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Chapter 37: dies irae-dies illa.

  • The lull at Petersburg
  • -- strain on army and people -- North and South waiting -- fears for Richmond -- after Atlanta -- peace propositions -- Mr. Davis' attitude -- Mr. Stephens' failure at Fortress Monroe -- Hood's fatal move -- results of Franklin -- strange gayeties in Richmond -- from the Dance to the grave -- “Starvations” and theatricals -- evacuation rumors -- only Richmond left -- Joe Johnston Reinstated -- near desperation -- Grant Strikes -- the news in church -- evacuation scenes -- the mob and the stores -- firing warehouses -- the last Reb leaves -- fearful Farewells -- dead!
    It is nowise within the scope of these sketches to detail that memorable siege of Petersburg, lasting nearly one year. It were needless to relate here, how — for more than ten months--that long southern line of defense, constantly threatened and almost as constantly assailed, was held. Men know now that it was not by strength, but by sleepless watch and dogged endurance, that less than 30,000 worn men-so dotted along works extending near forty miles, that at points there was one soldier to every rod of earthwork-held their own, even against the earlier onsets. Men now realize why the Federal general-failing in every separate effort to buy. a key-position, even at the cost of six lives for one--was forced to sit down sullenly and wait the slow, but sure, process of attrition.

    These matters are now stamped upon the minds of readers, on both sides of the Potomac. In the North they had voluminous reports of every detail; and the cessation of interest elsewhere gave full leisure to study them. In the South, 30,000 earnest historians from the trenches were sought, each one by eager crowds; and the story of every cannonade and skirmish and charge, told in honest but homely words, was burned into the memory of intent listeners.

    Slowly that summer wore itself away. Steadily that bloody history traced itself out; punctuated, now by many a fierce and sudden rush of crowding Federals-ever beaten back with frightful loss; again by rare sorties from our line, when our leaders saw the chance to strike some telling blow.

    But spite of care in those leaders and superhuman endurance in the men, the southern troops were worn with watching and steadily melting away. Close, ceaseless fighting thinned their ranks; there were no more men-even the youngest of the land, or its first borns --to take the places of the lost veterans. General Grant's words were strictly true-“the South had robbed the cradle and the [348] grave” The boasted army of the North, led by her latest-chcsen champion and strategist, was kept at bay by a skeleton of veterans, barely held together by the worn-out sinews and undeveloped muscle of old age and infancy.

    Then the fall of Atlanta came! The people were not to be deceived by platitudes about “strategic purposes,” or empty nothings about “a campaign to nullify it.” They had gotten now beyond that; and saw the terrible blow that had been dealt them in all its naked strength. They felt that an army that had failed to check Sherman, when it was behind strong works, would hardly do so in the open field. They felt that he could now at his leisure bore into the coveted heart of our territory; that the long-attempted “bisection of the rebellion” was accomplished; that further aid, or supplies, from that section was impossible. And then the people of Richmond turned once more with unfailing pride, but lessening hope, toward the decreasing bands that still held their own gates secure. But they saw how the deadly strain was telling upon these; that the end was near.

    But even now there was no weak yielding — no despairing cry among the southern people. They looked at the coming end steadily and unflinchingly; and now, for the first time, they began to speculate upon the possible loss of their beloved Capital. It was rumored in Richmond that General Lee had told the President that the lines were longer than he could hold; that the sole hope was to evacuate the town and collect the armies at some interior point for a final struggle that might yet sever the bonds, ever closing tighter and tighter upon us. And the rumor added that Mr. Davis peremptorily and definitely rejected this counsel; declaring that he would hold the city, at any cost and any risk.

    For once-whatever cause they had to credit these reports-the popular voice was louder on the side of the unpopular President than on that of the idolized general. The tremendous efforts to capture the Capital; the superhuman exertions made to defend it in the last four years, had made Richmond the cause! People argued that if Richmond was lost, the State of Virginia was lost, too; that there was no point in North Carolina where the army could make a stand, for even that “interior line” then became a frontier. Beyond this the people felt the moral effect of such a step; and that the army, as such, [349] could never be carried out of Virginia. And with the ceaseless discussion of this question, came the first yearnings for peace propositions.

    To this extremity, the South had been confident and fixed in her views. Cheated of her hopes of foreign intervention, she had yet believed her ability to work out her own oracle; through blood and toil-even ruin, perhaps-but still to force a peace at last. But now the popular voice was raised in answer to the vague words of peace that found their way over the Potomac. If there be any desire in the North for cessation of this strife, said the people, for God's sake let us meet it half way. Even the Congress seemed impressed with the necessity of meeting any overtures from the North, before it was too late and our dire strait should be known there. But it was already too late; and the resultless mission of Mr. Stephens to Fortress Monroe proved that the Washington Government now saw plainly that it could force upon us the terms it made the show of offering.

