hear the tramp of Custis Lee’s division on their way to Richmond.”
The gallant Weitzel could not be convinced in that way. After some discussion, as he stood in the open door of his hut, a light was visible on the horizon in the direction of Richmond, which kept gradually increasing, succeeded by explosions.
It was, we afterwards learned, the burning and blowing up of the famous rebel ram Virginia, to prevent her falling into our bands. Weitzel exclaimed, —
“ By heavens ! General, you are right! Telegraph Devens to be ready to move by daylight.”
I replied, “ I have sent orders to that effect, and received his reply, that the twenty-fourth will be ready. The twenty-fifth is ready now.”
The officers of the staff and of the two corps, to whom the news had extended like wild-fire, came flocking about head-quarters, almost crazy with exultation at the prospect of an immediate advance. The light from the flames of burning Richmond continued to increase, and brought the conviction to all that the rebels were burning their gunboats and their munitions and supplies in the city.
About three o’clock in the morning, the whole heavens were illuminated with the grandest display of pyrotechnics I have seen. The air was full of bursting shells, burning rockets, blue and red lights, Roman candles, fiery serpents, and every kind of projectile and explosive. This magnificent illumination proceeded from the explosion of an immense naval laboratory near Richmond, in which were manufactured all the torpedoes, shell, fuses, rockets, signal lights, and ordnance stores for the rebel navy.
Our horses were by this time saddled and ready, and we were impatiently awaiting the daylight to cross the enemy’s lines. While we were all exchanging congratulations, a young aid-de-camp on my staff, Lieutenant De Peyster, came to me and said, —
“ General, do you remember a promise made to me a few months ago, when we left Norfolk for the Army of the James ? ”
I said, “ Yes, De Peyster : I promised if you would bring with you and take care of my old flag that had boated over the city-hall in New Orleans, you should raise it over Richmond.”
“ Will you let me do it ? ” he eagerly asked.
I answered, " Yes, go and get it ; and if you will carry it to Richmond you may raise it over the rebel capital.”
He ran quickly for it, strapped it to the pommel of his saddle, and did raise it that day over Richmond,—the first Union flag that had waved over Richmond since the secession of Virginia, This flag I afterwards gave to General Weitzel. and he presented it to the Historical Society of Ohio. It was the garrison flag of the twelfth Maine regiment; a regiment which owed its unexampled speedy organization and equipment to the sagacity and foresight of one of the members of this club, — “ the war governor of Maine.”
About five o’clock, Monday morning, we started on our march to Richmond : General Weitzel and his staff, comprising thirty or forty officers, in advance ; then a squadron of Massachusetts cavalry under Major Stevens; a division of the twenty-fourth corps under General Devens; and a division of the twenty-fifth (colored) corps, all starting by different roads, and each striving to be first in Richmond. As we rode through Longstreet’s lines, the small squares of red cloth inserted in split sticks in the ground over the torpedoes were all in place, — the flight having been too precipitate to leave time for their removal. We carefully guided our horses through the eighteen-inch wide space between them, and rode down into the ditch and up on to the parapet,— several of the horses tumbling into the ditch or rolling down the steep slopes of the parapet, to the great amusement of those of us who were hard-hearted enough to chaff their discomfited riders.
As we crossed the parapet we could see the whole encampment standing precisely as left in the night: not a tent had been struck; not a gun in the embrasures had been spiked; everything was left as if an army in the field had been drawn up in line of battle, or for an inspection, and then marched off the field. We dismounted and examined the camps, and found everything in them undisturbed, exactly as they had been occupied the night before. Passing through the encampment, we proceeded along the New Market road, which was completely strewn with blankets, muskets, knapsacks, clothing, every kind of impedimenta that the flying soldiers could throw away to lighten their burdens on their hurried march.
We made good speed on our horses, and were soon far in advance of the troops. As we drew near the city, a deputation, headed by Mr. Mayo, the mayor of Richmond, came to meet us and formally to surrender the city They expressed great surprise at the fine, well-groomed and well-fed horses of the officers and the style and completeness of all the equipments, which undoubtedly contrasted strangely with the half-starved hacks and dilapidated equipments and uniforms they had been accustomed to see in the ranks of the Confederate army during the last year of the siege of Richmond. We received the old Virginia gentleman so pleasantly and kindly that he reported, on his return to his anxious compatriots, who inquired what kind of people the Yankees were, that he had met “ a company of perfect Chesterfields.”
As we entered the city itself, the whole colored population received us with shouts of welcome. The white population remaining were tired of the siege, and thankful for our protection, after what they had suffered from the rebel troops, who had passed through in advance of us, had plundered the city of everything they could seize, and had set it on fire, determined to leave nothing for the Yankees but a heap of ashes in the place where Richmond had been. The houses of the more wealthy residents were closed, and their inmates, screening themselves from observation, only glanced at us from behind their lattices and blinds. But the joy of the poorer classes of whites and the exultation of the colored people at their deliverance from rebel tyranny was something wonderful to see.
The greater part of Richmond was on fire. As we rode through the principal streets, the buildings on both sides were burning over an area larger than that embraced in the burned district at the great fire in Portland. The air was filled with sparks, mingled in places with exploding shells from the rebel ordnance stores. The streets were thronged with people carrying tobacco, flour, and all kinds of commodities from the burning houses, shops, and warehouses. The delighted negroes crowded about the horses of the body-guard, and welcomed their riders with every demonstration of joy, pressing upon them the tobacco which they were saving from the factories and store-houses, so that when we arrived at the Statehouse every soldier of the provost guard had from five to fifty pounds of the best smoking tobacco hanging from his saddle.
In the park surrounding the statehouse was a scene of the wildest confusion. The rebel cabinet had hastily removed the most valuable archives from the respective departments the night before our entry; and the only time for making their hurried preparations had been since Sunday afternoon, when Jeff Davis was called out of church by the to him unexpected intelligence that the defenses of Richmond were to be abandoned, and the city evacuated by the troops during the night. The cabinet officers took away what papers they could, and the rest were scattered about the several departments, until our horses sank fetlock-deep in unsigned Confederate bonds and notes, letters, and documents of every kind, which covered the ground for acres.
Instantly upon arriving at the capitol the requisite military orders were issued, announcing the occupation of Richmond; appointing a military governor, provostmarshal, and the necessary officers ; providing measures for extinguishing the conflagration, for the preservation of peace ; and for the general government of the captured city. These measures occupied us until night-fall.
General Weitzel and the military governor occupied the official residence of the late president of the Confederacy, and breakfasted on the fare which had been provided for him, and which he could not wait that morning to partake of. As Davis had been a friend and guest of mine in former days, when he had been making Union speeches in Maine, and had frequently urged me to visit him in his Southern home, — and I had once called at his Mississippi plantation, only to find it occupied as a camp for contrabands, — I thought it rather inhospitable in him not to wait and preside at the breakfast he had prepared for me; but an appetite sharpened by the ride and the work of the morning prevented my spending much time in mourning my long-lost friend.
Before breakfast the following military orders had been issued, which I read from a Richmond paper of the period : —
HEAD-QUAHTERS DETACHMENT ARMY JAMES, RICHMOND, VA., April 3, 1805.}
Major-General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding detachment of the Army of the James, announces the occupation of the city of Richmond by the armies of the United States, under command of Lieutenant-General Grant. The people of Richmond are assured that we come to restore to them the blessings of peace, prosperity, and freedom, under the flag of the Union.
The citizens of Richmond are requested to remain for the present quietly within their houses, and to avoid all public assemblages or meetings in the public streets. An efficient provost guard will immediately reëstablish order and tranquillity within the city.
Martial law is for the present proclaimed.
Brigadier-General George F. Shepley, United States Volunteers, is hereby appointed Military Governor of Richmond.
Lieutenant-Colonel Fred L. Manning, Provost Marshal General, Army of the James, will act as Provost Marshal of Richmond. Commanders of detachments doing guard duty in the city will report to him for instructions.
By command of Major-General WEITZEL. D. D. WHEELER, A. A. G.
HEAD-QUARTERS MILITARY GOVERNOR OF RICHMOND, VA., April 3, 1865.}
The armies of the rebellion having abandoned their efforts to enslave the people of Virginia, have endeavored to destroy by fire the Capitol, which they could not longer occupy by their arms. Lieutenant-Colonel Manning, Provost Marshal General of the Army of the James and Provost Marshal of Richmond, will immediately send a sufficient detachment of the provost guard to arrest, if possible, the progress of the flames. The fire department of the city of Richmond and all the citizens interested in the preservation of their beautiful city will immediately report to him for duty, and render every possible assistance in staying the progress of the conflagration. The first duty of the armies of the Union will be to save the city doomed to destruction by the armies of the rebellion.
No person will leave the city of Richmond without a pass from the office of the provost marshal.
Any citizen, soldier, or any person whatever, who shall hereafter plunder, destroy, or remove any public or private property, of any description whatever, will be arrested and summarily punished.
The soldiers of the command will abstain from any offensive or insulting words or gestures towards the citizens.
No treasonable or offensive expressions insulting to the flag, the cause, or the armies of the Union will hereafter be allowed.
