September 25, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


Trial by fire 

In one day Richmond burned and its dream of victory ended. To many, it was the end of the world.

Past the last street before the river, the vista opened to an unobstructed view of the city set on the hills of the opposite bank. Before the war, this vantage point offered travelers an arresting sight. Slender church spires and public buildings rose in terraced ranks above the commercial precincts crowding the riverfront. Towering over all stood the chaste white colonnaded portico of the Capitol that housed Virginia's legislature.

Now this place gave Lee his first sight of Richmond after the war that had rent the young American republic and sowed destruction on a colossal scale, but nowhere more terribly than in the Virginia capital. No matter how he may have steeled himself against the sight, it must have been a shock.

In front of him and upstream to the left, where the toll bridge and the two railroad trestles had spanned the James, now only fire-blackened stone piers marched across the river. Union army engineers had thrown a line of pontoons over the gap as soon as they occupied the city 12 days before. That rough structure offered the only way to cross. The Capitol survived, but it now looked down on the utter ruin that war had brought to the southern citadel, and over it the Stars and Stripes waved for the first time since the internecine nightmare had begun.

Tottering brick chimneys and piles of rubble stretched all along the waterfront. Richmond's industrial and commercial might lay in ashes. For days the fires continued to smolder, springing to life here and there among the gutted ruins long after the danger to the rest of the city had passed. By some accounts, even as late as this wet Saturday, nearly two weeks after the fire, the rain had not yet put out the last of the smoking embers. To his left, Lee could see the sprawling workshops and furnaces of the Tredegar ironworks, which had forged cannon for his army. Those buildings had escaped the fire, but they would fashion no more artillery pieces for the South.

In all, 800 buildings had burned, maybe more. Nine-tenths of its commercial heart had died with Confederate Richmond. In the words of an eyewitness describing the boundary of the fire, "The pencil of the surveyor could not have more distinctly marked out the business portion of the city."

Now it was gone: the Henrico County Courthouse, where the records of other counties had been stored for safekeeping, the General Court of Virginia and all of its documents, railroad depots, every bank and many law offices, greengrocers and dry goods stores, brokerage houses, slave markets, the offices of commission merchants, giant flour mills, most of the newspapers and their print shops, saloons, livery stables, warehouses, tobacco factories, machine shops.

The first half of April 1865 brought apocalypse to the Confederate people of Richmond and deliverance to those who favored the other side. Their mixed experiences of terror and elation, bitterness and joy, punctuated the end of an era, and it was not just for Richmond. It was for the whole reconnected but not yet reunited nation. April 1865 turned Richmond's world upside down. It overshadowed everything that had come before in their city. It influenced everything that followed. And it signified nothing less than the re-creation of the United States of America.

Two weeks earlier, on the Monday morning of April 3, 1865, the Confederate government had fled Richmond on a train for Danville just hours ahead of the Union army. Quickly, looting and chaos broke out.

When Confederate soldiers marched in from the eastern defenses and saw the looting, some joined in. Most stayed with their units and seethed at the sight of civilians stealing the food that had been gathered for the army but was now thrown to the winds. The anger of the soldiers rose as some of the mob taunted them about welcoming the Yankees. Men who had lived in muddy trenches on stale cornmeal and a bit of rancid bacon watched in disgust as immense quantities of the army's coffee, sugar, and ham disappeared into the gloom on the backs of looters.

In the widespread disorder, punctuated by explosions and fires and pillaging mobs, surprisingly few people were injured or killed. Adding up all accounts, including some clearly exaggerated ones, the total number of dead that day came to about two dozen.

Knowing the gravity of his duty, Provost Marshal Isaac Carrington conferred with both John C. Breckinridge, the Confederacy's 44-year-old secretary of war, and Gen. Richard Stoddert Ewell, the brave, erratic and abrasive commander of Richmond's defenses, repeatedly before sunrise.

