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Defending the citadel of the Confederacy

O. E. Hunt, Captain, United States Army

The Capitol at Richmond undefended, while Lee and his remnant were swept aside-april, 1865


The Editors desire to express their grateful acknowledgment to Colonel T. M. R. Talcott, C. E., C. S. A., for a critical examination of this chapter and many helpful suggestions. Colonel Talcott was major and aide-de-Camp on the staff of General Robert E. Lee, and later Colonel First Regiment Engineer Troops, Army of Northern Virginia, with an intimate knowledge of the Richmond defenses and is able to corroborate the statements and descriptions contained in the following pages from his personal knowledge.

After the admission of Virginia to the Confederacy, General Lee was detailed as military adviser to the President, and several armies were put in the field-those of the Potomac, the Valley, the Rappahannock, the Peninsula, and Norfolk. It was not until the spring of 1862, when Richmond was threatened by a large Federal army under McClellan, that these forces were united under Johnston's command-Lee continuing as military adviser to the President until Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines, when the command fell to the leader whose brilliant defense of the citadel of the Confederacy from that time until the close of the great struggle excited the admiration of friend, foe, and neutral, alike.

Owing to the importance of Richmond, General Lee found himself always compelled to keep the one object in view — the defense of the capital of his State and Government.

For the safety of the city it was necessary that the approaches should be rendered defensible by small bodies of [305]

Up the James at last--1865 These Federal gunboats would not be lying so far up the river-above the Dutch Gap Canal, near Fort Brady-unless the breaking of Lee's lines at Petersburg had forced the evacuation of Richmond, and of the batteries which lined the shores of the river-approach to the city. The Confederate batteries are silent now; and the dreaded Confederate fleet has been destroyed by orders of its own commander. The ironclad, Virginia, which never fired a shot, lies in the mud near Chaffin's Bluff opposite Fort Darling, sunk in a last desperate attempt to obstruct the approach of the Federal fleet. Now follows a scene of peace. It is wash-day, as can be seen from the lines of clothing hanging in the rigging of the gunboats and of the converted ferryboat down the river. The latter will soon return to its former peaceful use.

[306] troops, so that the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia could be utilized in strategic operations, without danger of the fall of the capital into the hands of small raiding parties from the Federal forces.

The energies of the Richmond Government were exerted in so many directions in preparing for the struggle that the immediate preparations for the defense of the capital had to proceed very uncertainly. On June 14th, General Lee reported to Governor Letcher that the work on the redoubts which had been projected was going on so slowly that he deemed it his duty to call the governor's attention to the matter.

Lee had, during the previous month, taken the precaution to fortify the James River below the mouth of the Appomat-tox, by having works erected on the site of old Fort Powhatan, about twelve miles below the confluence of the two rivers, and at Jamestown Island, Hardin's Bluff, Mulberry Island, and Day's Point.

In July, 1861, the citizens of Richmond were aroused to their patriotic duty of helping in the fortification of the city, and, by formal resolution of a committee on defenses, proposed that the city bear its proportionate share of the expense, and that their officers consult with those of the general Government as to the strength and location of the works. It was decided to employ the services of such free negroes as would be available in the city, under the superintendence of competent officers. To these resolutions the Secretary of War replied on July 12th, concurring in the views expressed, and saying that the question of the division of expense should be adjusted easily, inasmuch as there was a duty on the part of the Government to provide its share toward the protection of its capital; that the militia would be armed, equipped, and drilled immediately, and that the construction of the fortifications would be pushed.

The works erected during the spring and summer of 1861 in and around Norfolk and on the James River and the Peninsula, were provided for by an appropriation by the State of [307]


After Richmond was selected as the Capital of the Confederate States it was deemed absolutely vital to hold the city at all costs. Aside from the impression which its fall would have made on European nations that might side with the Confederacy, its great iron-works were capable of supplying a large part of the materiel for the artillery of the armies and for the navy. It provided railroad supplies in considerable quantities. Its skilled artisans furnished labor essential in the technical branches of both the military and naval services during the first year or more of the war. Now, as the political center of the new Government, its importance was enhanced a hundredfold. The actual fortifications of the city were never completed. The Army of Northern Virginia, under its brilliant and daring tactician, Lee, proved the strongest defense. Field-artillery was made in Augusta, Georgia. But here, in the Tredegar Iron Works, was the only source of heavy caliber guns, of which the Confederacy stood in such woeful need.

