|Postwar photo of George A. Bruce|
When the column reached Main Street, all bands were called to the front, and the men paraded to “Yankee Doodle” and “Rally round the Flag.” The refrain “Down with the traitor and up with the stars” stirred every Union heart. Heading toward Capitol Square they marched to “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
On Capitol Street, Devens’s brigade moved back to the front and stacked arms. “Sweeter music never reached the human ear than the rattling of those Union muskets on the pavements of Richmond as they dropped upon the ground,” Bruce wrote.
For all the thrill of triumph, the troops had marched into a calamity. Residents fled their burning homes and carried whatever they could to the square. Black and white men, women and children of all ages crowded together with their sofas, carpets and beds, their toys and mirrors, pots and pans strewn around them. The sick lay on makeshift beds.
The fire seemed to strengthen the wind, and wind carried cinders from one rooftop to the next. It was “blowing like a hurricane,” Bruce wrote. The heat and smoke made it hard to breathe. Above the fury on the Capitol lawn stood George Washington on horseback. The city had dedicated the majestic sculpture by Thomas Crawford three years before Virginia seceded from the Union. As Bruce watched, firebrands – burning chunks of wood – thumped against it.
Anarchy ruled the city. No one organized an effort to put out the fire. Mobs fought for food wherever they could find it. Shoulder to shoulder with white people, freed slaves joined in, eager to feed themselves and test their liberty. Their doors flung open, convicts walked out of jail and prison. Looters first raided the standing buildings nearest the fire and moved away as the flames approached.
Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, commander of Bruce’s division, set up inside the Capitol. Brig. Gen. George F. Shepley, who had been the first colonel of the 12th Maine Volunteers, was appointed military governor. Devens took command of the troops in the city.
|Edward H. Ripley (1862 photo)|
The Union men worked as a team. Soldiers gathered all the fire engines they could find and fought the fire. They organized a police force and posted sentinels on every street. By noon, printers from the ranks were producing circulars announcing temporary rules to meet the crisis. Only soldiers needed to protect the public and property were allowed inside city limits.
By nightfall the fires were dying out. Because the streetlights were not lit, the stars shone bright. Capt. Bruce walked alone for hours through “that proud but conquered capital, past the luxurious abodes of wealth then knowing the first pangs of hunger, past doors where had proudly entered, and as proudly departed, great military heroes, the tread of whose armies had made the continent to tremble and filled the world with their fame, past homes but yesterday tenanted by the rulers of an empire, now fleeing to escape the threatened punishment of their acts.” He walked “through narrow lanes and filthy alleys where dwelt the sons of toil upon whose humble roofs the calamities of the war had fallen with a double stroke, consigning fathers and sons, with all the savagery of an unpitying fate, to their untimely graves.”
The next day, April 4, at about 3 p.m., Bruce was resting on the steps of the governor’s mansion. The wife and daughter of Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith were upstairs with a female friend whom the advance of the Union army had trapped in Richmond. Shouting in the streets drew nearer and nearer. Smith’s daughter came to the window and asked Bruce what was going on. He went to find out.
On the other side of the house he saw President Lincoln in the road with his son Tad, sailors guarding them on all sides. “The uproar was caused by thousands of freedmen who thronged about and followed their emancipator,” wrote Bruce.
When he told Miss Smith what he had seen, she disappeared from the window without a word. A note from Devens at Jefferson Davis’s house asked him to bring a carriage and come meet Lincoln, who was holding an informal reception. Afterward Lincoln, Tad, Devens and Admiral David Porter entered the carriage and rode off with 25 officers galloping along. The streets were empty in town, but a quarter mile out carriages and hacks had gathered to see the casket of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill placed in a hearse. Hill had been killed at Petersburg.
|The Crawford statue of George Washington. in Richmond's Capitol Square|
Lincoln’s carriage also stopped in Capitol Square to see Crawford’s statue. The sculptor has Washington facing west and pointing a baton in that direction. Lincoln gazed at the statue and said, “Washington is looking at me and pointing to Jeff Davis.” On the way to Porter’s ship he stopped again to look upon the ruins of Richmond.
From Bruce’s perspective, Richmond changed utterly the moment it ceased to be the capital of the Confederacy. Men in rebel uniforms no longer walked the streets. In Libby Prison and Castle Thunder, Union soldiers jailed the 2,000 rebels who did not retreat with their army. Visitors “poured into Richmond to see something of war now that it was ended.” Bruce calculated there were enough members of the U.S. Congress to hold a session in the former Confederate capitol.
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Johnson sat beside Bruce and began to rail against the men who had started the rebellion. What he most feared, he said, was the tender heart of President Lincoln. “If I was president, I would order Davis, Lee, Longstreet and all the most prominent leaders before a military commission, and, when convicted of treason, they should be hung,” he said, pounding the desk with his fist.
“Nine days later he was president of the United States,” Bruce observed, “and not one of them was even tried.”
News of Lee’s surrender reached Richmond on April 10. Bruce applauded the restraint of northern leaders – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sen. Charles Sumner, Lincoln – in limiting the celebration, lest they offend former Confederates, now fellow citizens again. “The spirit of Lincoln, ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ has gradually won over all feelings of enmity and distrust, and become national,” Bruce wrote.
Two months passed before the day Bruce had been longing for. “Never can I forget that pleasant morning in June when, in obedience to orders from the War Department, in company with three New Hampshire regiments, I embarked on board a steamer at Richmond for our homeward-bound voyage to Boston. . . . We sailed down Virginia’s imperial river to the ocean, and saw for the last time her blue hills fade away in the distance. I began to experience that strange sensation of awe and uncertainty that comes over one as he stands on that mysterious borderland between one sharply contrasted mode of life and another.”