“The final act in the pathetic, tragic struggle of 40,000 half-starved Confederates against the Federal host of 130,000 perfectly-equipped men began April 1st,” 1865, a Saturday.
So wrote self-described 21st Mississippi Regiment veteran J.S. McNeilly for the Mississippi Historical Society long after the war.
Lee’s defense that day of the crossroads at Five Forks near Petersburg against Grant’s assault had failed.
“The next day at 4:00 a.m.,” historian Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote, “Grant followed up the success at Five Forks with an assault all along the [Petersburg] line.”
The fighting, though miles away to the south of the 13th Regiment’s defensive entrenchments east of Richmond, raised such a din of artillery and rifles that they could hear the echoes. And they soon learned that Grant had defeated their comrades at Petersburg.
General Lee summoned Gen. Longstreet to help keep the Yankees out of Petersburg itself until what was left of his army could be evacuated. Longstreet rushed Field’s division to the city. Thus, only Kershaw’s division of three brigades, including the 13th Regiment, and some local reservists, remained in front of Richmond on Sunday, April 2.
“At the close of a day that was ominous in its stillness,” McNeilly remembered in 1913, “the pickets were detailed and posted under extra injunction of watchfulness. But the night passed without movement from the greatly superior force in front.”
Monday, April 3, dawned as quiet, “and passed without excitement or stir,” McNeilly wrote. “Orders [had come] during the day to prepare three days’ rations and get ready to march.”
The withdrawal began after midnight, from the right end of the division’s defensive line. The Mississippi Brigade, apparently commanded by Col. William H. Fitzgerald of the 21st Regiment, was on the extreme left of the line. Therefore, it was the last unit to pull out, at half-past two in the morning Tuesday, April 4, according to McNeilly.
The 13th Regiment apparently was commanded by Captain Hugh D. Cameron of the Alamutcha Infantry.
“The march was taken up in the darkness,” McNeilly wrote, “lit up by the baleful glare of the burning shipping on the James…At the rear of the column, we entered Richmond, passing through its streets to Mayo’s bridge, just as the sun rose…”
At least there was the pleasure of doing something besides standing barefooted in a cold, waterlogged ditch. “It was such an infinite relief,” McNeilly continued, “to be free again from the trenches; where we had been more or less closely ‘cabined, cribbed, confined,’ for the past five or six months.”
Confederate reservists and local defense troops joined the retreat but not before following orders to burn whatever might be of use to the Yankees in the city and also to impede their arrival by burning the Mayo bridge over the James River.
Wrote Glatthaar: “Richmond smoldered. Amid the crackle of burning tobacco warehouses and the periodic explosion of ignited ammunition and arms that the Confederacy could not carry, skittish and dispirited soldiers scurried toward safety westward.”
“A detail was made for suppression of the plunder and arson that was rife,” McNeilly continued. “But the bridge across the James being set on fire prematurely, through error or design, the hindmost men had to double quick to avoid being cut off.”
Just which unit of Kershaw’s division was the last Rebel one to leave fallen Richmond behind was ever after a matter of dispute. Some claimed it was South Carolina cavalry troopers who had fired the bridge with pine knots when everyone else was across. Others said it was the Phillips Georgia Legion infantry of Wofford’s Brigade. McNeilly had no doubt of his version.
“It is a thing to be noted,” he recalled, ” that this brigade of Mississippians were the last of the Army of Northern Virginia to march through Richmond—the passing of their waving banners was the visible emblem of the fall of the Confederate capital.”
Longstreet’s artillery chief Gen. Porter Alexander recalled in a memoir many years after the war:
“It was after sunrise [on April 4] of a bright morning when…we turned to take our last look at the old city for which we had fought so long & so hard. It was a sad, a terrible & a solemn sight. I don’t know that any moment in the whole war impressed me more deeply with all its stern realities than this.
“The whole river front seemed to be in flames, amid which occasional heavy explosions were heard, & the black smoke spreading & hanging over the city seemed to be full of dreadful portents. I rode on with a distinctly heavy heart & with a peculiar sort of feeling of orphanage.”