Richmond Burning

This is Nelson Lankford’s book about the fall of Richmond in 1865. This is an excellent book. Lankford did prodigious research and weaved a mountain of facts into a smooth, lucid, and cogent narrative. In setting the stage and putting the book’s main topic into historical context, he tells us how Virginia came to be part of the rebellion. “The war to break or preserve the Union began over constitutional issues triggered by slavery. Did the Federal government threaten the right of states to sanction property in human beings? Was secession a right or treason? But for average white Virginians, the greatest perceived threat was to hearth and home, and they fought longer and harder than might have been expected. For most of them, the later arguments among historians about whether the true cause was states’ rights or slavery would have made no sense. The southern way of life they defended included slavery because they could not imagine any other way to order relations among the races.” [p. 12] While the battles of 1864 saw horrendous loss of life, the worst threat to the confederate army wasn’t battle but desertion. “Desertion increased with the approach of spring planting time. No other immediate factor threatened southern prospects more. Officers exhorted their men to turn in comrades suspected of plotting to leave the army. Gen. James Longstreet praised three Alabama privates for apprehending a deserter before he could make good his escape. They convicted the man and sentenced him to be shot on the last day of March to encourage his brother sin arms. Executing a few deserters to deter others was a miserable calculus, and the officers knew it. The threat of punishment did not stop hundreds from taking the risk and slipping away. In a pessimistic report at the end of March, Lee enumerated the bald truth of the matter. In nine days he lost 1,061 soldiers to desertion. He had only about 50,000 in all. Such attrition gave him a sense of foreboding, and he conceded, ‘I do not know what can be done to put a stop to it.’ ” [p. 37]

Desertion wasn’t just a bane for the confederates. Facing Richmond was the Army of the James under Godfrey Weitzel. “It was not just Weitzel’s threadbare enemies who had to contend with desertion. The virus infected even well-provisioned Union regiments. The 10th Connecticut suffered so many desertions that the angry corps commander stuck the unit up front on the picket line, where, he swore, it would be ‘very difficult for them to get away.’ On the last Sunday of March, the 1st Brigade of the XXIV Corps finally had some excitement to break the monotony. The officers called out the whole brigade to witness punishment meted out to one of their number, Pvt. Frederick Brandt, Company E, 81st New York, charged with desertion. The war ended for Brandt on that cold and windy day–in the presence of his comrades but at the wrong end of a firing squad.” [p. 44] Thomas Morris Chester, an African-American journalist with the Philadelphia Press, was with the army. “Chester heard that the Confederates were drilling companies of black soldiers, and knew that the white officers of the USCTs were anxious to learn whether slaves would fight for the South. He was confident they would not, at least not for long: ‘They will, without doubt, turn right side up.’ ” [p. 45]

Lankford does an outstanding job in conveying the confusion gripping the confederates in Richmond in the final hours before their retreat. In reading his narrative one can almost feel the apprehension they felt at the time. Among the first Union troops to enter the city were African-American troops of the United States Colored Troops. “No Union soldier was prouder than the Rev. Garland White, chaplain of the 28th USCT. He knew what the crowds of cheering freed people were feeling. He had been in their place. Thirty-five years earlier he had been born in Richmond. As a boy he was sold to Robert Toombs, U.S. senator from Georgia, later Confederate secretary of state. Before the war White ran away. With secession, he recruited African Americans for the Union army. As he marched through town at the head of his regiment, White beamed at the ecstatic greetings of the city’s black residents. ‘It appeared to me,’ he wrote, that in Richmond that day ‘all the colored people in the world had collected.’ As the soldiers marched in formation west on Broad Street, freed people pressed forward to touch their liberators, to embrace them as if they were their own flesh and blood. Looking back down the column, White saw some of them tugging at one blue uniform sleeve after another. The soldiers came from every state, North and South. Maybe they would know about a son or daughter sold away from home years before. Few enslaved families remained untouched by the sales that had kept the wheels of slavery lubricated at the cost of separating loved ones. His comrades, White observed with a mixture of pride and pain, were too disciplined to break ranks in order to answer the question, poignant though they were. His heart went out to these suffering people, now at last released from bondage. When the regiment reached Camp Lee on the edge of town, the throng followed. The soldiers stopped there, stacked their arms, and eagerly shook the hard, callused hands of these grateful people, slaves only hours before. The officers and men of the 28th USCT called on White to address the crowd. It seemed natural, for the preacher was a gifted exhorter and a native son, come home in glory. He gladly proclaimed ‘freedom to all mankind’ but was so overcome with emotion that he had to step down. At that point, his fellow soldiers brought him an aged woman from the crowd who wanted to speak to him. She quizzed him on his own life story and then said, ‘This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.’ ” [pp. 126-127]

Lankford also follows the confederate troops on their retreat from Richmond. You may be wondering what happened to those black confederate soldiers who were drilling in Richmond. “Desertion ate at the strength of many regiments. It eroded the few small black units recruited for the southern army as they retreated with the rest of the Confederate forces from Richmond. By the time one of the companies reached Amelia Court House, the army’s rendezvous point not quite half the distance to Appomattox, only the white captain and the African American corporal remained.” [p. 211]

I highly recommend this outstanding book for those who want to understand what happened to Richmond at the end of the war. Lankford provides maps of the city to show which parts were burned during the confederate retreat, and he has a number of photographs to help illustrate the story.

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2 comments

  1. Many thanks, Al, for the survey of Nelson’s wonderful book. I’ve been using it profusely when planning tours for visitors, and as a recommended keepsake of their Richmond Civil War adventure. Lankford is recently retired from the VA Historical Society, but still is an active presence there. Occasionally he pops over to the VA Museum of Fine Arts where I work, and always has time for a quick chat. I can also recommend “Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road to the Civil War, 1861” Lankford’s more recent title. Not so much Richmond-specific, but also executed with the same narrative fluency displayed in “Richmond Burning.” And, as one would expect, much of the story involves Richmond.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, David. You’ve made a wise choice in using the book and recommending it to people. I have Cry Havoc! and will be adding it to the review mix at some point in the future. Thanks again.

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