Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital


Nelson Lankford draws upon Civil War-era diaries, letters, memoirs, and newspaper reports to vividly recapture the experiences of the men and women, both black and white, who witnessed the tumultuous fall of Richmond. In April 1865 General Robert E. Lee realized that his army must retreat from the Confederate capital and that Jefferson Davis's government must flee. As the Southern soldiers moved out they set the city on fire, leaving a blazing ruin to greet the entering Union troops. The city's fall ushered in ...

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Nelson Lankford draws upon Civil War-era diaries, letters, memoirs, and newspaper reports to vividly recapture the experiences of the men and women, both black and white, who witnessed the tumultuous fall of Richmond. In April 1865 General Robert E. Lee realized that his army must retreat from the Confederate capital and that Jefferson Davis's government must flee. As the Southern soldiers moved out they set the city on fire, leaving a blazing ruin to greet the entering Union troops. The city's fall ushered in the birth of the modern United States. Lankford's exploration of this pivotal event is at once an authoritative work of history and a stunning piece of dramatic prose.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
As the Union army runs rampant across the South, the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia, is abandoned by General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis. As Davis and his cabinet flee, the city's tobacco warehouses and bridges are set ablaze. From this chaos would be forged a new America, says author Nelson Lankford.
Publishers Weekly
Lankford continues his investigation of the Civil War's human dimensions with this narrative of Richmond's fall in 1865. As the war progressed it was increasingly clear that the fall of its capital meant the end of the Confederacy and by spring 1865 it was equally clear that fall was inevitable. Lankford uses a judicious combination of published and archival primary sources to demonstrate the increasing confusion that gripped the city as the government fled and the Union troops approached. He is equally successful presenting the tentative triumphalism with which the Northerners, many of them serving in segregated black regiments, entered the city. The fire that began with Confederate efforts to destroy military stores laid a large part of the city in ashes by the time of Abraham Lincoln's visit on April 4, an event that brought home to Richmond's citizens their new reality as an occupied city. The particular strength of Lankford's book is its demonstration of the rage with which most of the white population accepted that situation. Lankford is at pains to challenge myths of reconciliation between North and South, such as Lincoln's alleged visit to Confederate General George Pickett. Instead he offers comprehensive evidence that Richmond's citizens clung unrepentantly to their bitterness and sense of victimization, and denied the role of slavery in precipitating the war. The result for decades was their own enslavement to a past whose realities, as shown here, were a long way from the popular mythology of "gunpowder and magnolias." (Aug. 5) Forecast: Lankford has a track record: his two edited volumes, Eye of the Storm and Images from the Storm, were History Book Club main selections, and BOMC alternates. But he'll have competition in reaching a wide audience with this: James McPherson's new Civil War book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam 1962, comes out in September. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In the first days of April 1865, Union military advances compelled Confederate forces protecting Richmond to abandon their positions, opening the capital city to capture, causing the government to flee, and throwing the citizenry into unprecedented chaos. Lankford, editor of Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and author of The Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of David K.E. Bruce, 1898-1977, explores the fall of an important city, which portended the loss of the war. Drawing from a rich selection of diaries and letters, newspaper reports, and other primary and secondary resources, he tells the story of this pivotal event from the viewpoints of the varied actors who played a part, from military and political leaders to invading soldiers and civilian inhabitants. This well-researched, beautifully written work provides a useful update to Rembert W. Patrick's classic Fall of Richmond and is recommended for larger public libraries. Theresa R. McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An absorbing study of the Confederacy's last hours and a city in ruins. The Southern secession was no monolithic enterprise, to judge from this account by Virginia historian Lankford (The Last American Aristocrat, 1996). Richmond may have been the capital and nerve center of the Confederacy, but it was crawling with politicians and citizens who despised Jefferson Davis, feckless generals and disgruntled privates, and not a few members of the "Unionist underground," including a southern belle who "placed one of her free black servants as an agent in Jefferson Davis's household." Southern apologists have long suggested that someone from this large group of well-motivated suspects set the ravaging fire that greeted conquering Federal forces in the spring of 1865. Lankford clears up the question definitively: the great fire was set after Davis had fled the city by Confederate soldiers seeking to deny the enemy the last of the rebel army's supplies, and though it has passed into legend as a monumental catastrophe, it destroyed only some ten percent of the city-enough, however, to provide newspapers with the "pictures of devastation that people in the North craved." Lankford's smoke-filled pages are dense with well-chosen anecdotes, such as his portrait of an exasperated Robert E. Lee at Appomattox catching sight of the disgraced General George Pickett and spitting out, "Is that man still with this army?" The author examines and dismisses a few myths along the way, including the why-can't-we-all-get-along saw that Lee later prayed with an African-American gentleman in a gesture of national healing, an episode evidently invented to hide "differences that cannot be masked by the warm sepia tonecast over our great national trauma by popular books and documentary films." An able balance of scholarly precision and readability.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142003107
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/29/2003
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 940,724
  • Product dimensions: 5.43 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Nelson Lankford edits The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society. A resident of Richmond, he is the co-editor of Eye of the Storm and Images from the Storm and author of The Last American Aristocrat.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: April 15, 1865 1
1. Citadel: Winter into Spring, 1865 9
2. Daily Bread: Late March 25
3. Waiting: Late March 35
4. A Day for Fools: Saturday, April 1 49
5. Sabbath Rest: Sunday, April 2, Morning 60
6. A Fugitive Government: Sunday, April 2, Afternoon 70
7. Flitting Shadows: Sunday, April 2, Evening 82
8. Mad Revelry of Confusion: Monday, April 3, Darkness to First Light 96
9. Cruel Cataclysm: Monday, April 3, Morning 113
10. Requiem for Buried Hopes: Monday, April 3, Morning 123
11. Burning: Monday, April 3, Morning to Afternoon 135
12. Let It Burn: Monday, April 3, Afternoon to Evening 146
13. Upon the Wings of Lightning: Tuesday, April 4 156
14. A Week in April: Tuesday, April 4, to Saturday, April 8 168
15. A Whirlwind Sweeping: Tuesday, April 4, to Saturday, April 8 179
16. Prayers for the President: Tuesday, April 4, to Sunday, April 9 192
17. Important Communications: Sunday, April 9, to Friday, April 14 209
18. The Order of the Day: Saturday, April 15, and After 218
19. The Sorry Silence of a Conquered People: April into May 229
Epilogue: Blunt and Withered Laurels 241
Acknowledgments 249
Abbreviations 251
Notes 253
Bibliography 277
Index 299
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2008


    Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital by Nelson Lankford is one of the best handling of the fall of Richmond that I have read so far. Lankford does an excellent job setting the stage of the mood of the city from late winter 1865 to the evacuation of the Confederate government. The sources that Langford picked and his smooth writing style made me feel like I was in the midst of the action. This is history at it's best!

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