Richmond, Embattled Capital, 1861-1865

A cannon in the foreground looks toward Richmond skyline during the American Civil War.

Library of Congress


April 3, 1865. " As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it... All the horrors of the final conflagration, when the earth shall be wrapped in 'flames and melt with fervent heat, were, it seemed to us, prefigured in our capital. The roaring, crackling and hissing of the flames, the bursting of shells at the Confederate Arsenal, the sounds of the Instruments of martial music, the neighing of the horses, the shoutings of the multitudes... gave an idea of all the horrors of Pandemonium. Above all this scene of terror, hung a black shroud of smoke through which the sun shone with a lurid angry glare like an immense ball of blood that emitted sullen rays of light, as if loath to shine over a scene so appalling. ... [Then] a cry was raised: 'The Yankees! The Yankees are coming!'"

Thus did Sallie Putnam, who had lived in Richmond throughout the war, recall the final disastrous hours of the city whose existence preoccupied northerner and southerner alike through four bitter, bloody years and whose final subjugation signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.

Situated at the head of navigation on the James River and only 176 kilometers (110 miles) from the Federal capital of Washington, Richmond had been a symbol and a prime psychological objective since the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. If the city were to be captured, southerners might lose their will to resist--so reasoned leaders on both sides. But there were even more compelling reasons why Richmond became a military target, for besides being the political center of the Southern Confederacy, it was a medical and manufacturing center, and the primary supply depot for troops operating on the Confederacy's northeastern frontier.

Of the seven major drives launched against Richmond, two brought Union forces within sight of the city-George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign of 1862, culminating in the Seven Days' Battles, and Grant's crushing Overland Campaign of 1864 which ultimately brought the Confederacy tumbling down.

By early 1862 Gen. George B. McClellan had forged around the "cowering regiments" that survived the First Battle of Manassas a ponderous but disciplined 100,000-man fighting machine called the Army of the Potomac. With it he moved by water to invest east central Virginia and capture Richmond. The operation was to have been assisted by an overland assault by troops under Gen. Irvin McDowell and coordinated with a water-borne move up the James River. A Union naval attack was halted on May 15 at Drewry's Bluff and by May 24, when McClellan was deployed within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the Confederate capital, President Lincoln had become alarmed for Washington's safety and suspended McDowell's movement.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander. now believing that McClellan planned to stay north of the James River, decided to attack. On May 31 Johnston's troops fell on the Federals near Fair Oaks. Although the resulting battle proved indecisive, it did produce significant results for both armies. The already deliberate McClellan was made even more cautious than usual. More important, because of a serious wound sustained by General Johnston during the battle, President Jefferson Davis placed Gen. Robert E. Lee in command of the defending forces.

McClellan, who had maintained a dangerous position astride the Chickahominy River expecting McDowell's corps to join him, hesitated too long. On June 26 Lee's Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Union right flank at Mechanicsville, then suffered heavy losses in futile attacks against the strong Union positions on Beaver Dam Creek. Thus began the Seven Days' Battles, a series of sidestepping withdrawals and holding actions that climaxed the Peninsular Campaign at Malvern Hill and enabled the Union army to avoid disaster by circling east of Richmond to the security of Federal gunboats on the James River at Harrison's Landing. When the Seven Days ended, some 35,000 soldiers, north and south, were casualties, and many on both sides probably shared the view of a young Georgian who wrote home: "I have seen, heard and felt many things in the last week that I never want to see, hear nor feel again...."

For two years, while the armies fought indecisively in northern Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Richmond entrenched and applauded Lee's unbroken successes in keeping northern armies at bay. In March 1864 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the field. Attaching himself to the Army of the Potomac, then under the command of Gen. George Gordon Meade, Grant embarked on an unyielding campaign against Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia. Said Lee: "We must stop this army of Grant's before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere matter of time."

In a series of flanking movements designed to cut Lee off from the Confederate capital, the Union army slipped past the southerners at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Totopotomoy Creek, although it suffered heavy casualties. At Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Grant's massive frontal assaults against the strongly entrenched Confederate lines failed dismally, with appalling casualties. For 10 days the badly bruised Federals and hungry Confederates broiled in the trenches under 100-degree heat; then Grant silently withdrew, crossed the James River, and drove toward the important rail center of Petersburg, south of Richmond.

Throughout the late summer and fall Grant continued to threaten the outer defenses protecting Richmond and Petersburg. Several major assaults met with partial success, including the capture of Fort Harrison in September 1864. Winter weather eventually brought active operations to a close. Life in the trenches around the besieged cities became routine and humdrum. Just finding enough to eat and keeping warm became constant preoccupations.

Grant's successful siege of Petersburg over the winter of 1864-65 forced Lee to retreat westward from that city on April 2,1865. The following day, soon after dawn, Richmond's mayor, Joseph C. Mayo, delivered the following message to the commander of the Union forces waiting to enter the Confederate capital: "The Army of the Confederate Government having abandoned the City of Richmond, I respectfully request that you will take possession of it with organized force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property."

Upon evacuation of the city, the Confederate government authorized the burning of warehouses and supplies, which resulted in considerable damage to factories and houses in the business district. Before the charred ruins of Richmond had cooled, Lee, with the remnant of his army, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The collapse of the Confederacy followed swiftly.

Last updated: February 1, 2018

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