The secretary of war reiterated the orders Ewell had given Carrington: It was necessary to set fire to the tobacco warehouses. And the bridges. About dawn, Ewell left Carrington at the corner of Fourteenth and Cary streets, where he told the provost marshal they could no longer put off the deed. Carrington then told the men assigned to burn the three warehouses to do their duty. At two of them, Shockoe and Van Gronin's warehouses, they immediately applied the torch. The railroad bridges came next.

Charles Ellis, president of the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, had stayed all night at his depot. It was uncomfortably near the third warehouse slated for burning, and Ellis hoped to prevent Carrington's men from harming his property. When, toward morning, he thought he had succeeded, he went home, exhausted, to lie down for a nap. As soon as Ellis left, the soldiers set fire to his bridge. Though they spared the tobacco warehouse because a trainload of wounded soldiers remained in Ellis' nearby depot, it caught fire from the bridge anyway and nearly burned the patients alive. At the last minute, army doctors organized a party to shift them to safety. The flames spread so rapidly to the depot that the superintendent only barely managed to move his sick wife out of the building on a litter.

Up to this point the night was calm, without any wind at all. At first when Carrington's men set the fires, the smoke rose straight up into the still air. Then a breeze began to blow. For Richmond it was an ill wind from the south that grew in strength as the sun rose, red and angry.

Confederate soldiers watching from the south bank could see that the fire had become general. It was consuming not just the rail bridges but also warehouses and stores along the waterfront as the wind blew the flames up from the river toward the Capitol. To observers watching from east of the fire, especially on Church Hill, where Patrick Henry had asked for liberty or death nearly a century before, the first flashes of sunshine "burnished the fringe of smoke with lurid and golden glory." To those in the west looking east toward the flames, the sun looked "like an immense ball of blood that emitted sullen rays of light, as if loath to shine over a scene so appalling."

Ewell later laid responsibility for the worst of the fires at the feet of the mob. He swore that they set fire to a large mill far from the tobacco warehouses fired by his soldiers, and he further alleged that it was that burning mill, not the warehouses, that spread the destruction.

Certainly, in the predawn confusion, some of the looters may have set some fires. But Ewell convinced few people that the great fire had nothing to do with his men or their deliberate demolition of the warehouses and bridges through military orders passed down the chain of command. Ewell did not anticipate the wind that spread these flames and made the destruction wholesale, and few people accepted his attempt to deflect the blame to alleged incendiaries among the plundering mob.

Black smoke billowing up in the center of the flames marked the site of the arsenal. It was located across the street from the Richmond & Petersburg depot, which caught fire when soldiers burned the railroad's adjoining bridge. In turn, the burning depot set fire to Gorgas's arsenal. Detonating shells in the midst of the black cloud gave it the appearance and sound of a summer thunderhead, with forked lightning flashing through it.

On the river the navy's ships joined the chorus as the fire reached their guns and then their magazines. The two rail bridges lit up the lingering darkness like strings of campfires miraculously suspended by high arches across the water. In the rapids below, the rushing torrent reflected the flames that were eating into the commercial center of town.

On Mayo's Bridge, 26-year-old Confederate Capt. Clement Sulivane strained to identify the parties of soldiers and wagons making their way toward him from different streets, converging on this one last escape route open to them. Among them rode the 29-year-old general of artillery Porter Alexander. He struggled to get his light batteries across the river, at least those that had enough horses fit to pull guns and caissons. While supervising this work, he noticed that a burning canal boat had drifted or been pushed underneath the bridge and lodged there.

Flames shot up through cracks in the wooden flooring. Alexander and his staff galloped across, fearing they would be cut off, even though all their guns had not yet passed over. Just in time, soldiers pried the burning canal boat away from the bridge, and Alexander's last field artillery made it through.

In the distance, Sulivane could see, or thought he could see, Yankee regiments streaming in from east of town. Were the hooves he heard clattering on Main Street Confederate or Union? The buildings blocked his view. Not taking any chances, he called his small infantry guard to arms and pulled his advance picket back across the canal. The engineer lieutenant lit his torch of fat pine. Just as he was about to give the order, Sulivane realized it was not time yet. The horses and mules he heard were pulling the last train of Confederate ambulance wagons. They would be needed in the coming campaign. More men would suffer and die before war ended in Virginia.

