previous next

The Evacuation of Richmond, April 3, 1865, and the disastrous Conflagration incident Thereon.

Interesting communications regarding it.

Richmond, Va., November 13, 1895.
To the Editor of the Dispatch .
Some months ago, at your request, I made you a statement, which was published, as to the origin of the Richmond fire of the 3d of April, 1865, based upon judicial records in the great insurance litigation which ensued. I observed in your last Friday's issue an affidavit of the late Mr. James A. Scott, filed in Vial's Executor vs. The Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia, a part of that litigation, in which interesting facts were given respecting the occurrences of the memorable occasion.

[This appeared in the Dispatch of November 10th, and was in response to a query as stated in an issue of the paper November 3d. It is subjoined—Ed.]

To-day, in looking over some old papers in my office for another purpose, I came across several letters that were written to me at the time I was making investigations, as counsel of the insured, for reliable information upon the subject, and which were intended to be used, if necessary, in the litigation (unless depositions should be required), but which I had no need to use. Since every fact touching the matter ought to be preserved, as part of the history of the great disaster and fall of the Confederate capital, and these letters seem to me to be of particular interest and value, I send them to you. The first is from Colonel John Wilder Atkinson, of the Confederate artillery, who was stationed near Chaffin's Bluff, and on the retreat approached Richmond early on the morning of the 3d of April, and saw the fire from a distance that lent sublimity to the view, without the terrors of the scene. As is well known, he was before the war a prominent citizen of Richmond, and since the war has resided in Wilmington, N. C. During the war a more gallant and, for a civilian, a more justly distinguished Confederate officer was scarcely known. If a pleasing reminiscence of his life in Richmond [176] may be recalled, the marriage last evening at St. Paul's church of his highly-esteemed son, John Wilder Atkinson, Jr., to one of Richmond's jewels, reminds me of the brilliant occasion of his own marriage, forty years ago, to the lovely and charming Miss E. A. Mayo, sister of Mr. Peter H. Mayo, and daughter of Mr. Robert A. Mayo, deceased, at which I remember that my lamented friend, Marmaduke Johnson, and myself, then young barristers, were groomsmen, and the fashion and beauty, from far and near, were assembled, amid flowers and sparkling jets d'eau de Cologne, in the famous old family mansion, Powhatan (below the city), radiantly illuminated for the event. By contrast, it was his destiny some ten years after, at no great distance from that historic place, and immediately across the James river, to witness a sad and awful but more splendid illumination. The description is equally graphic and touching of his silent midnight retreat from the Confederate lines, without the knowledge of the Federal commander, in direct front, and the forlorn approach, amid deafening explosions of wrecked war vessels, to the sublime spectacle of burning Richmond, that, like Milton's ascending sun,

‘Flamed in the forehead of the morning sky.’

Here is the letter:

Wilmington, N. C., October 25, 1878.
To John Howard, Esq..
my dear sir,—I received your letter of the 23d instant this morning.

For several months prior to the retirement of General Lee's army from the defences around Petersburg, that portion of the command to which I was immediately attached, under General G. W. C. Lee, was stationed at Chaffin's Bluff, in front of and only a few hundred yards from Fort Harrison. I commanded at the time two of the Virginia battalions of artillery, being then lieutenant-colonel of artillery. On Sunday night, April 2d, 1865, under orders from General G. W. C. Lee, I drew in my first picket guard and sentinels as quietly as possible, and left our lines about midnight, and with the residue of Custis Lee's Division started on the memorable retreat.

Our movement had been so quietly effected that I am sure the enemy had no idea of what was going on, and certainly made no demonstration of pursuing; and I was afterwards informed by some of the Yankee officers stationed at Fort Harrison that the withdrawal [177] of my troops was not discovered by General Weitzel until reported at or about daylight Monday morning, April 3d. Our tents were all, by Custis Lee's order, left standing, and our guns were not removed from the embrasures.

