Boykin, Edward M. (Lt. Col., 7th S. C. Cavalry) “The Falling Flag; Evacuation of Richmond, Retreat and Surrender at Appomattox.” 3rd Edition. New York: E. J. Hale & Son, Publishers, Murray Street. 1874. pp. 7-15


ON Saturday, the 1st day of April, 1865, orders reached us at camp headquarters of the Seventh South Carolina Cavalry, Gary’s Brigade, to send forward all the dismounted men of the regiment to report to Lt. Col. Carham, Twenty-fourth Regiment Virginia Cavalry, in command of dismounted men of the brigade, for duty on the lines. Began to think that a move was intended of some sort, but on the brink, as all knew and felt for some time, of great events, it was difficult to say what was expected. On Sunday, the 2d, about mid-day, orders came for the wagon train of the brigade, spare horses, baggage of all sorts, that was to go at all – the greater part was to be left – to move into Richmond at once, and fall into the general train of the army of the north bank of the James River. Richmond then was to be evacuated, so all felt, though no public statement of the fact had been made; heavy fighting had been going on during the day, in the neighborhood of Petersburg, but there had been one unceasing road of battle around us for months, and no particular account was taken of that.

The brigade was ordered to move after nightfall from its position (our winter quarters) between the [8] Williamsburg and the “Nine Mile” road, about four miles from Richmond, and immediately behind the outer line of works on the edge of the battle field of the “Seven Pines.”

We moved after dark – the Seventh South Carolina, Col. Haskell; the Hampton Legion, South Carolina, Lieut. Col. Arnold; the Twenty-fourth Virginia, Col. Robbins, and a small party of the Seventh Georgia, part of a company only – Gen. Gary commanding the brigade.

The Seventh Georgia were, with the exception spoken of, dismounted, though belonging to our brigade. We halted on the Charles City road, found all the infantry gone; Gen. Longstreet, who commanded on the north bank, had been withdrawn with Gen. Field’s Division across the river, to reinforce Gen. Lee around Petersburg, some two or three days before, leaving only the Division of Gen. Kershaw in our immediate neighborhood, and Gen. Custis Lee in command of the Marine Brigade and City reserves, next the river, near FOrt Gilmer, all under the command of Lt. Gen. Ewell; also Hankin’s Battery, Virginia, attached to our brigade.

We were to wait until two o’clock, and as soon as out dismounted men, who were filling the place of infantry pickets withdrawn, should come in, we were to move on to the city, acting as “rear guard,” and burn Mayo’s Bridge. It was all out now; there had been a heavy fight in the morning, near Petersburg, Gen. Lee all but overwhelmed, Gen. A. P. Hill killed, [9] and the army in full retreat on Burkville, to effect, if possible, a junction with Gen. Johnston, in North Carolina.

We built big fires of brush wood, to give light and warmth, and deceive the enemy. It was cold, though in April; the men, as usual, light-hearted and cheerful round the fires, though an empire was passing away around them; some, with an innate consciousness of the work before them, when they heard that the halt was to be for two or three hours, wrapped in their overcoats, with the capes drawn over their heads were soon sound asleep, forgetting the defeat of armies, the work of yesterday, the toil and danger of to-morrow, in some quiet dream of a home perhaps never seen again.

Two o’clock came and passed; our men had not come in. The General waited until four o’clock. I think we were at this point six miles from Richmond. We should have been there at daylight, and we were to burn the bridge in time to prevent the enemy’s crossing, as our whole train, with infantry and artillery, had crossed during the night. Our brigade of cavalry, and one company of artillery attached to it, were all that were on this side – the north bank of the river. We could wait no longer, and moved off slowly. In a short time after we started a tremendous explosion took place toward the river, lighting up everything like day, and waking ever echo, and every Yankee for thirty miles around. It was evidently a gunboat on the river at “Drury’s [10] Bluff.” Two others followed, but they did not equal the first. She was iron-clad – the “Virginia,” as we afterwards heard – just completed. She burst like a bomb-shell, and told, in anything but a whisper, the desperate condition of things. There was no time to be lost; the Yankees had heard it as well as ourselves, and we moved on at once.

We overtook, just at daylight, and passed a small squad of our dismounted men from the Seventh, who had got in from the picket line. When we reached the intermediate line of works, where the “Charles City” and “New Kent” roads come together, not far from the “turnpike gate,” which all who travelled that road – and who of the army of Northern Virginia did not? – will remember, the sun was just rising, and an ugly red glare showed itself in the direction of Richmond that dimmed the early sunshine.

At this point the General determined (though expecting the enemy’s cavalry every moment) to occupy the works, and wait for the dismounted men. The guns of the battery that accompanied us were placed in position, and our men dismounted and occupied the lines on the right and left of the road. In about a half hour’s time, and to our great satisfaction – for it seemed a hard case to leave the poor tired fellows to be gobbled up – a straggling line of tired men and poor walkers, as dismounted cavalry always must be in their big boots and spurs, showed themselves over the hill, dragged themselves along, and passed on before us into the city. We followed on, went down the [11] steep hill by the house where General Johnsont’s headquarters were about the time of the retreat from Yorktown, and got into the river road, and so had the enemy behind us. It was here he might have cut us off from the city and secured the bridge.

We passed into the “Rockets,” the southern suburb of Richmond, at an easy marching gait, and there learned that the bridge had taken fire from some of the buildings, which by this time we could see were on fire in the city. Fearing our retreat would be cut off at that point, which would throw us from our position as rear-guard, we pushed on rapidly, the column moving at a trot through the “Rockets.”