The ambulances were not home free yet. A mass of pillagers crowded around and prevented the harried teamsters from reaching the bridge. Sulivane ordered a subordinate to stand firm until Martin Gary's rear guard arrived, and then he turned and spurred his horse forward into the mob. As his men watched, the crowd engulfed him, but he reappeared and momentarily cleared a path for the struggling ambulances. As he did, Gary's command galloped into sight and scattered the swarm of looters. It was a close-run thing: the officers at the head of the cavalrymen had to use the flat of their sabers to prod the looters aside.

The horsemen reined up at the canal while their leader, a balding lawyer-turned-cavalryman, spoke to Sulivane. Martin Gary had been an extreme secessionist before the war, a profane and truculent partisan who afterward would channel his rage into white supremacist politics. For the moment, he was not about to give up the fight. "Touching his hat to me," Sulivane remembered, "he called out, 'All over, good-bye; blow her to h-ll,' and trotted over the bridge."


Monday, April 3, morning to afternoon

Capitol Square, the center of Richmond civic life, now became a refuge for traumatized civilians as well as a trophy for Union occupiers. On the square distilled all the terror and anguish that afflicted white Richmonders that morning. The large shade trees dotted throughout the steeply sloping lower half of the square had just begun to bud, their new leaves not yet unfurled. Beneath their branches, Richmonders were accustomed to promenading through the grassy lawns along gravel walks with neat cobblestone and brick borders. Laid out decades before, the landscaping plan for this classical republican space was at last coming to maturity, a fitting context for Thomas Crawford's bronze representation of the first president on the level, upper half of the square. Designed by the sculptor in Rome among the crumbling vestiges of Diocletian's monumental baths, the statue was now fated to tower over another spectacle of dissolution.

Before the morning was out, Union cavalrymen and terrified residents trampled the grass and the gravel paths. Above the chaos at ground level, flaming cinders seared and scorched the trees. Rising above them all, "amid this carnival of ruin, stood the great statue of Washington, against which firebrands thumped and rattled."

As the fire spread, more and more dispossessed citizens sought refuge on the lawn. Merchants who lived above their stores in the crowded streets near the Capitol tried to salvage a few possessions by dragging them to the square. In the predawn hours, most people hurrying through the streets with bundles under their arms or balanced on their heads had been looters. Now, with blue-coated troops streaming in and the thieves cowed by the threat of summary punishment, anyone bearing a burden through the streets most likely owned it. With each minute that passed, haphazard accretions grew all over the square: piles of clothes and bedding, furniture and kitchenware, carpets, mirrors, heirlooms, and jumbled sacks of possessions mixed promiscuously together with their stupefied owners.

They still were not safe. The sick and lame, brought there on litters by friends and family, lay helpless on the lawn. Airborne embers fell so thickly that refugees had to brush them off their clothing or risk catching fire, as some of the unattended piles of belongings did in the midst of the hoped-for sanctuary.

It was not a scene the people huddled there ever imagined for their city. "And thus, on this thronged theatre, unnaturally illuminated, and in an auditorium of almost unearthly sounds, expired much of the pride, the luxury, the licentiousness and the cruelty of Richmond." So wrote Edward Pollard, the embittered and suddenly unemployed editor of the Examiner, sounding for all the world like one of his northern adversaries, who would now delight in describing the immolation of his city, his newspaper, and his cause.

The fire had begun at the warehouses where soldiers carried out Ewell's disputed and now universally despised order. It radiated outward, and a rising wind from the south blew the flames away from the river and up through the commercial center of town toward Capitol Square. With the last disciplined Confederate force gone and the Union army not yet in firm control, the conflagration devoured hundreds of buildings. To an eyewitness, the sun seemed malevolent as it shone through the smoke, "like a great beacon of woe, or the awful unlashed eye of an avenging Deity."

