TUESDAY, APRIL 4, 1865
While John Wilkes Booth is still in Newport, a hungry Robert E. Lee is in Amelia Court House, Ulysses S. Grant is racing to block Lee’s path, and Abraham Lincoln stands on the deck of USS Malvern as the warship chugs slowly and cautiously up the James River toward Richmond. The channel is choked with burning warships and the floating corpses of dead draft horses. Deadly anti-ship mines known as “torpedoes” bob on the surface, drifting with the current, ready to explode the instant they come into contact with a vessel. If just one torpedo bounces against the Malvern’s hull, ship and precious cargo alike will be reduced to fragments of varnished wood and human tissue.
Again Lincoln sets aside his concerns. For the Malvern is sailing into Richmond, of all places. The Confederate capital is now in Union hands. The president has waited an eternity for this moment. Lincoln can clearly see that Richmond—or what’s left of it—hardly resembles a genteel southern bastion. The sunken ships and torpedoes in the harbor tell only part of the story. Richmond is gone, burned to the ground. And it was not a Union artillery bombardment that did the job, but the people of Richmond themselves.
When it becomes too dangerous for the Malvern to go any farther, Lincoln is rowed to shore. “We passed so close to torpedoes that we could have put out our hands and touched them,” bodyguard William Crook will later write. His affection for Lincoln is enormous, and of all the bodyguards, Crook fusses most over the president, treating him like a child who must be protected.
It is Crook who is fearful, while Lincoln bursts with amazement and joy that this day has finally come. Finally, he steps from the barge and up onto the landing.
But what Lincoln sees now can only be described as appalling.
Richmond’s Confederate leaders have had months to prepare for the city’s eventual surrender. They had plenty of time to come up with a logical plan for a handover of power without loss of life. But such was their faith in Marse Robert that the people of Richmond thought that day would never come. When it did, they behaved like fools.
Their first reaction was to destroy the one thing that could make the Yankees lose control and vent their rage on the populace: whiskey. Union troops had gone on a drunken rampage after taking Columbia, South Carolina, two months earlier, and had then burned the city to the ground.
Out came the axes. Teams of men roamed through the city, hacking open barrel after barrel of fine sour mash. Thousands of gallons of spirits were poured into the gutters. But the citizens of Richmond were not about to see all that whiskey go to waste. Some got down on their hands and knees and lapped it from the gutter. Others filled their hats and boots. The streetlamps were black, because Richmond’s gas lines had been shut off to prevent explosions. Perfectly respectable men and women, in a moment of amazing distress, found a salve for their woes by falling to their knees and quenching their thirst with alcohol flowing in the gutter.
Many took more than just a drink. Everyone from escaped prisoners to indigent laborers and war deserters drank their share. Great drunken mobs soon roamed the city. Just as in Amelia Court House, food was first and foremost on everyone’s minds. The city had suffered such scarcity that “starvation balls” had replaced the standard debutante and charity galas. But black market profiteers had filled entire warehouses with staples like flour, coffee, sugar, and delicious smoked meats. And, of course, there were Robert E. Lee’s 350,000 missing rations, neatly stacked in a Richmond railway siding instead of being packed on the train that Lee expected in Amelia Court House.
Little did the general know that Confederate looters had stolen all the food.
The worst was still to come. Having destroyed and consumed a potential supply of alcohol for the Union army, Richmond’s city fathers now turned their attention to their most profitable commodity: tobacco. The rebel leadership knew that President Lincoln wanted to capture tobacco stores in order to sell them to England, thereby raising much-needed money for the nearly bankrupt U.S. Treasury.
In their panic, the city fathers ignored an obvious problem: lighting tinder-dry bales of tobacco on fire would also burn the great old wooden warehouses in which they were stacked.
Soon, spires of flame illuminated the entire city of Richmond. The warehouse flames spread to other buildings. The rivers of whiskey caught fire and inferno ensued.
The true nature of a firestorm involves not only flame but also wind and heat and crackling and popping and explosion, just like war. Soon residents mistakenly believed the Yankees were laying Richmond to waste with an artillery barrage.
And still things got worse.
The Confederate navy chose this moment to set the entire James River arsenal ablaze, preferring to destroy their ships and ammunition rather than see them fall into Union hands.
But the effect of this impulsive tactical decision was far worse than anything the northerners would have inflicted. Flaming steel particles were launched into the air as more than 100,000 artillery rounds exploded over the next four hours. Everything burned. Even the most respectable citizens were now penniless refugees, their homes smoldering ruins and Confederate money now mere scraps of paper. The dead and dying were everywhere, felled by the random whistling shells. The air smelled of wood smoke, gunpowder, and burning flesh. Hundreds of citizens lost their lives on that terrible night.
Richmond was a proud city and perhaps more distinctly American than even Washington, D.C. It could even be said that the United States of America was born in Richmond, for it was there, in 1775, in Richmond’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, that Patrick Henry looked out on a congregation that included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and delivered the famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, which fomented American rebellion, the Revolutionary War, and independence itself. As the capital of Virginia since 1780, it was where Jefferson had served as governor; he’d also designed its capitol building. It was in Richmond that Jefferson and James Madison crafted the statute separating church and state that would later inform the First Amendment of the Constitution.
And now it was devastated by its own sons.
Soldiers of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia sowed land mines in their wake as they abandoned the city. Such was their haste that they forgot to remove the small rows of red flags denoting the narrow but safe path through the minefields, a mistake that saved hundreds of Union lives as soldiers entered the city.
Richmond was still in flames on the morning of April 3 when the Union troops, following those red flags, arrived. Brick facades and chimneys still stood, but wooden frames and roofs had been incinerated. “The barbarous south had consigned it to flames,” one Union officer wrote of Richmond. And even after a night of explosions, “the roar of bursting shells was terrific.” Smoldering ruins and the sporadic whistle of artillery greeted the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Regiments of the Union army.
The instant the long blue line marched into town, the slaves of Richmond were free. They were stunned to see that the Twenty-fifth contained black soldiers from a new branch of the army known as the USCT—the United States Colored Troops.
Lieutenant Johnston Livingston de Peyster, a member of General Wetzel’s staff, galloped his horse straight to the capitol building. “I sprang from my horse,” he wrote proudly, and “rushed up to the roof.” In his hand was an American flag. Dashing to the flagpole, he hoisted the Stars and Stripes over Richmond. The capital was Confederate no more.
That particular flag was poignant for two reasons. It had thirty-six stars, a new number owing to Nevada’s recent admission to the Union. Per tradition, this new flag would not become official until the Fourth of July. It was the flag of the America to come—the postwar America, united and expanding. It was, in other words, the flag of Abraham Lincoln’s dreams.
So it is fitting when, eleven short days later, a thirty-six-star flag will be folded into a pillow and placed beneath Abraham Lincoln’s head after a gunman puts a bullet in his brain. But for now President Lincoln is alive and well, walking the ruined streets of the conquered Confederate capital.