The peculiar population of that suburb were gathered on the sidewalk; bold, dirty looking women, who had evidently not been improved by four years’ military association, dirtier (if possible) looking children, and here and there skulking, scoundrelly looking men, who in the general ruin were sneaking from the holes they had been hiding in – not, though, in the numbers that might have been expected, for the great crowd, as we soon saw, were hard at it, pillaging the burning city. One strapping virago stood on the edge of the pavement with her arms akimbo, looking at us with intense scorn as we swept along; I could have touched her with the toe of my boot as I rode by her, closing the rear of the column; she caught my eye – “Yes,” said she, with all of Tipperary in her brogue, “afther fighting them for four years ye’re running like dawgs!” The woman was either drunk or very [12] much in earnest, for I give her credit for feeling all she said, and her son or husband had to do his own fighting, I will answer for it, wherever he was, or get no kiss or comfort from her. But I could not stop to explain that General Longstreet’s particular orders were not to make a fight in the city, if it could be avoided, so I left her to the enjoyment of her own notions, unfavorable as they evidently were to us.

On we went across the creek, leaving a picket at that point to keep a lookout for the enemy, that we knew must now be near upon our heels. It was after seven o’clock, the sun having been up for some time. After getting into Main street and passing the two tobacco warehouses opposite one another, occupied as prisons in the early years of the war, we met the motlet crowd thronging the pavement, loaded with every species of plunder.

Bare-headed women, their arms filled with every description of goods, plundered from warehouses and shops, their hair hanging about hteir ears, were rushing one way to deposit their plunder and return for more, while a current of the empty-handed surged in a contrary direction towards the scene.

The roaring and crackling of the burning houses, the trampling and snorting of our horses over the paved streets as we swept along, wild sounds of every description, while the rising sun came dimly through the cloud of smoke that beggars description, and which I hope never to see again – the saddest of many of [13] the sad sights of war – a city undergoing pillage at the hands of its own mob, while the standards of an empire were being taken from its capitol, and the tramp of a victorious enemy could be heard at its gates.

Richmond had collected within its walls the refuse of the war – thieves and deserters, male and femals, the vilest of the vile were there, but strict military discipline had kept it down. Now, in one moment, it was all removed – all restraint was taken off – and you may imagine the consequences. There were said to be 5,000 deserters in the city, and you could see the grey jackets here and there sprinkled in themob that was roaring down the street. When we reached somewhere between Twentieth and Twenty-fifth streets – I will not be certain – the flames swept across Main street so we could not pass. The column turned to the right, and so got into the street above it. On this (Franklin street) are many private residences; at the windows we could see the sad and tearful faces of the kind Virginia women, who had never failed the soldier in four long years of war and trouble, ready to the last to give him devoted attendance in his wounds and sickness, and to share with his necessities the last morsel.

These are strong but not exaggerated expressions. Thousands, yes, tens of thousands, from the Rio Grande to the Potomac, can bear witness to the truth of everything I say. And it was a sad thought to every man that was there that day, that we seemed, as a compensation for all that they had done for us, to [14] be leaving them to the mercy of the enemy; but their own General Lee was gone before, and we were but as the last wave of the receding tide.

After getting round the burning square we turned back towards the river. The portion of Mayo’s, or rather the lesser bridge that crossed the canal, had taken fire from the large flouring mill near it, and was burning, but not the main bridge; so we followed the cross street below the main approach to the bridge, at the foot of which was a bridge across the canal, forcing our horses through the crowd of pillagers gathered at this point, greater than at any other – they had broken into some government stores. A low white man – he seemed a foreigner – was about to strike a woman over a barrel of flour under my horse’s nose, when a stout negro took her part and threatened to throw him into the canal. We were the rear regiment at this time. All this occurred at one of those momentary halts to which the rear of a marching columns is subjected; in another moment we moved on, the crowd closed in, and we saw no more. After crossing the canal we were obliged to go over a stone conduit single file.

At last we were on the main bridge, along which were scattered faggots to facilitate the burning. Lieut. Cantey, Sergt. Lee and twenty men from the Seventh were left, under the supervision of Colonel Haskell, to burn the bridge, while the rest went slowly up the hill on which Manchester is built, and waited for them. Just as the canal bridge on which we had [15] crossed took fire, about forty of Kautz’ cavalry galloped easily up Main street, fired a long shot with their carbines on the party at the bridge, but went on up the street unstead of coming down to the river. There were too late to secure the bridge, if that had been their object, which they seemed to be aware of, as they made no attempt to do so. Their coming was of service to the city. General Ord, as we afterwards understood, acted with promptness and kindness, put down the mob, and put oout the fire, and protected the people of Richmond from the mob and his own soldiers, in their persons and property.

As we sat upon our horses on the high hill on which Manchester is built, we looked down upon the City of Richmond. By this time the fire appeared to be general. Some magazine or depot for the manufacture of ordnance stores was on fire about the centre of the city; it was marked by the peculiar blackness of smoke; from the middle of it would come the roar of bursting shells and boxes of fixed ammunition, with flashes that gave it the appearance of a thunder cloud of huge proportions with lighting playing through it. On our right was the navy yard, at which were several seamers and gunboats on fire, and burning in the river, from which the cannon were thundering as the fire reached them. The old war-scarred city seemed to prefer annihilation to conquest – a useless sacrifice, as it afterwards proved, however much it may have added to the grandeur of the closing scene; but such is war. [16]

Moving slowly out of Manchester, we soon got among the host of stragglers, who, from a natural fear of the occupation of the towns both of Petersburg and Richmond, were going with the rear of our army. Civilians, in some cases ladies of gentle nurture, without means of conveyance, were sitting on their trunks by the roadside – refugees from Petersburg to Richmond a few days before, now refugees from Richmond into the highway; indeed the most were from Petersburg, driven out literally by the artillery fire. The residents of Richmond, as a general thing, remained.

Remainder of memoir is here

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