On April 3, 1865, Union forces finally captured the Confederate capital of Richmond. The end to the American Civil War was in sight. But if you can believe it, the activities of the night before are even more interesting.
Knowing that Grant’s army was on its way, an order to evacuate the city was given around 4 pm. The citizens that were able to get out of town did so before dark, but a large number remained – holed up in their houses, afraid for their lives and their belongings.
The military and militia in Richmond were given orders to destroy any remaining weapons, dump the barrels of liquor and burn the tobacco warehouses. Taking care of the cannons was easy enough as they were just tossed into the river. Perhaps they should’ve done the same with Richmond’s vast amount of leftover whiskey. Instead it was merely poured into the gutters. Men do strange things in desperate times, and I would say that living through four years of death and disease might cause people to go a little crazy. But the idea that were people literally lapping up whiskey from the streets still seems sub-human.
A little dirt whiskey really emboldens a crowd. Stores and homes were looted, fights broke out, and there were suddenly no troops or law anywhere to be found while a mob of thousands ran amok. One resident called the societal breakdown “the saddest of many of the sad sights of the war.”
Around the same time, the tobacco warehouses were finally set ablaze. But the winds shifted, and suddenly the fire was out of control. Volunteer firemen tried to put it out, but for reasons probably not even known to them, a mob of people chopped their hoses. But the time it was over, more than twenty blocks had been destroyed.
To cap off the night’s happenings, the National Arsenal exploded causing a chain-reaction of explosions among the remaining ironclads that had been inconveniently packed with the army’s remaining artillery shells. Altogether over 100,000 shells exploded over a four-hour period raining fire and debris over the city.
What was supposed to be a peaceful evacuation of the city turned into chaos and even more death and destruction.
Recommended reading: April 1865: The Month That Saved America