The Arsenal at Richmond (after the fire)

The Tredegar works for heavy guns

[308] Virginia for “river, coast, and harbor defenses” made previous to the secession of the State.

On October 9th, Major Leadbetter, acting chief of the engineer bureau, reported to the Secretary of War that the pressure of work of all kinds on the city, State, and general governments had been such that but little progress had been made on the Richmond defenses. Only six guns, 32-pounders, had been mounted, while some thirty others were on hand without carriages. A few of the carriages were being built, but the work was moving slowly for the want of skilled labor to devote to that particular project. When the Norfolk Navy-Yard fell into the hands of the Confederates, there had been obtained a considerable supply of 32-pounder Dahlgrens, and army gun-carriages were being made for these at Norfolk, but this supply was limited, and the demand was so great that none could be spared for Richmond itself.

By this time, the State authorities were anxious that the whole responsibility for the fortifications should be assumed by the Confederate Government, and Major Leadbetter recommended that these wishes be observed. The greatest difficulty which he apprehended for the general Government was the lack of competent engineer officers. A number of officers of the line had been detailed as acting engineers, and with these it was hoped to carry the work to a successful conclusion.

But it was not until the end of February, 1862, that the chain of works was fairly well started. It consisted of eighteen closed or semi-closed forts, and seven outworks. The entire circuit was about twelve miles, and the designs of all the forts were good, and the proposed distances of the works from the city varied from less than a mile to more than a mile and a half from the outskirts. The complete armament would require two hundred and eighteen heavy guns.

The armament, however, was never fully furnished, for it was decided by the Virginia State authorities that the line was too near the city, and that, if closely assailed, there was [309]

Heavy Confederate siege guns North of Dutch gap canal.

With the possible exception of Charleston at the seaside, Richmond was the bestdefended city in the Confederacy. Vicksburg proved long and difficult of capture on account of the natural formation of the land, and Petersburg lay behind an army entrenched; but the series of Confederate batteries along the James River, up which the Union army and navy were trying to advance, rendered the stream impassable to the navy and the city above impregnable against the army. These guns look solitary and deserted with no one but the photographer's assistant in the picture. But each was attended by an eager crew, so long as the Confederacy held the reaches of the James. The serving of these guns marked the last great stand of the Confederacy. Union assailants will testify to how bravely and desperately they were fought. The Confederacy was calling on every man capable of bearing arms. The Federals could easily have duplicated their own armies in the field. All of these guns are mounted on old-fashioned wooden carriages. The elevating device of the gun in the upper picture differs materially from the screws for that purpose in the lower. The breech was elevated by means of handspikes, using the sides of the carriage as fulcra, and retained in the desired position by the series of checks visible on its breech. Even with these clumsy devices the guns proved too formidable for the Federal fleet.

Heavy Confederate siege gun North of Dutch gap canal

>Navy broadside 42-Pounder with reenforced breech

Heavy Confederate siege gun North of Dutch gap canal

[310] danger that it might be destroyed even before the forts were taken. It was apparent that the lines should be extended further toward the Chickahominy, and also above and below the city they should be placed much further out. But the inner line of forts was so well built and otherwise judiciously located, that these works could be used as a support for the more advanced positions.

The principal objection to the armament was that the guns were all en barbette, thus exposing them and the men too much. But, by the end of February, only eleven guns had been mounted on the north side of the river, with twelve more ready to mount, while, on the south side, there were but two mounted and no others on hand. It was estimated that, even with the entire possible armament in sight, it would take at least three months to complete the instalment of the guns; but not one single piece more was then to be had.

