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Nine April Days, 1865
By Burke Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Burke Davis
All rights reserved.
The winds of late March scuffed the dark James and tore tatters of smoke from factory chimneys. They howled on the barred windows of Libby and Belle Isle, where the prisoners were, and fell upon crowds in Capitol Square, where people stared at drilling Negro troops of the Confederacy — the first.
In moments when the wind died a humid heat came from the river, and there was something more: The pulsing of guns from the south and west, louder today.
A nineteen-year-old midshipman climbed from the Navy landing at the waterside, a gunner on a day's leave from a river Battery. His name was James Morris Morgan.
Morgan had almost a thousand dollars on his back, for he wore a splendid new gray uniform whose cloth he had sought in the shops for weeks. His boots, sickly in color, half-tanned and squeaky, had cost $300. But he had so spruce a look that he had more than once, these last few days, been asked to stand as a groomsman at a wedding.
In store windows as the boy passed were crude signs telling as surely as if they were calendars of Richmond's four years at war:
Bacon, $20 a pound. Live hens, $50 each. Beef, $15 a pound. Fresh shad, $50 a pair. Butter, $20 a pound.
A hundred thousand people now thronged the little city and the markets could not decently feed 70,000 — to say nothing of the army in the trenches outside.
Young Morgan walked through Capitol Square beneath tossed branches of budding trees, and into the building where the Confederate Congress was in session.
Even here he heard the guns. Timbers shuddered underfoot and there was a rattling of windowpanes. He went into the Senate chamber for a few minutes and emerged with an expression of youthful outrage. The Senators had to raise their voices to be heard over the guns — yet they were debating the question of just how many newspapers should be left on their desks each morning.
Morgan wandered downhill into one of the hospitals, a converted tobacco warehouse still odorous of its trade, now packed with sick and wounded; women of the city passed among the cots.
Near the doorway Morgan found the friend for whom he sought, Captain F. W. Dawson, a wounded cavalryman who had ridden with Jeb Stuart in the war's good old days.
Dawson lay in the cooling breezes from the door, his pale face flat on his cot. He whispered, "For God's sake, Jimmy, make 'em move me to the back."
"You'll get no air back there," Morgan said. "This is the best spot you could find."
Dawson shook his head. "Every damned woman that comes in that door scrubs my face and pokes me full of homemade jelly. My face is sore and I'm ready to pop."
Morgan laughed, but he sent a note to the head surgeon and did not leave until he had seen an order fixed to Dawson's cot:
This man must be washed and fed only by regular nurses.
Young Morgan left him at last and went back to his guns by the river.
Fannie Walker was a copying clerk in the Bureau of War, an earnest young woman who shared the optimism of the city's youth.
Late in the afternoon as she was on the point of leaving her office amid a swarm of girls, Dr. Cooke, her chief clerk, entered with a final packet of letters for copying. Fannie began work anew with a sigh. As she opened the pack she glanced at the signature: "... R. E. Lee."
Her pen scratched a few lines and halted. She turned to Cooke. "Oh, Doctor! If this is true we are lost!"
Cooke glanced at the dispatch. General Lee made an urgent request for more troops and provisions. Without them, the message said, "we cannot hold Petersburg." Not even Richmond pretended that there were more troops or provisions.
Cooke shook his head. "Remember," he said, "mum's the word."
Fannie went home with a burden of dread she dared not reveal; she thought that she must be one of the few people in Richmond who knew that the city was doomed.
Only the heedless could not sense catastrophe at hand. One of those who had expected it daily was Captain Micajah H. Clark, a confidential secretary to President Jefferson Davis who had once been in the Treasury Department. Clark now watched gloomily the long queues of civilians and warworn soldiers who crowded about the doors of the Treasury.
For almost a month, "for the relief of the people," the Treasury had passed out silver coin — at the rate of $1 for each $60 in paper. Most of the city's people had not seen such coins since the beginning of the war. Clark knew that the silver could have but one purpose: It could be spent outside the Confederate lines when the Yankees broke through. The ratio of paper to silver was rising; it would soon reach 70 to 1.
In one large house, as in dozens of others this night, a "Starvation Party" was in progress. The music and laughter, as noted by a young diarist, T. C. DeLeon, matched that of the brilliant balls of other days. More than a hundred young women and their escorts thronged the party. Most of the men had come from the trenches since nightfall.
DeLeon thought the young men "worn and tired from camp and famished for society and gayety of some sort." An old Negro fiddler provided the music and, when the growing dance drowned out his tunes, a girl in a rather frowsy dress joined the Negro, playing a piano.
Refreshments were forbidden, and on tables were ranged ornate bowls, relics of the gay old life, now filled with water. Nothing stifled the high spirits of the dancers.