The flames spread so rapidly that before the Union army arrived, most citizens looked on the spectacle, helpless and paralyzed. Father Louis-Hippolyte Gache, S.J., the French-born Confederate chaplain of a Louisiana regiment, saw them standing in front of their houses and congregating from unthreatened parts of the city just to watch: "Everywhere there was grim silence, drawn faces and a sense of hopelessness and horror. ... This very silence was all the more impressive for being suddenly broken again and again by the detonation of whole arsenals as the fire spread."

A resident of Franklin Street recalled the "death-like silence" that day: "No cries of fire, no ringing of fire bells, no rattling by of engines, not even the shrieks of women and children, for all seemed dumb with terror, and shrank pale and mute into their dwellings." Mary Fontaine, who had watched the first Union soldiers raise the Stars and Stripes over the Capitol, agreed. "I watched those silent, awful fires," she wrote, "all like myself were watching them, paralyzed and breathless."

After the second, formal surrender at City Hall, the local Union commander, Godfrey Weitzel, took up a position at the top of the steps on the east side of the Capitol to assess the situation. From there he and his staff looked down on what one of them called "a gigantic crater of fire." With the pitiful refugees huddling below him on the square and the flames roaring toward the Capitol, Weitzel could understand the terror. He had a special, personal respect for the power of fire: His first wife had died horribly from burns when her dress caught fire from a candle. It would only have been human for him to remember that wrenching loss as he watched the fires destroy property and, for all he knew, burn countless innocent people to death trapped in the narrow streets below him.

His task was simultaneously to establish military rule and fight the fire. He proclaimed martial law and appointed his chief of staff, an impetuous attorney from Maine, Brig. Gen. George Shepley, as the military governor of Richmond. Experienced from doing the same job in occupied New Orleans, where the taint of corruption hung about him, Shepley quickly issued a string of orders — but not without first reminding everyone who had started the fire. He announced that the first duty of the Union army "will be to save the city, doomed to destruction by the armies of the rebellion." From his headquarters at the former Davis mansion, Shepley instructed the provost marshal, Lt. Col. Frederick Manning, to organize a force of soldiers to help the local fire brigade. Contradicting an earlier order from Weitzel admonishing civilians to stay at home, Manning appealed to all able-bodied citizens to lend the soldiers a hand.

The chief engineer of the fire brigade was nowhere to be found. The next most senior officer, John Rodgers, stepped into the breach and worked side by side with the soldiers and impressed civilians. There was little equipment to aid them, only two steam fire engines, four worthless hand engines, and a large amount of hose that some sources say had been chopped up by saboteurs. Company G of the 13th New Hampshire was detailed to guard the hydrant, engine, and the remaining fire hose that vandals had not cut.

By then, midmorning, the fire was far out of control and threatened the whole city. At the foot of the square, only the stone Custom House survived intact while flames reduced every building around it to ashes and rubble. None of the banks escaped — not the Bank of the Commonwealth, not the Farmers' Bank, not the Bank of Virginia, not the Bank of Richmond, not the Exchange Bank where Elizabeth Smith had dispatched the state-owned silver from the governor's mansion for safekeeping. J. B. Jones, the War Department clerk, counted them up two days later. "The burnt district," he declared, "includes all the banks, money-changers, and principal speculators and extortioners. This seems like a decree from above!"

Only one building on Capitol Square burned, but it was an unfortunate loss — the State Court House. After he accompanied the mayor to surrender the city, Judge John Meredith hurried back to the courthouse and helped cart out files of pending cases and most of the order books. He was not able to save the will books or the deed books, however, or the records of the Supreme Court of Appeals, or those of Henrico County, which surrounded Richmond to the north, or thousands of legal records moved from outlying counties for safekeeping. They all burned. One piece of furnishing alone was saved from the building, a water pitcher snatched from the flames by the janitor's son. The loss of so many public papers would become a serious inconvenience for the future, but that morning few people other than Judge Meredith thought about legal documents.

