April 3, 2015: Driving toward Richmond from the south, the first thing that jumps at me from the skyline is the massive American flag fluttering from the Dominion Power building. It’s 82 degrees and relatively calm, but the flag still unfurls—despite its size—in the high-up breeze.
Not until I-95 brings me closer do I start to see other flags on the tops of other buildings. There are several Virginia state flags—fields of blue punctuated by the seal of the Commonwealth—and several more American flags, too.
It is as though the city has once more been captured by the Union army and the stars and stripes fly over the Confederate capital.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the city was in turmoil. Word had reached Richmond that Lee’s line in Petersburg, twenty miles to the south, had finally snapped and that the army was in retreat. “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight,” Lee had warned Confederate President Jefferson Davis after the Federal breakthrough on April 2.
Davis, perhaps in shock, perhaps in denial, telegraphed back, regretting “the loss of many valuables, both for the want of time to pack and of transportation.”
Lee was so infuriated by Davis’s response that he crumpled the paper into a ball. “I am sure I gave him sufficient notice,” growled Lee, who had for months been warning Davis about the probability of evacuating the capital. Lee kept his cool in his response, however:
I think it absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops and the operation, though difficult I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed General Stevens to send an officer to you Excellency to explain the routes to you by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Court House, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.
By 11:30 p.m., Davis and the last remnant of the government were loaded onto a train for evacuation.
As the Confederate government and the last remnants of the Confederate army withdrew from the city, civilians fretted about their safety and the safety of their homes and property. “’Law and order ceased to exist,” one witness said: “chaos came and pandemonium reigned.”
By nightfall on April 3, much of the city was ablaze.
As I pass through the city 150 years later, there’s no trace of the Confederacy from the highway. The Confederate White House, once a prominent fixture on the city’s highest peak, is lost to view behind the burgeoning sprawl of Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical center. The Museum of the Confederacy, adjacent to the White House, has also been subsumed—physically by the medical center but also by the rising anti-Confederate sentiment of the 21st Century.
The city’s Confederate past is written on street names and cemetery stones and monuments, though—visible everywhere if you know where to look for it. But from the busy highway, it’s all an urban skyscraper blur.
Traffic moves today at 60 miles an hour—faster at times, slower at others—but it’s still bumper to bumper. I imagine the flood of refugees 150 years ago, choking the roads in similar fashion. Do passing motorists even know what happened here a century and a half ago?
By the time I’m north of downtown, where I-64 veers off to the west and I-95 pushes northward toward the Union capital, it’s traffic as usual. The American flag flies over all.
My thanks to Daniel T. Davis for a little on-the-spot research assistance for this piece.