Fall of the South: Breakthrough and the Burning of Richmond


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For the next few weeks, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the seventh installment of the series.

April 1-3, 1865: Breakthrough and the Burning of Richmond

The endgame of the Civil War began on April 1, 1865, when Union forces defeated the ragged and outnumbered Confederates at the Battle of Five Forks, then shattered their defensive lines decisively at the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2. As Robert E. Lee led the battered Army of North Virginia west in a final, desperate retreat into central Virginia, Union forces entered the Confederate capital at Richmond unopposed – only to find it engulfed in flames, a fitting epitaph for the Southern rebellion (top, the ruins of Richmond).

Five Forks

On March 24, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general assault on the rebel lines to begin March 29, a plan unchanged by the desperate breakout attempt on March 25. As Union forces maneuvered to the southwest of Petersburg, threatening to cut off Lee’s line of retreat, on March 31 the Confederate general-in-chief tried to disrupt the unfolding offensive with two attacks of his own, at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Courthouse. Rebel commander George Pickett scored a limited victory over Philip Sheridan’s cavalry at Dinwiddie Courthouse, but withdrew as Sheridan was reinforced. This preliminary encounter set the stage for the Battle of Five Forks.


On the morning of April 1, Sheridan led his combined force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, 22,000 strong, northwest in search of Pickett’s smaller force of 10,600 men, now dug in facing south at Five Forks, where White Oak Road intersected three other roads (above, Five Forks today). Arriving in front of the Confederate positions around 1pm, Sheridan’s cavalry dismounted and pinned the Confederates down with rifle fire in order to gain time for the Union infantry to catch up.

Around 4:15 Sheridan ordered a general assault, with Gouverneur Warren leading an infantry attack on the Confederate left (eastern) flank, followed by two simultaneous attacks by dismounted cavalry troopers, one led by George Armstrong Custer (of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame) against the Confederate right (western) flank, and a second led by Thomas Devin against the Confederate front. Sheridan hoped the first attack would force Pickett to weaken his center and right to hold off the threat to his left flank, clearing the way for the dismounted cavalry to roll up the Confederate positions from the west.

However confusion reigned on both sides during the Battle of Five Forks. The Union troops believed the Confederate left wing was located much further east than it was, resulting in a delay as they hurried west to engage the enemy. Meanwhile the Confederate commander, Pickett, was enjoying a picnic a little over a mile to the north and didn’t know he was under attack at Five Forks at first because the landscape blocked the noises of battle; he belatedly hurried south to take charge when the battle was already well underway.

By this point the Union attack attack was faltering under heavy rifle and cannon fire from the Confederate left wing – but Sheridan himself leapt into the fray and helped rally some of the disorganized troops for a crucial charge, as recounted by his staff officer Horace Porter:

Sheridan rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: 'Where is my battle-flag?' As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson-and-white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were now humming like a swarm of bees about our heads, and shells were crashing through the ranks… All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle.

There was plenty of dramatic heroism to go around that day, as the Confederates withdrew and reestablished their defensive line on the left flank two more times, requiring renewed attacks to dislodge them. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a college professor-turned-officer from Maine, already famous for his bravery and quick thinking at Gettysburg) described what it was like for Union infantry charging Confederate guns in the face of withering cannon fire near Ford’s Road:

Ploughed through by booming shot; torn by ragged bursts of shell; riddled by blasts of whistling canister;— straight ahead to the guns hidden in their own smoke; straight on to the red, scorching flame of the muzzles,— the giant grains of cannon-powder beating, burning, sizzling into the cheek; then in upon them!— pistol to rifle-shot; saber to bayonet; musket-butt to handspike and rammer; the brief frenzy of passion; the wild 'hurrah'; then the sudden, unearthly silence; the ghastly scene; the shadow of death…

By nightfall Sheridan’s attacking force had routed the Confederates, inflicting over 1,000 casualties and taking at least 2,000 prisoners (below, Confederate soldiers captured at Five Forks), at a cost of only 830 casualties to themselves – an especially favorable result considering Pickett’s force was just half the size and could scarcely afford these losses. On the other hand at least half the Confederate force managed to escape and Sheridan, annoyed and quick to judgment, took out his frustrations on Warren by relieving him of command, triggering a controversy that raged long after the war was over.


But for the moment jubilation reigned, as even ordinary Union soldiers understood victory was now within reach. According to Porter, “The roads in many places were corduroyed with captured muskets; ammunition-trains and ambulances were still struggling forward; teamsters, prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway… cheers were resounding on all sides, and everybody was riotous over the victory.”

On the other side this anticipation was matched by dread of imminent defeat. One of Lee’s favorite generals, John Brown Gordon, remembered the great captain saying, “It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”


With the Confederate right flank turned, exposing the already overstretched defenders to attack from the rear, Grant knew Lee might now try to withdraw his whole army from Petersburg, abandoning Richmond to the Yankees, then quickly destroy Sheridan’s force and head south, hoping to join forces with Johnston’s army facing Sherman in North Carolina. Of course this would be a gamble for Lee, as it meant leaving strong defensive positions and hoping the enemy didn’t catch on until it was too late.