For a time, the Spotswood Hotel was in danger, but a providential lull in the wind spared it. The Ballard House and the Exchange Hotel escaped. The American and Columbian hotels were not so lucky.

Shortly after the Union army arrived, the fire at the Confederate arsenal and laboratory began to set off thousands of artillery shells and cartridges. A prolonged series of explosions added one more terrifying element to a day already filled with calamity. Some people thought the Confederate army had returned and was shelling the city and its occupiers. A northern soldier who entered the capital that morning said the people stayed well back from the burning buildings because of the explosions. "I tell you," confessed Charles Morrell, "it made brick and mortar tremble."

Despite Charles Ellis' efforts, the depot of his railroad burned, as did that of the Richmond & Danville line. The depots and workshops of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac escaped. In part, the railroad owed its salvation to the fact that it ended a block north of Capitol Square, away from the zone of destruction. Even so, during the height of the blaze the line's buildings frequently caught fire from airborne cinders. With help from the 19th Wisconsin Regiment, Samuel Ruth organized a party to put them out. The railroad's superintendent of transportation, Ruth had spent time in jail earlier, accused of being a "pestilent Unionist" and passing information to the northern army. Ruth had indeed given valuable intelligence to Grant's army, intelligence that led to the destruction of his railroad's bridges near Fredericksburg. Unaccountably, the authorities released him before the evacuation, but on the day of the fire he worked to save, not destroy, his employer's property.

Most of the saloons disappeared in the flames. The misfortune was not the loss of alcohol. The occupiers would not let anyone sell it for many days to come, anyway. More important, the saloons had also provided the main source of food for many people.

When the fire began, William Warren tried to move the inventory from his dry goods store on Cary Street. He was doomed: His shop stood almost next to the Shockoe tobacco warehouse, the first building to burn at the hands of Ewell's soldiers. With the help of his slaves, Warren managed to shift some of his stock into a side yard. But he could not move it far enough to safeguard it from both robbers and fire. His cousin should have been at the store to help, but to Warren's disgust, the younger man joined the looters. The frenzy of thieves breaking into stores, smashing windows, and carting off whatever struck their fancy, the heat from the rapidly spreading fire, and sheer exhaustion from trying to carry too much by himself finally overwhelmed him. He admitted he might have saved more if he had persevered, but he succeeded in saving only a few personal items, "& in perfect despair & desperation & [with] no one to help I gave up all and resigned myself to my fate."

By the time the army began to fight the fire in a systematic fashion, nothing could be done for stores like Warren's close to the waterfront. Or for the bridges, by then dropping into the river with great hissing splashes, span after span. The explosions of artillery shells at the arsenal added another complication to thwart the firefighters. The soldiers finally saw their efforts begin to succeed about noon in one sector after they blew up the Trader's Bank to prevent the fire from spreading farther east along Main Street. Everywhere else they had to wait until the wind subsided and the flames ran out of fuel. Complete mastery over all sectors did not come before late afternoon, and small, contained fires flared up for days to come. The smoke would continue for weeks.

Weitzel assigned his brother and aide-de-camp to round up men to help. As he rode past a house on Franklin Street that was threatened by flames, Capt. Lewis Weitzel stopped when a black man asked him to come inside and speak to his mistress. He did and learned from the woman that she needed help to move her invalid mother, the wife of Robert E. Lee, who had been superintendent of West Point when Godfrey Weitzel was a cadet. The captain placed three soldiers and an ambulance at her disposal, and they remained outside her house until the threat of fire receded.

During Gen. George McClellan's failed 1862 attempt to take the city, the parapet on top of the hip roof of the governor's mansion offered a nighttime view of artillery flashes in the distance. Now that McClellan's successors had finally done what he could not, Elizabeth Smith, the wife of the incumbent governor, did not need to climb up to the roof to see flames. When she, her daughter, and two houseguests left the mansion about 7:30 in the morning, the fires were racing toward them. Only the diligence of a few watchers on the rooftops — first Confederate ones and then Union — kept cinders from burning the building down.

