Civil War General Lee Sends a Frightening Message


Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived in the executive mansion in Richmond, Virginia. Citizens grew accustomed to hearing artillery fire in nearby Petersburg after months of fighting. With General Robert E. Lee in command, they felt safe.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis didn’t feel quite as secure. By the morning of April 2, 1865, he had already sent his family away from the city.

Still, when Davis received a message during church services on Sunday morning, April 2, color drained from his face. He immediately exited the church, leaving the congregation to wonder what momentous event had occurred to warrant his haste.

The telegram was from General Lee. He advised Davis to leave Richmond that night.

Davis issued orders to evacuate the Confederate government, though citizens were not given notice for hours. However, the sight of official documents burning in front of government buildings warned of terrible events.

Citizens learned that the government was evacuating at 4 pm. Officials and other prominent citizens abandoned the city rapidly. They exited by train. They rode out on horseback, carts, and carriages. They boarded canal barges and boats to avoid the Union soldiers.

Davis arranged to leave by train at 8:30 pm yet continued to hope it wouldn’t be necessary. He and three cabinet members delayed leaving until 11 pm. Confederate soldiers crossed the river on pontoon boats.

Chaos reigned in Richmond. City officials ordered men to destroy kegs and bottles of liquor from saloons and warehouses. They poured them into street drains, attracting crowds. Folks scooped up whiskey in boots and hats to gulp it down.

Richmond’s military commander, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, stayed behind with a few soldiers to burn the city’s supplies of cotton, tobacco, and food. These were set afire inside buildings with the fire department nearby to keep it under control.

The stocks of meat, coffee, and other staples enraged starving citizens. They grabbed the food and then began looting stores. Fires blazed out of control. Arsenals on ships exploded.

Fires still burned the next morning when Union cavalry arrived.

-Sandra Merville Hart


“Reaction to the Fall of Richmond,” Civil War Trust, 2017/10/29