For an exposition of their rights, duties, and privileges, the citizens of Richmond are respectfully referred to the proclamations of the president of the United States in relation to the existing rebellion.
All persons having in their possession or under their control any property whatever of the so-called Confederate States, or of any officer thereof, or the records or archives of any public officer whatever, will immediately report the same to Colonel Maiming, Provost Marshal.
In conclusion, the citizens of Richmond are assured that with the restoration of the flag of the Union they may expect the restoration of that peace, prosperity, and happiness which they enjoyed under the Union, of which that flag is the glorious symbol.
G. F. SHEPLEY,
Brigadier-General U. S. Volunteers and Military Governor of Richmond.
HEAD-QUARTERS MILITARY GOVERNOR OF RICHMOND, VA., April 3, 1865.}
General Order No. 2. No officer or soldier will enter or search any private dwelling, or remove any property therefrom, without a written order from the head-quarters of the commanding general, the military governor, or the provost marshal general.
Any officer or soldier, with or without such order, entering any private dwelling will give his name, rank, and regiment.
Any officer or soldier entering a private dwelling without such authority, or failing to give his name, rank, and regiment, or reporting the same incorrectly, will be liable to immediate and summary punishment.
G. F. SHEPLEY,
Brigadier-General U. S. Volunteers and Military Governor of Richmond.
After the labors of the first day in extinguishing the flames, giving orders for removing the bricks and stone of the fallen walls, so as to clear the streets and renew the supply of gas and water which had been cut off by the destruction of the mains, and in organizing measures for the government and police of the city, the officers of the army of occupation assembled in a large building near the executive mansion, and held a love-feast, to celebrate the fall of Richmond. and to listen to the congratulatory dispatches which poured in from the whole North.
I pass over these festivities and the thousand other occurrences of the next few days, to relate an incident which is a part of the unwritten history connected with the visit of Abraham Lincoln.1 A few days after the fall of Richmond, as I was rapidly riding from my headquarters in the custom-house, where I occupied rooms just vacated hy Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of state of the Confederacy, I saw an excited crowd moving up the street. Dispatching my orderly to ascertain the occasion of the tumult, he soon returned, saying, " General, they say it is the president.” Putting spurs to my horse, I rode immediately to the advancing multitude. At the head of the procession was Abraham Lincoln leading his boy “ Tad” by the hand, walking in the middle of the Street, accompanied by Admiral Porter, and followed by the officers of Admiral Porter’s flag-ship, the Wabash, and a crowd of curious gazers, —white, black, and intermediate shades ; men, women, and children, — all anxious to get a look at Father Abraham.
Dismounting, I went up to him, when he exclaimed, “ Hullo, general! is this you? I was walking round to find headquarters.” I dispatched an orderly to report the facts to General Weitzel, and we walked together to the executive mansion. When we arrived in front of it, I presented the president to the people, and he acknowledged their hearty cheers by a few simple, sensible, and kindly words.
While the officers of the navy who had accompanied the president were exploring Richmond, and he was conferring with General Weitzel, Judge Campbell, who had left the bench of the supreme court of the United States at the breaking out of the rebellion, and had been a member of the rebel cabinet, and was now in Richmond undergoing the process of reconstruction, came to me as an old friend, and solicited the favor of an interview with the president. I communicated his desire to Lincoln, who expressed a readiness to see him. The interview took place. Judge Campbell endeavored to satisfy the president that as Richmond was evacuated by the Confederacy, and in possession of the Union army, the Virginia troops, who had gone into the contest upon the ground that they owed their first allegiance to their State, would no longer care to fight, He urged that if the legislature of Virginia could he convened, it would now recall the Virginia troops from the field, and declare, so far as Virginia was concerned, the rebellion ended.
In the conference, Judge Campbell, appealing to the kind, generous, and forgiving nature of Lincoln, who was only too ready to concede everything to a fallen foe, succeeded in convincing him of the feasibility of this project, and that it would save the effusion of much blood. The president then ordered General Weitzel to grant passes and permission to the members of the rebel legislature of Virginia to assemble in Richmond.
General Weitzel had no opportunity to communicate this result to me before the president had left Richmond, although the president told me that he had acceded to Judge Campbell’s request.
When General Weitzel informed me of the order, I asked for a copy.
He said, “ I have no written order.”
I replied, “ You are not safe without one.”
“ Why do you say so ? ” he asked.
“ Because,” I answered, “ this order will be revoked as soon as the president reaches Washington and confers with his cabinet; more, the cabinet will deny that any such order ever was issued.”
“ Why so ? ” said he.
