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The burning of Richmond, April 3, 1865. [from the Richmond, Va., times-dispatch.]

Colonel Ripley, in command of the Federal troops, gives his recollections of the tragedy.

Editor of The Times-Dispatch.
Sir,—My attention has recently been called to an article in your paper recalling the memories of that eventful day, the 3d of April, 1865, which you may ‘well call the most memorable day in the history of Richmond.’

That day witnessed the entry of the Northern troops into the city after four years of desperate struggle for its possession to find it fired by its own defenders, and being pillaged by its own inhabitants.

The generation that knew of the dramatic events of that great day has mostly passed away, and few remain to tell the true story.

Your own account, correct in the main, leaves so much untold of the real history of that day, that in justice to the heroic and successful labors of the devoted troops to which the city owed its preservation from total destruction, accompanied by an appalling loss of life. I am led to ask you to publish something supplemental, which will let the public know exactly to whom the credit of the saving of the city and the care of the people was due.

At the close of the war, I had the honor of commanding the First Brigade, Third Division, (Deven's Division) Twenty-fourth Army Corps, Army of the James, lying in the trenches at the point where our works approached nearest the city.

My brigade was first over the Confederate works, and headed the advance upon the city. It led the column in the formal entry, and at the City Hall halted while I reported to Major-General Weitzel, commanding the troops operating on the north side of the James that day.

He had taken up his position on the platform of the high steps at the east front of the Confederate Capitol, and there looking down into a gigantic crater of fire, suffocated and blinded with the vast volumes of smoke and cinders which rolled up over and developed us, he assigned me and my brigade to the apparently hopeless task [74] of stopping the conflagration and suppressing the mob of Confederate stragglers, released criminals and negroes, who had far advanced in pillaging the city at our arrival.

He had no suggestions to make, no orders to give, except to strain every nerve to save the city, crowded as it was with women and children, and the sick and wounded of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The recent fire in Baltimore will help to give an idea of the formidable task thus given my brigade.

After requesting Major-General Weitzel to have all the other troops marched out of the city and placed in the inner lines of works, and that no permissions should be granted to enter the city, I took the Hon. Joseph Mayo, then mayor of Richmond, with me to the City Hall, where I established my headquarters. With the help of the city officials I distributed my regiments quickly in various sections, and sent some of my staff to inspect the fire department and report upon the help we could expect from it. They reported little aid to be expected here, not, as you say, from lack of men, but because most of the hose had been destroyed or rendered useless. The danger to the troops engaged in this terrific fire-fighting, compared to such a fire as that in Baltimore, was infinitely enhanced by the vast quantities of powder and shells stowed in the section burning. It was like a contest of innumerable artillery, like that which preceded Pickett's memorable assault at Gettysburg, and was awe-inspiring, punctuated by the heavier explosions of the ironclads in the river. Into this sea of fire with no less courage and self-devotion as though fighting for their own firesides and families, stripped and plunged the brave men of the First brigade, with what success the citizens of Richmond have but to look about them to recognize.

Meanwhile, detachments scoured the city, warning every one from the streets to their houses, arresting Confederate stragglers, of whom we had thousands shut up before night, Libby and Castle Thunder being soon crowded with them.

All persons carrying plunder were arrested and the plunderer carried to the City Hall, where the available space was filled with it, an officer taking a careful description of it.

The ladies of Richmond, whose imaginations had for years been highly inflamed by the rather too lurid descripttons of the Richmond press of the barbaric hordes composing the Union armies, expecting a scene of mediaevel rapine, thronged my headquarters, [75] frantically imploring protection. They were sent to their homes under the escort of guards, who were afterwards posted in the center house of each block and made responsible for the safety of the neighborhood. Although these men were taken indiscriminately from the detail for duty that day from regiments from Wisconsin, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Brooklyn, Northern and Central New York, and were not selected men, I never heard a complaint of rudeness on their part, but uniformly unstinted praise of their soldierly performance of a trying duty, of which I hear echoes down through the years to this day. Many painful cases of destitution were brought to light by the presence of these safeguards in private houses, and the soldiers divided rations with their temporary wards, in many cases, until a general system of relief was organized.

You say, ‘that considering the tumult and panic of that heartbreaking day, the wonder is not that Richmond suffered so greatly, but that it did not fare worse.’ That it did not fare worse is due to the heroic efforts and high character of these representative men of the Army of the James, to whom I think you give but faint praise.

You also say: ‘From what we have heard there must have been a time when the operations of the fire department were practically suspended.’ In this you are quite correct, for the Richmond fire department was not a factor in that fight for the city's existence.

At 2 o'clock that night, with my staff, I mounted my horse and rode through the city on a tour of inspection, encountering no sign of life in the streets except the sentries pacing their beats. The fire was under control, though still burning, and the silence of death which brooded over the city so lately in the hands of that wild mob, was only broken by the occasional explosion of shells in the ruins.

And now, may I ask you to give to the citizens of Richmond the names of the regiments to which all this was due, in justice to and in perpetuation of their memory?

I have before me as I write the morning memorandum report of my Assistant-Adjutant-General of the strength of the 1st brigade on the day after our taking possession of the city. It is as follows:

Staff—On duty 7, aggregate 7, effective 6.

Eleventh Connecticut—Officers 15, men 390; officers 26, men 412; officers 15, men 390; commanding, Major Charles Warren.

Thirteenth New Hampshire—Officers 9, men 227; officers 13, [76] men 247; officers 13, men 247; officers 13, men 220; commanding, Major L. S. Studley.

Nineteenth Wisconsin—Officers 11, men 369; officers 15, men 388; officers 13, men 310.

Eighty-first New York—Officers 10, men 81; officers 11, men 83; officers 6, men 71; commanding, Major D. B. White.

Ninety-eighth New York—Officers 15, men 236; officers 17, men 268; officers 13, men 210; commanding, Lieutenant-Colonel W. Kreutzer.

One Hundred and Thirty-ninth New York-Officers 12, men 294; officers 16, men 309; officers 12, men 278; commanding, Major Theodore Miller.

Convalescent detachment from the 2d and 3d divisions which had gone over to the extreme left to reinforce Sheridan.

Officers 12, men 532; officers 14, men 546; officers 12, men 471.

Total—Officers 91, men 2,119; officers 119, men 2,250; officers 90, men 1,950.

Officers sick 3; men sick 81.


Staniels, Captain and Adjutant-General. I remain, sir, very respectfully, Your obedient servant, Edward H. Ripley, Formerly Colonel of the 9th regiment, Vermont Volunteers, and Brevet-Brigadier-General, U. S. Volunteers.

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Weitzel (2)
Edward H. Ripley (2)
D. B. White (1)
Charles Warren (1)
L. S. Studley (1)
Staniels (1)
Sheridan (1)
George E. Pickett (1)
Theodore Miller (1)
Joseph Mayo (1)
Libby (1)
W. Kreutzer (1)
Deven (1)
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April 3rd, 1865 AD (2)
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