Watehall, E. T. “Fall of Richmond, April 3, 1865.” Confederate Veteran 17 (1909), p. 215.
FALL OF RICHMOND, APRIL 3, 1865.
BY E. T. WATEHALL.
On April 3 about nine in the morning, while on my way to the Baptist church, I heard the bell in Capitol Square sounding the “military call” for the local forces and all citizens, young and old, to prepare for duty. It was a beautiful morning, and when I left the church after service everything seemed about as usual until I entered the street on which was President Davis’s mansion. The President and Dr. Hoge were the only two who had received the news of the fall of the city during church time.
However, it did not take long for the news to spread, and earthquakes and great fires faintly resemble the result of the news. On the street every one was calling out: “Richmond has fallen! What shall we all do?” I had witnessed the Pawnee excitement of ‘61; but that was a joyful rush, while this was a heartbreaking one.
There was a wild rush and hurry on all the streets, but it was magnified in the crowd that seemed going to the Danville Depot. Here trains were leaving every few minutes, and I saw Confederate soldiers, men, women, and children among the citizens going away, and a quantity of gold and money and all sorts of household articles being carried off.
The commissary storehouse (where now stands the new Southern Depot) was a busy place, for the government had given permission for the people to take everything that could not be carried away by the authorities. You could see old men, women, and children snatching for something, whether it was useful or not. I made many trips back and forth to carry my pick-ups home, and there were any number who were doing as I did.
On Ninth Street were great piles of paper burning, and by their light I saw some men wearing Confederate uniforms break into Antoni’s confectionery. The woman inside asked them not to break the jars, but to take all the candy they wanted. As this was private property, I did not try to get any of the candy, as much as I wanted it. I also saw a jewelry store and one or two others broken open, but this was not by the soldiers.
As I was standing on the corner of Thirteenth and Main Streets that night about seven o’clock I saw the last Confederate cannons come thundering down the street, the driver yelling: “Is this Virginia Street? Which is the way to the Danville Depot?” They turned into an alleyway and then across the bridge, which had been floored over for this very emergency.
How Richmond was burned has been often discussed; and as I watched with all the interest of a fourteen-year-old boy, I will tell exactly how it occurred. The first explosion was from a boat beside the bridge, and was entirely accidental. I was standing right by General Ewell when it happened, and I heard him say with an oath: “The first one that puts a torch to this bridge except by my orders I wish shot down.”
These men in the boat had been doing as every one else did, helping themselves to all they could find. They threw a box of powder on the boat, and it struck against something and exploded. The men in the boat were in much more danger than those on the bridge. General Ewell in his report says the boat was under the bridge, but it was not. It was too dark and dangerous for a boat to lie under the bridge with all that commotion going on above.
General Kershaw says these boatmen helped extinguish the fire on the bridge, so that he and his command could pass over. He also said he saw the flouring mills burning, but it was too far for him to go to help extinguish it.
I saw the Blockhoe warehouse burn and saw the crowds of men and women throwing bags of flour out of one side while the other side of the warehouse was burning. The Shochame warehouse was officially set on fire, and its burning prevented the spread of the fire on that side of the city. I saw a large coal of fire fall on the steeple of the Presbyterian church while I was half a mile away. It burned so slowly that I am sure it could have been put out if any one could have gotten to it. This church, though it stood in a thickly populated part of the city, was the only thing that burned in that neighborhood. It was rumored that this church was set on fire; but it really caught from a coal thrown on the steeple from the explosion at Cook’s Foundry. It was reported that the burning of Richmond was the work of an incendiary, but it was the result of carelessness. The gas was cut off at the works, and there was no light; so people burned paper to see how to pillage, and threw the lighted paper on the floors. I saw as many as ten or fifteen of these lights on the floors at once. I read a story that a spy set fire to the War Department and received a reward from the Federal government for destroying it, when the truth is the building was not destroyed at all, but was standing till a few years ago.
The building the Confederates used as the War Department was built for a mechanics’ institute, and the rooms were used for all sorts of things. In one room I saw a number of Starr pianos, the first I had ever seen, and it was from one of these rooms that I heard the salute of cannon when President Davis entered the city. I stood very near here the evening before the battle of Drury’s Bluff and saw General Beauregard making his observations, with Fort Washington on the right and Fort Scott on the left.
The burning of some of the buildings and bridges may have been incendiary, but most of the fire came about as I have stated. The fire on Petersburg bridge by a change of wind set fire to the arsenal. I remember the day that Mr. Sedley, the chemist, was blown up by an explosion at the arsenal. That was in 1861, and in 1865 I saw the whole roof collapse from fire.
A printer now working on the News-Leader had about the same experience with paper and fire that I did. He says he lit a paper and by its light went into a cellar and brought out a live pig which he drove down the street. Some one yelled at him that the Confederates always went the whole hog.
About eight o’clock on the day that Richmond fell I saw the first Yankees come marching in. Some women and boys stood on the corner and waved little Union flags. The Yankees put the negroes to work pumping with the hand engines, much to their disgust, for they thought that now that the Federals were there, the whites would have to work while they played. I believe everybody misunderstood the cause of the Richmond fire. The Yankees thought the Confederates were burning the city to keep them from getting it, and the Confederates thought it the work of the mob.