"Never, amid the blare of the best-trained bands," DeLeon said, "the popping of champagne, and the clatter of forks over pâté de foie gras, was there more genuine enjoyment and more courtly chivalry than at these primitive soirees."
The party went through the dances of the "graceless, Godless German cotillion" in defiance of the city's pious elder citizens who had proclaimed them sinful. From his corner DeLeon watched admiringly:
"Despite the denunciations, the ridicule, and even the active intervention of one or two ministers, the young soldiers and their partners whirled away as though they had never heard a slander or a sermon."
DeLeon wrote as if he could hear, above the tinny music, Richmond's struggle to preserve the old social amenities as she neared ruin. He spoke for the young men in the room:
"'But,' said the dancers, 'we do the fighting — we are the ones who are killed — and if we don't object, why in the deuce should you? Cooped up in camp, with mud and musty bacon for living, and the whistling of miniés and whooshing of shells for episode, we long for some pleasure when we can get off. This is the sole enjoyment we have, and we go back better men in every way for it.'"
The dance went on.
DeLeon seemed to haunt every entertainment in the city, lured by music and laughter as they drowned "rumble of dead cart and ambulance."
DeLeon saw that the gaiety was a feverish symptom of Confederate weakness, "only a spasm." In the streets he saw what was happening: "Desertions from the army were assuming fearful proportions that no legislation or executive rigor could diminish. Every day saw brigades double-quicking back and forth through the suburbs; the continuous scream of steam whistles told of movements here and there, and every indication showed that the numbers of men were inadequate to man the vast extent of the lines."
Day after day in late March he saw covert moves of the government: First the archives and papers of the departments; then heavier stores, guns and supplies not in daily use; then the few reserve medical supplies rattled off in the infrequent trains from the Danville depot; last of all, the young women of the clerical offices, sent to safety in Columbia, South Carolina.
A. R. Tomlinson, a wounded soldier, was now a sergeant of guards at Winder Hospital. He was always hungry, and could hardly stand his post between the meals of gruel and small bits of bread. He watched others eating but could not bring himself to join them.
He wrote: "The surgeons and matrons ate rats and said they were as good as squirrels, but, having seen the rats in the morgue running over the bodies of the dead soldiers, I had no relish for them."
Colonel Walter Taylor often came into the city from Petersburg in these days. He usually went first to his fiancée, Elizabeth Selden Saunders, the daughter of a prewar Federal Navy captain. Taylor was a romantic figure, a slight, handsome, still well-dressed boy in his mid-twenties who had spent the war as General Lee's most intimate staff officer. His coat was perhaps a bit large, but the cloth was fine and the sleeves were looped with gold. Taylor wore a tiny mustache and a struggling Vandyke.
Near the end of March he visited other women friends in their fallen estate at a rooming house called The Arlington. They were three women, a mother, daughter and a stranger taken in, out of necessity, to share their small room. In other days they had lived like empresses in the city, with a great house, several carriages and servants they hardly troubled to count. Taylor gallantly concealed the name of the proud family in his memoirs.
Now, as he climbed steep stairs to their room, he had no need to be told their story. Sights, sounds and smells were enough. There were a few pieces of furniture, including a lumpy bed. A crude coalbin occupied one corner. Sticks of stovewood were piled under the bed. Taylor laughed:
"I fully expect to come here some day and find a pig tied to the bed, and a brood or two of poultry."
He was not far wrong. Until a day or so earlier the women had had a hen tethered to the bed, stuffing her with dried peas in a vain attempt to fatten her for the pot. They cooked on a fireplace grate — though when there was a miracle and they found a stringy roast or a pound of flour, they might command the services of a Negro cook who lived in the rear of the house.
Rent for the room was $25 a month, the price of a large house in prewar days.
These women were friends of Taylor's fiancée, Betsy Saunders, and they had a gay hour together, as a climax descending to the landlady's rooms to play the piano and sing. When Taylor had gone, gaiety disappeared and the women returned to work. They huddled near the failing source of light at the windows and went back to their sewing. From odd bits of silk they knitted ties and socks and sold them in the streets. Profits went into sorghum and tea and other delicacies, for the staples of their diet were inevitable: boiled rice, dried apples, beans, and field peas, day after day.
John Beauchamp Jones was a leader of Richmond culture. He had been editor of The Saturday Visitor and The Southern Monitor, in Baltimore, had been praised by Poe, and was author of the novel, Wild Western Scenes, which had sold more than 100,000 copies before the war. He had married a Virginian and come to Richmond as a War Department clerk to see the conflict at first hand.
