The Fall of Richmond: The Capital of the Confederacy

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  • 0:08 The Prize
  • 1:18 The Battle of Five Forks
  • 2:16 Evacuation and Chaos
  • 5:19 The Union Enters Richmond
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the fall of Richmond in early April of 1865. We will learn why Richmond was a key city for both the Union and the Confederacy, and we will explore the details of its evacuation and occupation.

The Prize

Union General Ulysses S. Grant desperately wanted it. Confederate General Robert E. Lee just as desperately wanted to keep it. It had been the capital of the Confederacy since May of 1861. It was the center of the Confederate government, a high point of Southern morale and a manufacturing city that produced everything from cannons and ammunition to paper and flour. By 1865, nearly 130,000 people were crammed into its streets and buildings. But what was it? It was Richmond, Virginia, the prize of the South.

By the spring of 1865, Grant had been working his way toward Richmond for almost a year. Lee had continually blocked his path and forced him away from the Confederate capital, so Grant had turned his attention to Petersburg, 22 miles to the south, which he held under siege for nearly ten months. Now, however, he was ready to move. He wanted his trophy. He wanted Richmond.

The Battle of Five Forks

On March 31, 1865, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan slightly west of Petersburg to the crossroads of Five Forks. Sheridan's goal was to cut off Lee's last supply line into Petersburg. Lee sent General George Pickett out to meet Sheridan. Pickett's troops actually forced the Union back on the battle's first day, but that didn't last long.

By the afternoon of April 1, Sheridan had received reinforcements, and he trampled Pickett's men and won a decisive victory. 'Our success was unqualified,' Sheridan explained, 'we had overthrown Pickett, taken six guns, 13 battle flags and nearly 6,000 prisoners. Lee had not anticipated disaster at Five Forks.'

Evacuation and Chaos

Indeed, Lee had not anticipated such a disaster, but he knew it was time to move on. The loss of Petersburg and Richmond would be a sharp blow to the Confederacy, but there was still hope. Lee could take his men south and meet up with Confederate forces there. They could present a united front, prolong the war, and perhaps even regain Richmond. For now, though, Lee had to sacrifice the capital, and, on April 1, he made the decision to pull out.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis learned of Lee's decision the next day, April 2, and ordered the Confederate government to evacuate Richmond. Officials quickly began burning important papers so they wouldn't fall into Union hands. Confederate troops and government leaders hurried to pack up and leave the city.

A few Confederate soldiers under General Richard Ewell remained to tie up loose ends. They were under orders to burn anything that might be useful to the Union, so they began piling up stores of tobacco, food, clothing and shoes. When Richmond's citizens noticed this, they were furious. Most of them had no idea that such necessities were even available in their city. They had been living on little or nothing for far too long, and now they were spitting mad to see how much their government had been keeping from them. Chaos ensued as looting and rioting broke out across the city.

By evening, fires were burning out of control all over Richmond. Ewell could do little to fight the fires or stop the chaos, which was intensified when the Confederate navy destroyed its fleet in a series of explosions that rocked the city. A Union lieutenant nearby described the blast when the CSS Virginia, packed with munitions, blew up: 'The earth shook where we were and there flashed out a glare of light as of noonday, while the fragments of the vessel, pieces of timber and other stuff, fell among my pickets, who had not yet moved from the position where they had been posted for the night watch.'

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