So far as the heavy artillery of its defenses was concerned, Richmond was in almost a helpless condition. Every engineer who expresed himself felt that the danger, however, was not from the north, as that quarter was well protected by the fieldarmy, but from the south by the approach of a land force, and along the James by the approach of a hostile fleet.

A certain amount of unsatisfactory progress was made on the works and armament; but to strengthen the river approaches, five batteries, mounting over forty guns, with provision for more, had been erected by the middle of March along the river at points below Drewry's Bluff.

By that time the control of the defenses had been transferred from the State of Virginia to the Confederate Government, and an officer of the Government placed in charge. The opinion that the works were too near the city was confirmed by the Government engineers, but, as much work had already been done on them, it was directed that they be completed as they had been originally planned, and that, in case of emergency, the secondary works to fill the gaps and those [311]

The River approach: defending Richmond.

To hold at bay the Federal navy, waxing strong on the rivers as it was practically supreme on the sea-coast, taxed the Confederates in 1864 especially. The James River eniptying into Chesapeake Bay offered the invaders a tempting means of approach. So at every point of advantage in its sinuous course through the bottom lands of Virginia, a Confederate battery was placed to sweep a reach of the river. The big guns, cast and bored in Richmond, were mounted along the river in her defense. So skilfully was this work conducted that the Federal gunboats never reached Richmond until after Lee retreated from Petersburg. The banks of the James often reechoed to the thunder of the naval guns during the last year of the war. Battery after battery was silenced, yet Drewry's and Chaffin's Bluffs herd firm, while the torpedoes and obstructions in the river made it impossible to navigate. On this page appear two of the Confederate guns that frowned above Dutch Gap. The lower one is in Battery Brooke, whence the deadly fire interfered with Butler's Canal, and is a homemade naval gun. The upper one was a Columbiad with reinforced breech. Both of them are mounted on old style wooden carriages.

Union monitors held at bay December, 1864.

Confederate guns along the James river defending Richmond

Confederate guns along the James river defending Richmond

[312] to cover the city at a greater distance could be constructed by the troops assigned to the defense, aided by such other labor as could be obtained. It was decided to be an injudicious waste of labor to build the outer works before the stronger inner line was completed, even though the latter was too near the city. Very few more guns were procured, however, and it seemed of doubtful propriety to place so many heavy guns in such a contracted space.

McClellan's Peninsula campaign was bringing his army dangerously near the Confederate capital. Hurried preparation of the unfinished works placed them in as strong a condition as possible, and the outer line was started. When the Federal army began its advance from Yorktown, there were only three guns in position on Drewry's Bluff, but, owing to the fear that the Union gunboats would ascend the river past the batteries further down, several ship's guns were also mounted to cover the obstructions in the channel.

On May 15th, a fleet of Union gunboats under Commander John Rodgers ascended the James and engaged the batteries at Drewry's Bluff. The seven heavy guns now on the works proved most effective against the fleet. After an engagement of four hours the vessels withdrew, considerably damaged.

From information then in the possession of the Confederates, it was supposed that McClellan would change his base to the James in order to have the cooperation of the navy, and it was hoped that he could be successfully assailed while making the change if he crossed above the mouth of the Chickahominy. The repulse of the Union fleet at Drewry's Bluff created a greater feeling of security in Richmond, and there arose a determination that the honored capital city of the Old Dominion and of the Confederacy should not fall into the hands of foes.

The battle of Seven Pines, on May 31st, initiated by Johnston while McClellan's army was divided, stopped the progress of the Federals, but the serious wounding of Johnston caused [313]

Destruction to the Confederate fleet.

Here are some of the sights presented to the view of President Lincoln and Admiral Porter aboard the flagship Malvern, as they proceeded up the James on the morning of April 3, 1865, to enter the fallen city of Richmond. To the right of the top photograph rise the stacks of the Confederate ram Virginia. Near the middle lie the ruined wheels of the Jamestown. And in the bottom picture, before Fort Darling appears the wreck of the Patrick Henry. All these were vessels of Commodore Mitchell's command that had so long made every effort to break the bonds forged about them by a more powerful force, afloat and ashore. The previous night Lincoln, as Admiral Porter's guest on the deck of the Malvern had listened to the sound of the great engagement on shore and had asked if the navy could not do something to make history at the same time. When told that the navy's part was one merely of watchfulness, the President responded, “But can't we make a noise?” Porter at once telegraphed to his fleet-captain to open upon the forts; then the air was rent with the sound of great guns up the river. Soon, rising even louder, came the sound of four great explosions one after another — the blowing up of Commodore Mitchell's vessels.

