Well before dawn on April 3, 1865, and before great fires lit the sky at the horizon, Capt. George A. Bruce of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers noticed the silence. He had been on watch all night, but this was no routine shift. Rebel deserters coming into the Union camp had reported that Robert E. Lee’s army was retreating, opening Petersburg and Richmond to capture.
Occasionally he heard the baying of a dog in the distance, but there was no other sound.
Soon the sky above Richmond caught the garish light of the flames below. “The whole northern circle of the heavens” glowed, Bruce wrote, and then another line of fires appeared above the James River.“While we were standing almost speechless, wondering at the scene, just to our left a huge volume of smoke like an illuminated balloon shot high into the air, followed by an explosion that shook the earth under our feet. The echoes rumbled heavily along the banks of the river and then died away in the distance.”
This was the explosion of the rebel ironclad Richmond – the first of many explosions that destroyed the Confederates’ James River fleet.
Bruce’s division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, had given him authority to act if the need arose. And now it had, it seemed to Bruce. He ordered the pickets forward, and no opposing picket line rose up to meet them.
Bruce and Cpl. George Duncan of the 9th Vermont rode through. Bruce stopped a deserting Confederate soldier and ordered him to guide them to the rebel entrenchments. They passed through three sturdy lines of obstructions with buried torpedoes between them and then reached long, parallel rows of empty tents. Bruce retraced his path and led his men forward. He lost one man, a Vermonter who strayed from the march route and stepped on a torpedo. Beyond the rebel tents Bruce re-formed his skirmishers into a line.
As the day broke, Bruce secured Confederate forts and batteries, leaving sentinels at each along the half-mile of the corps’s front. Devens sent orders not to advance, but Bruce rode back to tell him the order had come too late. He found the general at his headquarters and said he had already taken Fort Gilmer and the rest of the Confederate line. Devens shook his hand and said, “Hail to thee, Count of Gilmer.”
It was 5 a.m. Devens sent word to Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, the corps commander. By 6 Weitzel had ordered the division on to Richmond. Devens told Bruce to use his pickets as skirmishers, and Bruce pushed them as fast as he could. It took little prodding. The men “pressed on joyously, with a quick step and light hearts,” he wrote. “It was a refreshing march in the pleasant hour of a delightful morning.”
Along the way they saw green fields and an occasional abandoned farmhouse. They picked up rebel stragglers by the dozen. One saluted Bruce and asked how much the Union army was paying for arms and equipment.As Bruce’s men neared the Confederate capital’s inner defenses, they ascended a hill and got their first good view of Richmond.
“The city was wrapped in a cloud of densest smoke, through which great tongues of flame leaped in madness to the skies,” wrote Bruce. “A few houses on the higher hills, a spire here and there half smothered in smoke, and the hospitals to the east, were the only buildings that could be seen.
“Added to the wild tumult of the flames, ten thousand shells bursting every minute in the Confederate arsenals and laboratories were making an uproar such as might arise from the field when the world’s artillery joins in battle. But just on the verge of this maelstrom of smoke and fire, cattle were grazing undisturbed on the opposite hillside, and I saw a farmer ploughing in a field while cinders from the burning capital were falling at his feet.”
|Rockett's Landing on the James River near Richmond|
His message read: “The Army of the Confederate Government having abandoned the City of Richmond, I respectfully request that you will take possession of it with an organized force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property.”
Mayo’s brother, who was with him, told Bruce a mob had taken over the capital and no one was fighting the fires. The brother owned Powhatan, an estate on the James River nearby. Bruce sent a soldier with him to ease his fears that his mansion and plantation would be looted and destroyed.
|Flag captured from the CSS Hampton by Capt. William J. Ladd|
Among the working-class residents of Rockett’s Landing, Bruce first observed how the war had affected southern civilians. “Handkerchiefs and strips of cotton cloth as flags of truce were pinned on the door-casements of the houses, from which women and children came out with piteous appeals for food,” he wrote. The Union men had nothing to share but returned as soon as they did.
|Capt. William J. Ladd -- first to Richmond?|
After the war, many men claimed to have been the first Union soldier to enter Richmond that morning. Bruce had read obituaries of “soldiers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts who had gained the reputation in their own locality of being thus distinguished.”
Bruce had his own candidate for the distinction and firsthand evidence to support his choice. At 3 a.m., when Bruce realized what was happening, he sent a note back to Ladd to join him immediately. At about 5, Ladd, who had a fast horse, rode off toward Richmond with a 9th Vermont major. The major turned back, but Ladd rode on, reaching Capitol Square before 6. A Confederate sailor tried in vain to stick him with his cutlass before he returned to Devens’s headquarters. Many postwar histories identified Maj. Atherton H. Stevens of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry as the first man to enter Richmond, but Bruce saw Stevens and his squadron far from the city at 5:45 a.m.
“Whatever of honor or distinction attaches to the man who first entered the Confederate capital belongs, without a doubt, to Captain Ladd,” Bruce wrote.