To prevent him from doing this, after Five Forks Grant immediately ordered a general assault to begin in the early morning of April 2, intending to pin Lee’s forces in their trenches while Sheridan began to roll them up from the west. The Union Army of the James under Edward Ord would hit all along the line, with the Union VI Corps under Horatio Wright and II Corps under Andrew Humphreys attacking the Confederate center southwest of Petersburg, while the IX Corps under John Parke pressed the Confederates east of the city. At the same time Sheridan would continue pushing north to cut off the Confederate line of retreat to the west.

At 4:30 am on April 2 the IX Corps launched its attack to pin down defenders east of Petersburg, and ten minutes later the left wing of Wright’s VI Corps began moving towards Confederate positions southwest of the city, advancing 600 yards over mostly open ground in gloomy darkness. This attack would pit around 14,000 attackers against just 2,800 defenders spread out along a mile of defensive line. As they forced their way through defensive obstacles Confederate artillery and rifle fire inflicted heavy casualties, but were unable to stop the blue wave that now washed over the rebel parapet. This breakthrough cleared the way for Wright’s VI Corps to turn southwest and attack the neighboring force of 1,600 Confederate defenders from the rear. By 7 am this force was also on the run, while further west Humphreys’ II Corps was attacking the next section of Confederate defenses.

As the sun rose the Confederate line had been broken wide open, and another Union army corps, the XXIV, was pouring into the gap to support the advance and defend against counterattacks. With rebel defenses completely collapsing, around 9 am Ord and Wright decided to turn northeast and join the attack on the remaining Confederate forces at Petersburg.

Seeing the situation was now untenable, Lee advised Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War John Breckenridge that he would have to withdraw his army from Petersburg before the enemy cut off its only remaining line of retreat to the west. Of course this meant abandoning Richmond, so the Confederate government would have to flee as well. As fighting continued into the afternoon of April 2, hundreds of wagons were hurriedly filled with government property and official documents and dispatched to Lee for protection (seriously impeding his mobility).

At 8 pm on April 2, the Army of Northern Virginia began to withdraw in an orderly fashion along roads northwest of Petersburg; a few hours later the Confederate cabinet and treasury left Richmond on a train bound for Danville, Virginia. Richmond itself was left defenseless. On the other side, as soon as he found out the Confederates had abandoned Petersburg Grant ordered a hot pursuit, chasing the enemy west along the Appomattox River. John Brown Gordon later recalled the nightmarish days that followed:

Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on the flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On and on, hour after hour, from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle.

After 292 days, the Siege of Petersburg was over, and the last campaign of the war had begun.

Richmond In Flames

Unfortunately for the residents of Richmond, the end of the siege didn’t mean an end to their suffering – just the opposite. Many were about to lose their homes in a huge conflagration that began on the evening of April 2 and continue into April 3, gutting the center of the city.

While there’s still controversy about which side was responsible for burning Columbia, in Richmond’s case the Confederates were definitely to blame. Confederate commanders ordered their soldiers to set fire to bridges, warehouses, and weapons caches before retreating in order to deny them to the enemy. Although they probably didn’t mean to torch the whole town, these fires quickly blazed out of control and burned the entire downtown district to the ground (below, a Currier and Ives painting).


As with the burning of Columbia, the sights that greeted occupying Union troops in the early morning hours of April 3, 1865 was both terrible and spectacular. One observer, George A. Bruce, painted a vivid picture of Richmond in flames:

The wind, increasing with the conflagration, was blowing like a hurricane, hurling cinders and pieces of burning wood with long trails of flame over the houses to distant quarters of the city. The heated air, dim with smoke and filled with the innumerable particles that float from the surface of so great a fire, rendered it almost impossible to breathe.

Few in the north probably shed many tears for the capital of the rebellion, but the human cost was very real, as ordinary people, already facing starvation, now lost their homes as well. On entering the town Bruce encountered a pathetic and also rather surreal sight:

The square was a scene of indescribable confusion. The inhabitants fleeing from their burning houses – men, women and children, white and black – had collected there for a place of safety, bringing with them whatever was saved from the flames. Bureaus, sofas, carpets, beds and bedding, in a word, every conceivable article of household furniture, from baby-toys to the most costly mirrors, were scattered promiscuously on the green…

The only rational thing left for the Confederate government to do was surrender and bring an end to the suffering – and yet as so often in history reason was no match for the momentum of war. In North Carolina, where Johnston’s beleaguered army could do nothing to stop Sherman’s much larger force, Confederate Senator W.A. Graham bitterly criticized the irrational indecision and irresponsibility that now paralyzed the Southern elite, preventing it from accepting the inevitable:

… the wisest and best men with whom I had been associated, or had conversed, were anxious for a settlement; but were so trammeled by former committals, and a false pride, or other like causes, that they were unable to move themselves… but were anxious that others should… it was now the case of a beleaguered garrison before a superior force, considering the question whether it was best to capitulate on terms, or hold out to be put to the sword on a false point of honor.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.