The fire then chased Smith out of the friend's dwelling where she first took refuge. She returned to the mansion on Capitol Square, but in the meantime, Gen. Charles Devens had made his divisional headquarters in the reception room and planned to board his staff in the house. In 1862, Devens had been wounded not far from Richmond at the battle of Fair Oaks. Perhaps he knew that Smith's husband had commanded a Virginia regiment opposite him in that fight. Even so, he graciously gave her permission to reoccupy the family quarters until she could find an alternative. She kept up a brave front, made light of her troubles, and told the new tenants of the mansion it was the second time she had been caught behind enemy lines. "She says she is getting used to the Yankees," wrote a bemused northern reporter a few hours later, surprised by her good cheer in the face of disaster.

By the time the fire burned itself out, hundreds of buildings had disappeared, perhaps 800, perhaps a thousand. The view from Main Street down to the river, and between Eighth and Fifteenth streets — in all more than 20 blocks — embraced an appalling vista "of smoking ruins, blackened walls and broken chimnies." Just outside the limits of the burning, furniture and household goods choked the streets and were trampled in the mud. Despite initial fears that many civilians died in the fire, such was not the case. It took a full week to pass before the first body was recovered, charred beyond recognition, from the canal turning basin.

The 12th New Hampshire Volunteers battled the flames all Monday afternoon. Bone-tired by nightfall, Capt. John Prescott managed to summon the energy to scribble in his pocket notebook that "the inhabitants thank us for our efforts, while they curse their Gov. for setting [the] fire." Prescott's terse assessment captured more than wishful thinking by a weary northern soldier hoping the residents would thank him for saving their city from complete destruction. Richmonders, even staunchly Confederate ones, agreed with him. Susan Hoge, no friend of the North, conceded that "the yankees put a stop to [looting] & made the negroes work to put the fire out & they worked hard themselves."

With a bucket and tin basin, the banker George Washington Camp helped save one threatened block of shops. He described in scathing words how on the previous evening the pleas of residents opposed to burning the tobacco were rebuffed by an aide to Breckinridge. "There are hard words & harder feelings here I tell you," wrote Camp three days later. John West went further, telling his mother that "the terrible conflagration started by the reckless wickedness of the retreating authorities involved me with hundreds of others in ruin, and this last act of vandalism, together with the uniform good conduct of the U.S. troops has changed the feeling of our whole people."

Gratitude did not mean political conversion, however. West, after all, was a Unionist. His Confederate neighbors could at the same time — and without blinking at their contradictory opinions — be grateful that the Yankees fought the fire, blame Jefferson Davis for causing it, and still pray that Lee would return with a flaming sword and drive the enemy from their city. And they did blame the hapless Davis even though the wider, wind-borne destruction came, however inadvertently, from the military demolition wrought by soldiers following the chain of command, from Lee to Ewell, from Ewell to Carrington, and from Carrington to the men who held the torch to the warehouses and bridges.


In time, people far beyond Virginia would come to know Richmond's gaunt ruins through the eyes of the photographers who swarmed over the city while the rubble still smoldered. And they would recognize the stricken city through Currier and Ives' popular fanciful print showing Richmonders fleeing across Mayo's Bridge ahead of the flames. These views were stamped into national memory, and for a long time to come Richmond in ashes signified irretrievable loss to the South and the fruits of failed rebellion to the North.

By summer 1865, though, the sounds of Richmond's future began to ring out from the hammers and saws of carpenters and the chipping and tapping masons laying course upon course of recycled James River brick as they erected bigger and better warehouses, stores and factories. Laborers and craftsmen, black and white, they set about the task of the physical rebuilding of their city. With wild optimism, one resident declared that "the debris of the ruins are fast being cleared away and nearly everyone [is] preparing to rebuild. This city is destined to be within a few years the second New York."

The reconstruction of Richmond had begun. S



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