For the convenience of transportation, a pontoon bridge had previously been thrown across the river at a point between Chaffin's Bluff and Richmond, but not far from our camp. Custis Lee's Division crossed upon this bridge, and was led by him on the south side of the James, several miles in the direction of Manchester. Just before daylight on Monday morning we got in sight of burning Richmond, and almost simultaneously with our discovery that Richmond was burning we began to hear the report of explosions on the river, which had been caused by the blowing up of the Confederate steamers Jamestown and Athens. These were not ironclads. I have no doubt that these explosions first announced to General Weitzel the withdrawal of the Confederate forces from his front, and the purposed surrender of Richmond.

A scene more awful, and at the same time sublime, I never witnessed certainly, or even conceived, than that presented by the burning of the Confederate capital in the distance, rendered, of course, the more impressive by the explosions on the river not far distant, which almost deafened us. It is a scene I shall never forget.

Of course these explosions were caused by our own officers, who in abandoning these vessels had them blown up to avoid the possibility of their being of service to the enemy.

I think I have answered above your several inquiries, which it gratifies me to do, and now remain,

Truly your friend,

John Wilder Atkinson, Former Lieutenant-Colonel Confederate States Artillery.

It should not be omitted to state, what is too little known, that upon approaching the city, then in conflagration, General Weitzel reversed the negro brigade, then in advance, and placed it in the rear, in respect to the feelings of the citizens, and to avoid conflict; and that he promptly addressed his whole command to the arrest and extinguishment of the fire, which was thereby effected, and the whole city saved from immediate peril of destruction. Too much credit and gratitude cannot be accorded in honor of such wise, considerate, and noble conduct. [178]

The following letter was from Colonel W. T. Robins, a gallant and meritorious officer of the Confederate cavalry, then of Gloucester, but now a citizen of Richmond:

Gloucester Courthouse, February 20, 1878.
My dear sir,—Your favor of the 11th of February reached me in due course of mail. In reply to your inquiry as to the burning of Richmond in 1865, on the day of the evacuation, I can only give you the following statement:

My regiment crossed the river from Richmond to Manchester about 8 A. M., as well as I can remember, after the span of Mayo's bridge over the canal was fired. I remained in Manchester some time after crossing, but just how long I cannot now remember. However, I do remember seeing the fire on the Richmond side, and that quite a high wind was prevailing at the time, blowing from the river in the direction of the city. I remember having feared, in observing the fire with the effect of the high wind upon it, that the whole city would be consumed. The flames were spreading northward, fanned by the wind, up into the heart of the city. My position on the Manchester side was on elevated ground, which enabled me to observe perfectly that part of Richmond burning at that time.

I have the honor to remain

Very truly your obedient servant,

Here the strong element of the intervening wind in the extension of the fire, so much insisted upon by me in all the litigation as the proximate and legal cause of the insured losses, again appears, and I am reminded of a quotation I made in my argument in the Graeme insurance case in the Supreme Court of the United States, from Virgil's vivid description of the entrance of the Greeks into ‘burning Troy,’ as the Federal troops into Richmond, and the extension of the fire by the same cause:

——Irruant Danai, et tectum omne tenebant.
     Illicet ignis edax summa ad fastigia vento
Volvitur; exsuperant flammae, furit aestus ad auras.

In rushed the Greeks and held the place: on high
     Borne by the wind, in sheeted flakes of flame,
Rolled on the conflagration to the stars.

[179] The last letter, to which I have above referred, was from the War Department of the United States, in response to inquiries made by me in a personal interview with the Adjutant-General:

war Department, Adjutant-General's office, Washington, May 22, 1879.
John Howard, Esq., Attorney at Law, Richmond, Va..
sir,—Referring to your inquiry of the 21st instant, I have respectfully to inform you that no record can be found in this office of any orders issued by the Government of the United States directing commanders in the field to seize tobacco belonging to adherents of the Confederacy.

It appears, however, of record that on the 4th of March, 1865, General Grant directed Colonel S. H. Roberts, commanding a brigade of the Twenty-fourth army corps, to proceed with his brigade to the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Va., for the purpose of seizing or destroying wherever found all property being used in barter for unauthorized articles of trade between the rebels and Northern cities, and to break up the contraband trade carried on between Fredericksburg and Richmond.