    The failure of this mission, no less than the great mystery in which the Government endeavored to wrap it, produced a decided gloom among the thinking classes; and it reacted upon the army as well. The soldiers now began to lose hope for the first time. They saw they were fighting a hydra; for as fast as they lopped off heads in any direction, fresh ones sprang up in others. They began, for the first time, to feel the contest unequal; and this depressing thoughtadded to the still greater privations following the loss of Georgiamade desertion fearfully common, and threatened to destroy, by that cause, an army that had withstood every device of the enemy.

    And so the fall wore into winter; and the news from General Hood's lines only added to the gloom. After the truce of ten days, following the fall of Atlanta, Hood had moved around and gotten almost in Sherman's rear. For a moment there was great exultation, for it was believed he would destroy the enemy's communications and then attack him, or force an attack on ground of his own choosing. Great was the astonishment and great the disappointment, when Hood moved rapidly to Dalton and thence into Alabama, leaving the whole country south of Virginia entirely open, defenseless, and at Sherman's mercy.

    And, as usual, in moments of general distress, Mr. Davis was blamed for the move. He had, it was said, removed Joe Johnston at the very moment his patient sagacity was to bear its fruits; he had [350] been in Hood's camp and had of course planned this campaign-a wilder and more disastrous one than the detachment of Longstreet, for Knoxville. Whosesoever may have been the plan, and whatever may have been its ultimate object, it failed utterly in diverting Sherman from the swoop for which he had so long hovered. For, while the small bulwark of Georgia was removed-and sent in Quixotic joust against distant windmills — the threatening force, relieved from all restraint, and fearing no want of supplies in her fertile fields, pressed down, “Marching throa Georgia.”

    Meantime Hood, with no more serious opposition than an occasional skirmish, crossed the Tennessee at Florence, about the middle of November. The enemy fell back before him, toward Nashville, until it seemed as if his intent was to draw Hood further and further away from the real point of action-Sherman's advance. On the 30th of November, however, Thomas made a stand at Franklin; and then resulted a terrific battle, in which the Confederates held the field, with the loss of one-third of the army. Six of our generals lay amid their gallant dead on that unhappy field; seven more were disabled by wounds, and one was a prisoner. The enemy's loss was stated at far less than ours; and he retired into Nashville, to which place our army laid siege on the 1st of December.

    Weakened by the long march and more by the terrible losses of Franklin; ill-supplied and half-fed, Hood's army was compelled to rely upon the enemy's want of supplies driving him out. On the 15th of December he attacked our whole line, so furiously as to break it at every point. Hood's defeat was complete; he lost his whole artillery-over fifty pieces-most of his ordnance and many of his supply trains. In the dreadful retreat that followed, General Forrest's vigorous covering alone saved the remnant of that devoted army; and on the 23d of January, 1865-when he had brought them once more into temporary safety-General Hood issued a farewell order, stating that he was relieved at his own request.

    Gallant, frank and fearless even in adversity, he did not shirk the responsibility of the campaign; declaring, that disastrous and bitter as it had been, he had believed it best.

    So ended all real resistance in the South and West. The enemy had gained the back door to Richmond, had shattered its supports [351] and had marched on to the rear of those strongholds that had so long defied his power from the sea.

    It was but a question of time, when Charleston and Savannah should fall; and even the most hopeful could see that Virginia was the only soil on which resistance still walked erect.

    Meanwhile, the winter was passing in Richmond in most singular gayety. Though the hostile lines were so close that the pickets could “chaff” each other without raising their voices, still both had learned that direct attacks in front were not practicable; and such was the state of the roads all around Petersburg, that no movement out of works could be attempted. Therefore more active fighting had for the moment ceased; numbers of young officers could get to Richmond, for a few days at a time; and these came worn and tired from camp and famished for society and gayety of some sort. And the younger ladies of Richmond-ready as they ever were to aid and comfort the soldier boys with needle, with bandage, or with lint --were quite as ready now to do all they could in plans for mutual pleasure.

    They only felt the strain was for the moment remitted; they recked not that it was to come to-morrow for the final crush; and they enjoyed to-day with all the recklessness of long restraint.

    Parties were of nightly occurrence. Not the brilliant and generous festivals of the olden days of Richmond, but joyous and gay assemblages of a hundred young people, who danced as though the music of shells had never replaced that of the old negro fiddler --who chatted and laughed as if there were no to-morrow, with its certain skirmish, and its possible blanket for winding-sheet. For the beaux at these gatherings were not only the officers on leave from Petersburg; the lines drawn close to the city furnished many an acquisition, who would willingly do ten miles in and out, on horseback through the slush and snow, for one deux temps with “somebody in particular.”

    And many a brave fellow had ridden direct from the ball-room into the fight. I can well recall poor H. now, as he looked when last I saw him in life. Ruddy and joyous, with his handsome face one glow of pleasure, he vaulted gaily to his saddle under the bright moon at midnight. Curbing his restive horse, and waving a kiss to [352] the bright faces pressed against the frosty pane, his clear au revoir! echoed through the silent street, and he was off.

    Next morning a country cart brought his lifeless body down Main street, with the small blue mark of a bullet in the middle of the smooth, clear, boyish brow. Never leaving his saddle, he had ridden into a picket fight, and a chance shot had cut short the life of so much promise.

    But it is not meant that these parties entailed any waste of those supplies, vital alike to citizen and soldier. They were known as “Starvations;” and all refreshments whatever were forbidden, save what could be drawn from the huge pitcher of “Jeems' river” water, surrounded with its varied and many-shaped drinking utensils. Many of these, even in the houses of the best provided, were of common blown glass, with a greenish tinge that suggested a most bilious condition of the blower. The music was furnished by some of the ancient negro minstrels-so dear to the juvenile southern heart in days gone by; or more frequently by the delicate fingers of some petted and favored belle. And never, amid the blare of the best trained bands, the popping of champagne, and the clatter of forks over pat defoies gras, was there more genuine enjoyment and more courtly chivalry to the beau sexe, than at these primitive soirees.

    The “Starvations” were not the only amusements. Amateur theatricals and tableaux again became the rage in midwinter; and talent of no contemptible grade was displayed on many an impromptu stage. And that especial pet horror of supersensitive godlinessthe godless German cotillion-even forced itself into the gayeties of the winter. Great was the wrath of the elect against all amusements of the kind-but chiefest among outrages was this graceless German. But despite the denunciations, the ridicule, and even the active intervention of one or two ministers, the young soldiers and their chosen partners whirled away as though they had never heard a slander or a sermon.

    I have already endeavored to show how a certain class in Richmond deprecated gayety of all kinds two years before. These, of course, objected now; and another class still was loud and violent against it. But, said the dancers, we do the fighting-we are the ones who are killed-and if we don't object, why in the deuce should you? Cooped up in camp, with mud and musty bacon for living, and [353] the whistling of Minies and whooing of shells for episode, we long for some pleasure when we can get off. This is the sole enjoyment we have, and we go back better men in every way for it.

    This was rather unanswerable argument; and the younger ladies were all willing to back it; so malgre long faces and a seeming want of the unities, the dancing went on.

    We have heard a great dealpost-bellum bathos about that strange mixture of gay waltzes, and rumble of dead-cart and ambulance; but one must have heard the sounds together before he can judge; and no one who was not in and of that peculiar, and entirely abnormal, state of society, can understand either its construction, or its demands.

    But the short spasm of gayety, after all, was only the fitful and feverish symptom of the deadly weakness of the body politic. It was merely superficial; and under it was a fixed and impenetrable gloom. The desertions from the army were assuming fearful proportions, that no legislation or executive rigor could diminish; supplies of bare food were becoming frightfully scarce, and even the wealthiest began to be pinched for necessaries of life; and over all brooded the dread cloud of a speedy evacuation of the city.

    Every day saw brigades double-quicking back and forth through the suburbs; the continuous scream of steam-whistles told of movement, here and there; and every indication showed that the numbers of men were inadequate to man the vast extent of the lines. As the spring opened, this became more and more apparent. There was no general attack, but a few brigades would be thrown against some ill-defended work here; and almost simultaneously the undefended lines there would have a force hurled against them. It almost seemed that the enemy, aware of our weakness, was determined to wear out our men by constant action, before he struck his heavy blow. How dear the wearied, starving men made these partial attacks cost him, already his own reports have told.

    March came, and with it, orders to remove all government property that could possibly be spared from daily need. First the archives and papers went; then the heavier stores, machinery and guns, and supplies not in use; then the small reserve of medical stores was sent to Danville, or Greensboro. And, at last, the already short [354] supplies of commissary stores were lessened by removal-and the people knew their Capital was at last to be given up!

    The time was not known — some said April, some the first of May; but the families of the President and Cabinet had followed the stores; the female Department clerks had been removed to Columbia-and there was no doubt of the fact. After four years of dire endeavor and unparalleled endurance, the Capital of the South was lost!

