Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Burning of Richmond in 1865

     April 2, 1865 was a Sunday, and in Richmond Jefferson Davis was at church.  In the midst of the services a courier arrived with a message from the War Department: "General Lee telegraphs he can hold his position no longer."  Davis quietly left the church and set about removing his government from Richmond.
  By late afternoon it seemed that all who could leave the city were stampeding.  Commissary stores were thrown open, and their hoarded contents distributed to eager crowds.  As the day wore on the scenes at the various government stores changed from the fairly orderly distribution of supplies to rank plundering.  Whiskey stocks were broken into and the streets ran with liquor.

     Factories, arsenals and mills were ordered destroyed, some were blown up, others were burned.  The fires were soon out of control.  There was absolute panic in the city.  Men, women, and children hurried to and fro.  Commissary stores were destroyed.  The streets were blocked with men and beasts.  Fierce crowds of skulking men and coarse, half drunken women gathered, breaking into shops and fighting among themselves over the spoils they seized.  Through the night, drunken mobs of civilians and Army deserters roamed the city, looting and burning.

The main reasons given for the South’s decision to secede from the Union, thus provoking the American Civil War, are often given as slavery and state’s rights. Both answers are correct in so far as they go. But underlying both are economic self-interest. Economic self-interest was the key motive in the South’s virulent embrace of both slavery and state’s rights.

Part I provides background information on the reasons for Southern secession. Part II provides key Southern documents, which speak for themselves.

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