On April 2, 1865, the Confederate government and military began to evacuate Richmond. Union forces had routed the Confederates at Five Forks and began a general assault at Petersburg. General Lee advised President Davis to begin to evacuate on the morning of the 2nd. Early the next morning, troops destroyed the bridges as the last soldiers left going south. Warehouses along the waterfront were set on fire to destroy any supplies and keep them out of Union hands. This was ordered by General Lee, and carried out by Richmond’s military commander, General Richard Ewell.
With the disintegration of law and order, mobs began to break into stores, loot, and get drunk amid the chaos. The fires were not set until early on the morning of the 3rd, and with the ensuing chaos, the fire department was not able to contain the flames. Strong winds from the southwest began driving the flames from building to building, working their way north fro the waterfront towards the state capitol.
Sensing what was happening, Union troops advanced from their lines to the east, arriving on the edge of the city at around 7:30 AM on April 3. Organized into marching order and with bands in front, Union troops began to march down Main Street into the city. The first units into the city were the 9th Vermont, 13th New Hampshire, and 98th New York. As they got closer to downtown, they encountered the rowdy mob and the fires. The entire city wasn’t on fire, just the warehouse district.
As they came into the downtown area, Lt. Royall Prescott of the 13 NH said, “the smoke became so thick as to make it impossible to see even a few feet in advance…. The scene that met our eyes here almost baffles description. Pandemonium reigned supreme. The street we were in was a one compact masses of frenzied people, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that we were able to force our way along. At length the heat became so great that we could proceed no further. Our hair and beards were scorched, our clothing smoked, the air we breathed was like a furnace blast… On a lamp post I read the words “14th Street.”
Here they turned a block up to Bank Street to get away from the intense heat. They then reached Capitol Square, took possession of the Capitol building, and stacked their rifles to begin fighting the fires. They managed to save several buildings around the square, including the War Department offices, Davis’s former office, and the Capitol itself, designed by Thomas Jefferson.
One of the more enduring myths to grow out of this event is that Union troops started the fires and destruction when they entered the city, in fact they put them out. Another is that most of the city was destroyed, when in fact only the blocks along the waterfront were lost. Most of the city, even most of downtown, was not impacted. Urban renewal has done more damage to the area’s historic fabric.
A few days after the city’s capture, a photographer captured this iconic image of the city. This is the corner of 14th and Main Streets, where the 13th New Hampshire encountered heat so intense that it forced them to divert a block up. The women in the photo are walking east, along Main, with 14th Street running across the image.