    In their extremity the people said little, but hope left them utterly. In the army or out, there were few, indeed-and no Virginiansbut believed the cause was lost when the army marched away.

    Richmond was Virginia — was the cause!

    With Sherman already in possession of Charleston and Savannah, and the army unable to do aught but retreat sullenly before himwith Virginia gone, and the Confederacy narrowed down to North Carolina, a strip of Alabama and the trans-Mississippi-what hope was left?

    After General Johnston had been relieved at Atlanta, the Department had managed, on one reason or another, to shelve him until now. The public voice was loudly raised against the injustice done the man they admired most of all the bright galaxy of the South; and even Congress woke from its stupor long enough to demand for the great soldier a place to use his sword. This was in January; but still the government did not respond, and it was not until the 23d February that he was restored to command. Thenwith the shattered remnant of his army, augmented, but not strengthened by the fragments of flying garrisons-he could only fall back before the victorious progress of that “Great March” he might effectually have checked, on its threshold at Atlanta.

    Deep gloom-thick darkness that might be felt-settled upon the whole people. Hope went out utterly, and despair-mingled with rage and anguish as the news from the “Great March” came intook its place in every heart. But in every heart there was bitter sorrow, humiliation-but no fear. As Richmond became more and more empty, and the time to abandon her drew nearer and nearer, her people made what provision they might to meet the enemy they had scorned so long. One class and one alone, showed any sign of [355] fear — the human vultures so long fattened on the dead and dyingthe speculators.

    With every preparation long since made for the event — with cellars and attics stored with tobacco and other merchandise — with Confederate blood-money converted into gold-these Shylocks now shivered in anticipation of the coming greenbacks, for abject dread of the bluebacks that were to bring them. There is one gleam of satisfaction through the gloom of the great fire — it partly purified the city of these vermin and the foul nests they had made themselves.

    All seemed ready during March, and the people watched every movement, listened for every sound, that might indicate actual evacuation. Each morning the city rose from its feverish sleep, uncertain whether, or not, the army had withdrawn in the stillness of the night.

    During all this fitful suspense there was no general fight along the lines, and from time to time hope would flicker up, and for the moment throw the shadows into shape of a possible victory — a saving blow for the storm-racked ship of state, now her decks had been cleared for desperate action. Then it would down, down again, lower than before.

    With the end of March the enemy made new combinations. His whole disjointed attacks had been against the South Side road, the main artery of supply and retreat. He had ceased organized attacks on the works, and sought only to strike the communications. Now, Sheridan, with a formidable force, was sent to Five Forks; and Richmond heard, on the first day of April, of desperate fighting between him and Pickett.

    Next morning, the 2d April, rose as bright a Sunday as had shone in all Richmond that spring. The churches were crowded, and plainly-dressed women-most of them in mourning-passed into their pews with pale, sad faces, on which grief and anxiety had both set their handwriting. There were few men, and most of these came in noisily upon crutches, or pale and worn with fever.

    It was no holiday gathering of perfumed and bedizened godliness, that Sunday in Richmond. Earnest men and women had come to the house of God, to ask His protection and His blessing, yet a little longer, for the dear ones that very moment battling so hotly for the worshipers. [356]

    In the midst of a prayer at Dr. Hoge's church, a courier entered softly, and advancing to Mr. Davis, handed him a telegram. Noiselessly, and with no show of emotion, Mr. Davis left the church, followed by a member of his staff. A moment after another quietly said a few words to the minister; and then the quick apprehensions of the congregation were aroused. Like an electric shock they felt the truth, even before Dr. Hoge stopped the services and informed them that Richmond would be evacuated that night; and counseled they had best go home and prepare to meet the dreadful to-morrow. The news spread like wildfire. Grant had struck that Sunday morning-had forced the lines, and General Lee was evacuating Petersburg!

    The day of wrath had come.

    Hastily the few remaining necessaries of the several departments were packed, and sent toward Danville, either by railroad or wagon. Ordnance supplies, that could not be moved, were rolled into the canal; commissary stores were thrown open, and their hoarded contents distributed to the eager crowds. And strange crowds they were. Fragile, delicate women staggered under the heavy loads they bore to suffering children at home; the pale wife clutched hungrily at the huge ham, or the bag of coffee, for the wounded hero, pining at home for such a delicacy. Children were there with outstretched hands, crying for what they could carry; and hoary-headed men tugged wearily at the barrels of pork, flour, or sugar they strove to roll before their weak arms.

    Later in the evening, as the excitement increased, fierce crowds of skulking men, and course, half-drunken women, gathered before the stores. Half-starved and desperate, they swore and fought among themselves over the spoils they seized. Orders had been given to destroy the whisky at once; but, either from lingering tenderness, or from the hurry of the movement, they were only partially obeyed.

