Posted 7-24-01
The Day Richmond Burned

Shortly after Five Forks fell as well as the Southside Railroad into the hands of the Federals, Lieutenant General James Longstreet turned command of the Confederate Forces north of the James River over to Lieutenant General Richard Ewell and proceeded south immediately to join Lee in the evacuation of Petersburg.

Ewell had along with the Local Defense Force, about 5,000 troops to defend roughly ten miles of earthworks. Stripping the hospitals in Richmond of all the cripples, sick and convalescents, he had added another 2,000 rifles to his force and immediately began issuing the necessary orders for an orderly evacuation of Richmond, Virginia.

It was not to be, however, vandals smashed windows and looted stores, army deserters, slaves and even the town citizens joined in the chaos. He had foreseen this months before appealing to the city council to establish a volunteer police force to keep order during its future evacuation, unfortunately only one man had volunteered to help, and Richmond was now paying the price for her neglect.

One of the politicians that the former 2nd Corps Commander nearly had a stroke dealing with was that of Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge. Ewell didn't feel tobacco products needed to be involved in the warehouse burnings on fear that a good wind would catch the city itself a flame, Breckenridge disagreed and insisted Ewell comply with the order.

He had originally set four warehouses ablaze, yet a good southerly breeze that evening ended up enjoining the entire business district of Richmond in the conflagration.

Richard Ewell as a true soldier had his orders and reluctantly carried them out. He later stated that he recommended to the Secretary of War that he leave the tobacco stores alone. If it were up to him, he never would have fired them. He remained bitter against the Kentuckian. After his capture at Sailor's Creek nearly a week later, he told a Federal Surgeon that he had his orders but only regretted that the orders did not include Breckenridge himself, who should have been thrown into the hottest of the flames he could find.

© Dan Moran - 2001