What Lincoln saw: the last of the undaunted Confederate flotilla--“Virginia,” “Patrick Henry,” and “Jamestown” sunk

Confederate ship “Patrick Henry” sunk in the James River.

Coal schooners wrecked to block the James--(below) Drewry's bluffs

[314] the command to devolve upon General G. W. Smith until June 2d, when President Davis assigned General Lee to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee felt that if McClellan could not be driven out of his entrenchments, there was danger that he would move by successive positions, under cover of his heavy guns, to within shelling distance of Richmond; and to prevent this contingency, Jackson was to fall on the Federal right flank to help drive McClellan from his position. The movement was so skilfully made that the Federal commanders in the Valley and the authorities in Washington were completely deceived, and the Union army now found itself on the defensive, and the history of the Peninsula campaign records the retreat of McClellan instead of a close investment of Richmond.

During these operations, the field-works thrown up by the Confederate army constituted the principal auxiliary defenses, but as these were not in positions proper for the immediate defense of the city, they were of no particular value after the removal of the forces to other positions. As soon as the army could recover from the strain of the ordeal through which it had passed, Lee turned his attention to the fortifications immediately surrounding the capital.

On July 13th, he directed the Engineer Corps to prepare a system of defenses from Drewry's Bluff encircling the approaches to Manchester from the south, and, on the 31st, he directed that the construction of the outside lines north of the James be resumed. At the same time, more guns were ordered to be placed on the Drewry's Bluff defenses, as well as on the other works along the south side of the James. The works of Petersburg were strengthened also.

When Lee started for the Rapidan to enter on the campaign against Pope, all the troops of the Army of Northern Virginia were withdrawn from the fortifications of Richmond, and relieved from garrison duty and from the work of construction by the troops of General D. H. Hill's command. [315]

Battery Brooke.

Halfway between the Confederate Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff and the Dutch Gap Canal, which General Butler was busily constructing, the Confederates had dug this powerful work. Its establishment rendered the construction of the Dutch Gap Canal a futile military operation. After 140 days spent in excavating it, Butler, on New Year's Day, 1865, exploded 12,000 pounds of powder under the bulkhead; but it fell back into the opening. Under the fire from the guns of Battery Brooke the obstruction could not be removed nor could the canal be dredged sufficiently to admit of the passage of vessels. The picture looks south along the main ramparts, fronting east on the river. While the Army of the Potomac was fully occupied at Petersburg, this battery bellowed out hearty defiance to the fleet by night and day. The strong Confederate fortifications on the James between the Appomattox and Richmond were effective in keeping General Butler bottled up in Bermuda Hundred.

Battery Brooke-guns that bothered Butler

Bomb-proof in battery Brooke


Previous to the movement of Lee's army, every effort had been made to advance the work of construction, so that the city could be defended easily during the absence of the main body, and by the time Lee invaded Maryland, the second line of outer works had been almost completed around the city at a distance of a mile to two miles from the first series of forts.

Outside of this continuous line were erected some small detached works, which formed the basis for a third line, built in 1864, not so complete as the second, but covering all of the principal approaches at a still greater distance from the city.

In October, 1862, during the absence of the Army of Northern Virginia from the immediate vicinity of Richmond, there were about two thousand troops assigned to the defenses, and these were engaged in keeping the works at their maximum efficiency, and in ensuring protection to the capital against small Federal raiding parties. The batteries at Chaffin's and Drewry's bluffs were held in sufficient force to prevent the ascent of the river by Union gunboats.