    Now the uncontrolled swarms of men and women-especially the wharf rats at Rockett's where the navy storehouses were-seized the liquor and became more and more maddened by it. In some places where the barrels were stove, the whisky ran in the gutters ankle deep; and here half-drunken women, and children even, fought, to dip up the coveted fluid in tin pans, buckets, or any vessel available. [357]

    Meanwhile, preparation went on rapidly; the President and Cabinet left for the South-General Breckinridge, Secretary of War, alone remaining to direct the details of evacuation. Everything was ready for the few remaining troops to withdraw, leaving the works on the northern side of the James unoccupied, before daylight. Then the officer with the burning party went his rounds, putting the torch to every armory, machine-shop and storehouse belonging to the Government. By midnight these had begun to burn briskly; one lurid glare shot upward to the sky, from the river; then another and another. The gunboats had been fired, and their crews, passing to the shore equipped for camp, followed the line of the retreating army up the river bank.

    Who, that was in it, will ever forget that bitter night? Husbands hastily arranged what plans they might, for the safety of families they were forced to leave behind; women crept out into the midnight, to conceal the little jewelry, money or silver left them, fearing general sack of the city and treachery of even the most trusted negroes. For none knew but that a brutal and drunken mob might be let loose upon the hated, long-coveted Capital, in their power at last! None knew but that the black rule of Butler might be re-enacted-excelled; and women — who had sat calm and restful, while the battle of Seven Pines and the roar of Seven Days, and the later Cold Harbor, shook their windows-now broke down under that dreadful parting with the last defenders of their hearths! Death and flame they had never blanched before; but the nameless terrors of passing under the Yankee yoke vanquished them now.

    Pitiful were leave-takings of fathers with their children, husbands with new-made brides, lovers with those who clung to them in even greater helplessness. Ties welded in moments of danger and doubt — in moments of pleasure, precious from their rarity-all must be severed now, for none knew how long-perhaps forever! For man, nor woman, might pierce the black veil before the future. Only the vague oppression was there, that all was over at last; that days to come might mean protracted, bloody mountain warfarecap-tivity, death, separation eternal!

    So men went forth into the black midnight, to what fate they dreamed not, leaving those loved beyond self to what fate they dared not dream! [358]

    But even in that supreme hour-true to her nature and true to her past — the woman of Richmond thought of her hero-soldier; not of herself. The last crust in the home was thrust into his reluctant hand; the last bottle of rare old wine slyly slipped into his haversack. Every man in gray was a brother-in-heart to every woman that night!

    Long after midnight, I rode by a well-remembered porch, where all that was brightest and gayest of Richmond's youth had passed many happy hours. There was Styles Staple; his joyous face clouded now, his glib tongue mute — with two weeping girls clinging to his hands. Solemnly he bent down; pressed his lips to each pure forehead, in a kiss that was a sacrament-threw himself into their mother's arms, as she had been his own as well; then, with a wrench, broke away and hurled himself into saddle. There was a black frown on Staple's face, as he rode up by me; and I heard a soundpart sob; more heart-deep oath-tear out of his throat. If the Recording Angel caught it, too, I dare swear there was no record against him for it, when-thirty hours later-he answered to his name before the Great Roll-Call! For no more knightly lips will ever press those pure brows; no more loyal soul went to its rest, out of that dire retreat.

    Two hours after midnight, all was ready; and all was still, save the muffled roll of distant wagons and, here and there, the sharp call of a bugle. Now and again, the bright glare, above the smoke round the whole horizon, would pale before a vivid, dazzling flash; followed by swaying tremble of the earth and a roar, hoarsely dull; and one more ship of the little navy was a thing of the past.

    Later still came to the steady tramp of soldiers — to be heard for the last time in those streets, though its echo may sound down all time! The last scene of the somber drama had begun; and the skeleton battery-supports filed by like specters, now in the gloom, now in the glare of one of the hundred fires. No sound but the muffled word of command came from their ranks; every head was bowed and over many a cheek-tanned by the blaze of the fight arid furrowed by winter night-watches — the first tear it had ever known rolled noiselessly, to drop in the beloved dust they were shaking from their feet. [359]

    Next came gaunt men, guiding half-starved horses that toiled along with rumbling field-pieces; voiceless now and impotent, as once, to welcome the advancing foe. And finally the cavalry pickets came in, with little show of order; passed across the last bridge and fired it behind them. Over its burning timbers rode General Breckinridge and his staff;--the last group of Confederates was gone;--Richmond was evacuated!

    Dies iraedies illa!

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