On this day in 1865, Union forces capture the City of Richmond. It was the beginning of the end for Robert E. Lee and the Confederate armies.
The Union had long set its sights on Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Despite several attempts, Richmond had never been captured. But when Ulysses S. Grant took command of Union forces in 1864, he changed strategies a bit. Rather than trying to obtain Richmond directly, he would attempt to destroy Lee’s army. Lee was the primary defender of Richmond. Once his army was defeated, Richmond would soon follow.
Throughout May and June 1864, the two sides fought a succession of pitched battles in Virginia. Grant’s army was taking more losses than Lee’s army, but it was also working its way toward the James River (southeast of Richmond and close to nearby Petersburg). Lee knew that he needed to stop Grant from crossing the river. “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River,” Lee reportedly said. “If he gets there it will become a siege and then it will be a mere question of time.”
This series of Virginian battles ended with a “heavy loss” for the Union at the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31 to June 12, 1864). But Grant managed to turn that defeat into a strategic advantage. He pulled back from the battle and refocused his efforts. He began destroying rail lines and working on an effort to sneak across the James River. Lee did not realize what was happening until it was too late. Once Union forces were across the river, Petersburg was an easy target.
The city was critical to Richmond’s defense. It was a railroad hub, and it was thus able to provide Richmond with critical supplies. Union forces tried a direct attack, but eventually settled in for a long siege. Grant also launched separate offensive attacks on several railroads, hoping to cut supply lines. At one point, his men tried to tunnel under Confederate forces. (That effort was deemed a “stupendous failure”!)
Things began to unravel for the Confederacy on March 25, 1865, when Lee launched an unsuccessful offensive action against Grant. Supplies were running low. Lee’s move was a desperate one, and it did not work. A few more battles were fought in the days that followed. Finally, on April 2, Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg. Grant took the city; he now had an open path to Richmond. But, as of yet, no one in Richmond realized it! Lee cabled a warning to Jefferson Davis: “Richmond must be evacuated this evening.”
The Confederate government hastily prepared to retreat. Some documents were piled into wagons; others were burned. Many supplies and military assets were set afire. Soon, much of the government had fled. Unfortunately, fires continued to tear through the city. Explosions could be felt as fires reached stores of munitions. Indeed, the fires burned through the rest of the night, creating a fair amount of pandemonium within the city.
The next morning, as Union forces approached, Richmond’s mayor rode out and delivered a message: “The Army of the Confederate Government having abandoned the City of Richmond, I respectfully request that you will take possession of it with organized force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property.”
Union forces did as they were asked. The Confederate capital was no more.
Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26–June 3, 1864 (2007)