The works of the third line which were first built could not have much effect on a hostile army's advance, but as long as there was an opportunity of improving the strength of the general scheme of fortifications, work was continued. In some cases those of the third line at first were without proper protection on the flanks, and as it was useless to try to hold works that only jeopardized the safety of their defenders, General Hill, in July, 1863, reported that the entrenchments in that line on the west of the Brook turnpike, overlooking Brook Run, a stream flowing into the Chickahominy near Meadow Bridge, were not constructed so as to cover all the ground necessary; and that the infantry parapets were not strong enough.

At his suggestion, all the troops available were put to work at once by the chief engineer, Colonel J. F. Gilmer, all obstructions removed from the front of the works, the parapets of some of the heavier batteries made stronger, and the lines of infantry cover connecting the redoubts improved. [317]

Big guns near Richmod.

The narrow reach of the James is swept in both directions by the gun in the upper picture — a large Brooke rifle, made at the Tredegar Iron Works in the Confederate Capital. The gun below is a Columbiad with Brooke reinforcement. It is mounted within Fort Darling, and points down the James toward Chaffin's Bluff, visible beyond the bend to the left. Drewry's Bluff commanded this portion of the river so completely that it was chosen as the site of the first hastily constructed defenses of Richmond in 1862, and was subsequently so strengthened as to be almost impregnable. The guns there mounted remained the guardians closest to the Capital on the James until the withdrawal of Lee with his remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia from Petersburg rendered them useless in 1865.

Fort Darling James river

Big guns near Richmond: Fort Darling James river


The fall of Richmond: negro refugees with their household goods on the canal When the news reached Richmond, April 2, 1865, that Lee's slender lines had been broken below Petersburg and that the city was forthwith to be abandoned, pandemonium ruled for a brief space of time. All that day by train and wagon, by horse and on foot, the people fled from the city. Early in the evening bands of ruffians appeared, and pillaged and caroused until the arrest of their ringleaders. The magazines were exploded, and Richmond flamed up to the sky, turning the darkness into daylight. There was little sleep that night. Next morning an immense pall seemed to hover over the city that was a capital no more. That day the Union columns of blue marched into Richmond, and the sky was rent with their cheers as they swept into Capitol Square. Forty-eight hours after that memorable still Sunday morning when the news of the break in Lee's lines reached Richmond, the city again lay quiet, her buildings charred, her people sorrow laden. The Sunday following Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The armies in the West shortly yielded.

[319] [320]

By the time of the arrival of the Confederate army at Cold Harbor, the third line of defenses had been run northeast from Chaffin's Bluff to the Charles City road, which was crossed four and one-half miles outside of the city, thence directly north to the ground overlooking the swampy lowlands of the Chickahominy, where it terminated abruptly, its flank commanding New Bridge, five miles outside of Richmond. From here, detached works held the ground upstream overlooking the river, and connected with the lines that had been started on ground overlooking the Chickahominy bottoms directly north of the city the year before. These were now completed, and the lines of detached works followed the right bank of Brook Run to its source and then bent toward the James, across the Deep Run turnpike and the Plank Road, four miles up the James from the outskirts of the city. The completion of this line resulted in there being three strong lines of defense.

The weary ten months which followed tested the strength of the gradually weakening defense. All realized that the fall of Petersburg meant the fall of Richmond, and that the patient toil on the miles of entrenchments around the capital finally had had the effect of causing the blow to fall elsewhere. Two expeditions were sent by Grant against the lines to the north of Richmond, but not in sufficient strength to test the works. The principal object was to weaken the forces defending Petersburg so as to permit a successful assault to be delivered.

The Federal army, under able leaders tested in the furnace of war, exhausted every device to break through the Petersburg lines. They tried them by assault, by mining, by flanking, and by bombardment. Lee's genius, seconded by that of his officers, and maintained by the gallant devotion of his troops, held on till the army was worn out and the stretching of the lines by constant extension to meet the Federal movements to the left, finally caused them to be so weak as to break under a Federal assault. Petersburg was abandoned, and Richmond fell. [321]

Civil War Artillery.

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