Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/5/1909

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From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/5/1909

Dr. Thomas R. Evans Recalls Dismal Events of Evacuation Day, When Richmond Was in Flames.

            Mrs. Fontaine wrote most graphically of the fire and of several other occurrences when detailing some of the tragedies of evacuation day in Richmond.

            Such a letter reminds me of the suggestion that if all of the matter that has been or will be published in your columns was edited and published in book form, it would constitute a large portion of most valuable, interesting and, for the most part, very reliable, history. It will not be long before many of those who can, from personal memory, so contribute will have passed away.

Origin of the Fire.

            The question might be asked about the cause of the great fire. According to certain evidence, President Davis had for several months, in view of the contingency of the evacuation, considered the propriety of burning the government stores of cotton and tobacco in Richmond, so that they would not fall into the hands of the enemy. He was advised that the firing of the large warehouses would most likely communicate flames to the city and destroy it, but he is said to have ordered them to be fired. At that time the population of Richmond was about 35,000. As the city possessed a well organized, paid Fire Department, with two steamers, Mr. Davis doubtless considered that such department would keep the fire within bounds.

            Had he not felt convinced of this he certainly would not have ordered that the warehouses be destroyed by fire. There was a more sane method, and it would have been equally as effectual, but it may not have been considered. The warehouses were near the river. The bales of cotton and the hogsheads of tobacco could have been sunk in the James River. This would have saved millions of property, and prevented the horrors of the evacuation. As Mrs. Fontaine so graphically wrote:

            “I say, imagine, but you cannot; no one who was not here can ever fully appreciate the horrors of that day.”

Explosions at Arsenal

Mrs. Fontaine wrote during exciting time, and she unintentionally exaggerated the number of shells which exploded in the arsenal, situated on the central edge of the city, and the duration of such explosions. Hundreds of shells exploded, but many did not, as the writer knows from personal experience, for he with other boys, when the ashes became sufficiently cool, went to the site of the burned arsenal and with sticks knocked in the tow fuses and poured the powder into fruit cans. There were many pyramids of shells unexploded.

            Some of the shells were disappointing, as they contained iron balls the size of black walnuts, and but little powder.

            Fortunately, the unearthly din of the explosions of the shells, according to my recollection, did not last more than fifteen minutes. During the time it would seems that the eardrums of every one in Richmond would be ruptured. Instinctively one would dodge his head, but the explosions were so loud, so rapid, and so demoralizing that such dodging became vexatious.

No One Was Injured.

            Miraculously to write, we do not remember that any one was struck. Of course the commission and storage houses fronting the arsenal were wrecked. It is supposed that a piece of a shell, heated in the arsenal fire, struck the spire of a church situated near the southeast corner of Franklin and Eighth Streets. This caused the destruction of the church and of the houses on the square fronting Franklin Street. The residents of that street from Seventh up to Fifth commenced to move their furniture to the street, and as the parlor furniture was the most accessible, the pavement was lined with it.

            Had the fire extended above Seventh Street this furniture could not have been moved for several reasons, chiefly because the Confederate horse would seemed to have been on his way to the boneyard.

No Horses Available.

            Many horses were as living skeletons, although we saw two rather animated ones earlier in the day. They were pulling a hearse up Franklin Street, which hearse was loaded with plundered groceries. Two negroes sat on the bott. One hollered to a passerby, “We are done hauling them now.” This gruesome witticism caused considerable laughter.

            In going up Franklin from Seventh I came upon a medley of household furnishings. There were handsome sofas, chairs and bric-a-brac. It seemed that a private Yankee soldier had been revelling on a mohair sofa and had rolled to the pavement. He was dead drunk, and clothed in a new suit of blue. But by his side laid a brand-new New Testament. I picked up the book as a souvenir, for if it had been given to the soldier he was sleeping upon his title to it. This was between two and three o’clock in the afternoon.

Disorder in Many Homes.

            There is a feeling that one wishes never to experience but once - the “burnt out” feeling. To go home to dinner and find the parlor furniture on the sidewalk, in anticipation of flames, was one experience. To see one’s sisters in quiet dismay coming down the porch steps to aimlessly return again to the house, was another. Each held a bundle about the size of a man’s head. In this bundle, the wrapper of which was a handkerchief, were their lares and penates, trinkets and things which they most valued. But it was thought doubtful whether they would preserve these from the Yankees, since it was taken for granted that each house would be searched and perhaps robbed.

            Fortunately the Federal general (Wetzel) [Weitzel] with his men, and with impressed negroes, had been effectually fighting the fire since between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning, and kept the fire from extending beyond Seventh Street on Franklin.

            But it was fully two weeks before the nightly glare from smouldering embers ceased to be seen in Richmond and in Manchester.

                                                                                    THOS. R. EVANS.


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