Now, as spring came on, Jones recovered from an illness and his only work was the daily entry in his diary. On March twenty-ninth he had a little smoked herring and a cup of tea, all that his house afforded. He felt better, reduced his medicine to ten grains of blue mass and told himself that he must avoid overexertion. He had a visit from General Lee's son Custis, who had spent most of the war in Richmond offices. Jones did not neglect the diary, and he seemed to see or hear everything:
The papers give forth an uncertain sound of what is going on in the field, or of what is likely to occur. The Negro experiment will soon be tested. Custis says letters are pouring in at the Department from all quarters, asking authority to raise and command Negro troops. One hundred thousand recruits from this source might do wonders.
He recorded a dispatch from General Lee in the field, reporting that the Federal cavalryman, Sheridan, had swept around Confederate lines below Petersburg, crossing Hatcher's Run and marching for Dinwiddie Court House. The enemy aim was to cut the Southside Railroad. Jones thought they might succeed, and cited the ominous words of General Lee:
We have here no adequate force of cavalry to oppose Sheridan, and it may be possible, if Sheridan turns his head this way, that shell may be thrown into the city.
Jones noted an even more insistent sign that all was not well:
Mrs. President Davis has left the city with her children for the South. ... Some of their furniture has been sent to auction.
Inflation had not spared Jefferson Davis. The distant Mississippi cotton empire was no longer able to sustain his family in the capital.
He had already sold his own horses, except for one he rode daily, and he was now forced to sell at auction even the matched team of carriage horses used by his wife. A band of patriots rescued the animals from the auctioneer and sent them back to the Confederate White House with compliments. The eminent man of business, James Lyons, signed their note. The horses had cost the Samaritans $12,000 — but today that was, after all, only $240 in hard money.
No sooner had Varina Davis got back her carriage horses than a provost marshal's guard halted her on the street and seized them once more, leading them away for government use. The President would not lift a hand to save them, but again wealthy friends returned the animals to the household.
They were still in want at the Presidential mansion. The public began to note in store windows items which had become familiar during the four-year reign of the Mississippi Rose as First Lady of the Confederacy: an old green silk gown, laces, silks, gloves, feathers, artificial flowers; and from the rooms of the mansion, imported works of art, furniture, china, glass and silver. Gossiping women knew more certainly than from an official pronouncement that the end was at hand.
Varina Howell Davis was almost thirty-nine years old, a dark-eyed, striking woman of no real beauty. She had already merged into Southern legend, though leaders of Richmond society had greeted her coolly. She was a bona fide patrician, if any were, though the roots of her lineage spread beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Her paternal grandfather, William Burr Howell, had been Governor of New Jersey and a naval officer in the War of 1812. Her mother was a Virginian, Margaret Louise Kemp, who was born on farmlands over which the battles of Bull Run were to be fought. Grandfather Kemp, a man of means and a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, had been a refugee from Ireland to Virginia, fleeing a charge of treason; in turn, he had fled to Mississippi after killing a Virginian in a duel.
Varina was the second Mrs. Jefferson Davis. She had lost one son in infancy, and another, little Joe, had fallen to his death from a porch of the Confederate White House during the war. Now, in this March of 1865, there were four Davis children: Maggie, nine; Jefferson, Junior, seven; Willie, four; and the baby, Varina Anne, a fat, red, teething infant of nine months.
One morning in the last week of the month Davis faced his wife with an expression of finality on his grim lips. She had expected the crisis for months, and saw that he had been postponing it with dread. She thought his air "gentle, but decided."
"My headquarters must soon be in the field, Winnie," he said.
She stared at the firelight on the Carrara marbles of the hearth with a feeling she would not see it again.
"Yes, Banny, but —"
"You and the children would only grieve and embarrass me. You know there will be no place for you."
"I can't leave you."
The hollow-cheeked President brought it to an end:
"I have confidence that you can care for the babies, and I know you want to help me. The only way is to take them to a safe place."
She thought she had never seen him so sad as when he said at last:
"If I live you can come to me when it's over. But I don't expect to ... survive the destruction of constitutional liberty."
There was a touch of his old fire in the final words, but he reached into a pocket and poured in her hand a small mound of gold coins; he kept for himself one five-dollar piece. He also gave her a bundle of Confederate bills; his engraved image stared up at her from one of them with a hawklike defiance.
He had few further instructions.
"I hope you will not ask any of our Richmond friends to keep our silver plate," he said. "It might bring some outrage upon them, if the enemy found them out."
"I can take the flour with me, I suppose, Ban."
"No," he said, "you must not take away anything in the shape of food. The people need it so badly. You must leave it here."
She turned to the house servants, giving orders to take furnishings to the auction houses and to begin the packing.
Excerpted from To Appomattox by Burke Davis. Copyright © 1959 Burke Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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