“ Because this is madness. By this shrewd move of Judge Campbell the rebel legislature, assembled under the new constitution recognizing the Confederacy, will covertly gain recognition as a legal and valid legislature, and creep into the Union with all its rebel legislation in force, thus preserving all the peculiar rebel institutions, including slavery ; and they will get, as the price of defeat, all they hoped to achieve as the fruits of victory. The thing is monstrous. The cabinet will swear that you have misunderstood the verbal order, or willfully misinterpreted it. I wish, for your sake, you had the order in writing.”
“ I am a soldier,” said he, “and do as I am ordered.”
“ Right, general,” I said. “ Issue to me the order for the safe conducts, and I will obey it.” So he issued the order to me. I wrote a form of safe conduct, or pass, as follows : —
By command of the president of the United States, safe conduct through the lines of the army is hereby granted to —, a member of the so-called legislature of Virginia, from his place of abode in Virginia to Richmond, and while going to, remaining in, and returning from Richmond, and during the meeting of the so-called legislature. If this permission be used for the furtherance or utterance of treason against the United States in any form, this safe conduct will be void and its protection withdrawn.
By command of GODFREY WEITZEL, Major-General.
G. F. SUEPLET, Brigadier-General, Military Governor.
When these orders were printed, I showed them to Weitzel, and said, “ The passes are ready for the members of the legislature; notice has been publicly given that they can have them. I have obeyed orders ; so have you. I am afraid, general, as most of the gentlemen for whom these papers are intended are scattered over Virginia, and between us and them are the lines of two contending armies, not many of the passes will be delivered before this order is revoked from Washington, and before General Grant has solved the question for them. At the rate he is now progressing, he will soon withdraw the Virginia troops from the field without the help of a rebel legislature.”
It turned out as I had expected. As soon as the president arrived in Washington, having reflected upon the effect of recognizing a rebel legislature, and conferred with his cabinet, he revoked, by telegraph, his order to Weitzel, The cabinet officers denied the fact that such an order was issued, and the blame was thrown on Weitzel ; and newspaper reporters circulated a charge that the movement originated with Weitzel, and it was attributed to his sympathy for the rebels. Not so President Lincoln. As soon as he was on board the Wabash, going down the river, he sent General Weitzel a written order in the same terms as the verbal one he had previously given. This shows the kindness and sense of justice of Abraham Lincoln. The written order was sent purely for Weitzel’s protection, that the responsibility for the act might rest on the president’s own shoulders, and no one else might suffer. When, therefore, after the decease of Lincoln, a high government official allowed it to be said without contradiction, “No one than he [Lincoln] more bitterly condemned the acts of General Weitzel and his officers in Richmond in attempting to assemble the rebel legislature of Virginia,” he did not know, as I did, that General Weitzel had in his possession the peremptory written order of the president, and that the act was against the opinions and advice of the only officers in Richmond who were cognizant of it.
After his interview with Judge Campbell, the president being about to return to the Wabash, I took him and Admiral Porter in my carriage. An immense concourse of colored people thronged the streets, accompanied and followed the carriage, calling upon the president with the wildest exclamations of gratitude and delight. He was the Moses, the Messiah, to the slaves of the South. Hundreds of colored women tossed their hands high in the air, and then bent down to the ground, weeping for joy. Some shouted songs of deliverance, and sang the old plantation refrains, which had prophesied the coming of a deliverer from bondage. “God bless you, Father Abraham!” went up from a thousand throats. Those only who have seen the paroxysmal enthusiasm of a religious meeting of slaves can form any adequate conception of the way in which the tears and smiles and shouts of these emancipated people evinced the frenzy of their gratitude to their deliverer. He looked at it all attentively, with a face expressive only of a sort of pathetic wonder. Occasionally its sadness would alternate with one of his peculiar smiles, and he would remark on the great proportion of those whose color indicated a mixed lineage from the white master and the black slave ; and that reminded him of some little story of his life in Kentucky, which he would smilingly tell ; and then his face would relapse again into that sad expression which all will remember who saw him during the last few weeks of the rebellion. Perhaps it was a presentiment of his impending fate.
I accompanied him to the ship, bade him farewell, and left him, to see his face no more. Not long after, the bullet of the assassin arrested the beatings of one of the kindest hearts that ever throbbed in human bosom.
The sceptre descended into the hands of Andrew Johnson. Andrew Johnson descended into the hands of the Southern rebels. Then followed the ill-advised and ill-considered measures of reconstruction, and the conflicts of Ku-Klux and carpet-baggers; all which Providence seems to have tolerated as perhaps a necessary act in the great drama of the social revolution, which substituted a system of equality of personal and civil rights for the dynasty of a dominant over a servient race.
George F. Shepley.
- April 6, 1865 : the president’s second visit, to Richmond after its capture. His first visit was on April 4th, the day following the entry of the Union army.↩