Under these instructions, Colonel Roberts captured and destroyed a large quantity of tobacco, including some 400 cases of that article, which were brought in and turned over to the quartermaster's department at Fort Monroe, Va.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

E. D. Townsend, Adjutant-General.

This communication is important, as showing that there never was, in point of fact, any necessity for the destruction of the Richmond tobacco, and it fully accords with the statement of Mr. James A. Scott, an excellent man and well-known tobacconist, above mentioned, which in effect was that no interference was made by the Federal Government at or after the capture of Richmond with the tobacco undestroyed, but that, on the contrary, it was permitted to remain in the hands of its owners, and to be disposed of by sale and shipment abroad, as before the war, and as if no war had existed.

The real and causative cause, causa causaus of the destruction of [180] the tobacco in the Richmond warehouses by fire, for which combustible materials had beforehand been carefully prepared, was an unwise act of the Confederate Congress requiring commanders in the field to destroy such property upon the imminent danger of its falling into the hands of the enemy. As shown in my previous communication, above referred to, it was in obedience to that act that General Lee issued orders under which the tobacco was burned, and the Confederate Congress was alone responsible for the fatal mistake.

Yours truly,

In answer to a query in last week's paper, we would say that we are informed that the only person now living who had any official connection with the surrender of Richmond to the Federal authorities is Mr E. A. J. Clopton. Mr. Clopton was at one time a member of the City Council, and, we think, was present at the meeting of the Council when the surrender was arranged for.

As an interesting reminiscence of the surrender, we publish the following from a mass of legal documents bearing on the subject:

Affidavit of James A. Scott, as given in the Majority Opinion of the Court of Appeals of Virginia, in the Case of Vial, Executor, and Graeme's Executor vs. the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia.

State of Virginia—City of Richmond, to-wit:
This day personally appeared before the undersigned, a notary public in and for the city aforesaid, James A. Scott, and deposed as follows: That for many years prior to the late war he was engaged in the tobacco business in the city of Richmond; that during and at the close of the war he was interested in the ownership and control of a large amount of leaf tobacco, and that he had for a long while been a member of the City Council of Richmond; that when it was understood, on Sunday, the 2d of April, 1865, the city was to be evacuated by the Confederate Government, upon the approach of the United States forces, he was appointed by the Council of the city one of a committee to meet the enemy and surrender the city; that sometime after midnight on the morning of the 3d of April, 1865, he, in company with other members of the committee, and with Judge John A. Meredith and Judge William H. Lyons, who had been requested by the Council to act with the committee, and [181] with Joseph Mayo, Esq., mayor of the city, went out to meet the enemy and surrender the city; that having taken a position and awaited their arrival, the party after awhile were met by the enemy, when a formal surrender of the city was made; that this was about two miles from the corporation line, on the Osborne turnpike, near the James river; that the Federal commander stated on the occasion to Mr. Mayo that he would at once send a party forward to destroy all the liquor in the city before the arrival of the main body of the troop, when he was informed by Mayor Mayo that his action had been anticipated by the City Council, who had already had everything of the kind destroyed. On returning toward the city, and when about a mile and a half distant, upon an elevated point of the road, he saw that the tobacco warehouses in the city were on fire, and among them two belonging to his mother, situated on Twenty-first street, in which a large amount of tobacco was stored.

This was about sunrise. That on taking possession of the city, the United States army did not sieze any tobacco belonging to private persons, so far as this affiant ever knew or heard; he and his brother-in-law, Mr. Maxwell T. Clarke, were fortunate enough to save some $10,000 worth of tobacco by having it stored in a house distant from the warehouse, although they gave a list of it, with their other tobacco, to the Confederate Government in due time for its destruction.

This tobacco, some two or three weeks after the capture of the city, with the full knowledge of the officers of the United States army, Mr. Clarke, and himself, was shipped at the dock in a schooner via New York for Liverpool and London, receiving astonishingly large prices therefor.

Other citizens of Richmond, owners of tobacco, sold it here and elsewhere, without molestation from the Federal Government, which, so far as this affiant ever heard, never troubled any tobacco in Richmond, except that which belonged to the Confederate Government.


Sworn to before me this 10th day of May, 1887.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: