150 Years Ago This Week: Richmond evacuated, Petersburg lines broken

April 1865

With the Confederate disaster at Five Forks on Saturday, April 1, Gen. Lee sent a wire to President Davis in Richmond on Sunday morning, April 2. “I think it is absolutely necessary that we abandon our position tonight. . . .”

The Confederate capital was doomed, along with the entire Richmond-Petersburg line. At 4.30 a.m., Federals advanced in a thick fog along the Petersburg lines. By 7 a.m., the Union drive was fully underway and was successful everywhere. At the South Side Railroad, one of the last lines of Confederate supply, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps dashed through the Confederate defenses.

Attempting to rally his men, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, commanding the Confederate Third Corps, approached two Union skirmishers separated from the rest of their comrades in arms. Seeing Gen. Hill and his courier Sgt. George Tucker, Jr., riding up, two soldiers of Company F, 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, Corporal John Mauk and Pvt. Daniel Wolford, hid behind an oak tree, their rifles aimed at the two mounted Confederates.

Gen. Hill ordered them to surrender; Wolford lowered his rifle but Mauk said, “shoot them,” and the two Federals fired. Pvt. Wolford had aimed at Sgt. Tucker but missed; Corporal Mauk’s bullet ripped off Gen. Hill’s left thumb and pierced his heart, exiting through Gen. Hill’s back. Gen. Hill was killed instantly. The two Union soldiers fled and ran back to their lines. It is ironic that Corporal Mauk was at the fighting at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864, and had been standing very near to Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick when the general was shot in the face and killed by a distant Confederate sharpshooter.

With Gen. Wright’s morning attack, the Federals broke through the Confederate lines at Petersburg, and in midafternoon, Gen. Lee ordered the withdrawal of the Army of Northern Virginia from both the Richmond and Petersburg defenses to immediately head west to Amelia Courthouse.

Gen. Lee told Col. Charles Marshall, his aide, “This is a sad business, Colonel. It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it has broken.” President Davis received a message to leave the capital from Gen. Lee while he was in church that morning; at 11 p.m. that night, Mr. Davis and most of the Confederate Cabinet left by special train to Danville, Va.

As news spread through the city, panic ensued, and soon the worst of human behavior erupted. Looting took place and fires were set. Soon entire areas of downtown Richmond were ablaze, and all was chaos. Early the following morning, the first Union troops entered Richmond. Maj. Atherton H. Stevens Jr. of Massachusetts placed a regimental Stars and Stripes atop the Confederate Capitol building.

Later, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Wetzel, commander of the 25th Army Corps, Army of the James, rode in at the head of his troops. The Federals restored order, suppressed most of the fires still burning, and accepted the surrender of the Confederate capital. In Petersburg, Gen. Grant met with President Lincoln and reviewed the troops.

Far to the south, Maj. Gen. James Wilson and his 12,000 Union troops occupied the important manufacturing center at Selma, Alabama. The overall Confederate commander, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, barely escaped before Selma was taken.

In Virginia, Gen. Grant detached some of his troops and ordered them to pursue the retreating Army of Northern Virginia westward. Rather than following the Confederates, the Federals’ line of march was parallel to the Southerners; Gen. Grant’s plan was to get ahead of Gen. Lee’s men and stop them from moving south to join Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina.

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