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 …

In the Sabbath evening twilight, the trains, with the fugitive Government, its stolen bullion, and its Doctors of Divinity on board, moved out from the city.

At the same hour, the Governor of Virginia, William Smith, and the Assembly, were embarked in a canal-boat, on the James River and Kanawha Canal, moving for Lynchburg. On all the roads were men, women, and children, in carriages of every description, with multitudes on horseback and on foot, fleeing from the Rebel capital. Men who could not get away were secretly at work, during those night-hours, burying plate and money in gardens; ladies secreted their jewels, barred and bolted their doors, and passed a sleepless night, fearful of the morrow, which would bring the hated, despised, Vandal horde of Yankee ruffians: for such were the epithets which they had persistently applied to the soldiers of the Union throughout the war …

To prevent the United States from obtaining possession of a few thousand hogsheads of tobacco, a thousand houses were destroyed by fire, the heart of the city was eaten out,—all of the business portions, all the banks and insurance-offices, half of the newspapers, mills, depots, bridges, foundries, workshops, dwellings, churches, thirty squares in all, swept clean by the devouring flames. It was the work of the Confederate Government …

Strange, weird, the scenes of that Monday night,—the glimmering flames, the clouds of smoke hanging like a funeral pall above the ruins …

visit of president lincoln

Among the memorable events of the week was the visit of President Lincoln to the city of Richmond. He had been tarrying at City Point, holding daily consultations with General Grant, visiting the army and the iron-clads at Aiken’s Landing,—thus avoiding the swarm of place-hunters that darkened the doors of the executive mansion.

On Tuesday noon a tug-boat belonging to the navy was seen steaming up the James, regardless of torpedoes and obstructions. A mile below the city, where the water becomes shoal, President Lincoln, accompanied by Admiral Porter, Captain Adams of the navy, Captain Penrose of the army, and Lieutenant Clemmens of the Signal Corps, put off from the tug in a launch manned by twelve sailors, whose long, steady oar-strokes quickly carried the party to the landing-place,—a square above Libby Prison.

There was no committee of reception, no guard of honor, no grand display of troops, no assembling of an eager multitude to welcome him.

He entered the city unheralded; six sailors, armed with carbines, stepped upon the shore, followed by the President, who held his little son by the hand, and Admiral Porter; the officers followed, and six more sailors brought up the rear. The writer of this article was there upon the spot, and, joining the party, became an observer of the memorable event.

There were forty or fifty freedmen, who had been sole possessors of themselves for twenty-four hours, at work on the bank of the canal, securing some floating timber, under the direction of a Lieutenant. Somehow they obtained the information that the man who was head and shoulders taller than all others around him, with features large and irregular, with a mild eye and pleasant countenance, was President Lincoln.

“God bless you, Sah !” said one, taking off his cap and bowing very low.

“Hurrah! hurrah! President Linkum hab come!” was the shout which rang through the street.

The Lieutenant found himself without a command. What cared those freedmen, fresh from the house of bondage, for floating timber or military commands? Their deliverer had come,—he who, next to the Lord Jesus, was their best friend! It was not an hurrah that they gave, but a wild, jubilant cry of inexpressible joy.

They gathered round the President, ran ahead, hovered upon the flanks of the little company, and hung like a dark cloud upon the rear. Men, women, and children joined the constantly increasing throng. They came from all the by-streets, running in breathless haste, shouting and hallooing and dancing with delight. The men threw up their hats, the women waved their bonnets and handkerchiefs, clapped their hands, and sang, “Glory to God! glory! glory! glory!”—rendering all the praise to God, who had heard their wailings in the past, their moanings for wives, husbands, children, and friends sold out of their sight, had given them freedom, and, after long years of waiting, had permitted them thus unexpectedly to behold the face of their great benefactor.

“I thank you, dear Jesus, that I behold President Linkum!” was the exclamation of a woman who stood upon the threshold of her humble home, and with streaming eyes and clasped hands gave thanks aloud to the Saviour of men.

Another, more demonstrative in her joy, was jumping and striking her hands with all her might, crying,—“Bless de Lord! Bless de Lord! Bless de Lord!” as if there could be no end of her thanksgiving.

The air rang with a tumultuous chorus of voices. The street became almost impassable on account of the increasing multitude. Soldiers were summoned to clear the way. How strange the event! The President of the United States—he who had been hated, despised, maligned above all other men living, to whom the vilest epithets had been applied by the people of Richmond—was walking their streets, receiving thanksgivings, blessings, and praises from thousands who hailed him as the ally of the Messiah! How bitter the reflections of that moment to some who beheld him! … Their government overthrown, their President and his cabinet vagrants, driven from house and home to be wanderers upon the earth. They had been promised affluence, Richmond was to be the metropolis of the Confederacy, and Virginia the all-powerful State of the new nation. How terrible the cheat! Their thousand-dollar bonds were not worth a penny. A million dollars would not purchase a dinner. Their money was valueless, their slaves were freemen …

Abraham Lincoln was walking their streets; and, worst of all, that plain, honest-hearted man was recognizing the “niggers” as human beings by returning their salutations! The walk was long, and the President halted a moment to rest. “May de good Lord bless you, President Linkum!” said an old negro, removing his hat, and bowing with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. The President removed his own hat, and bowed in silence; but it was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries. It was a death-shock to chivalry, and a mortal wound to caste. Recognize a nigger! Faugh! A woman in an adjoining house beheld it, and turned from the scene in unspeakable disgust. There were men in the crowd who had daggers in their eyes; but the chosen assassin was not there, the hour for the damning work had not come, and that great-hearted man passed on to the executive mansion of the late Confederacy.

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