Averill, J. H. "Richmond, Virginia:
The Evacuation of the City and the Days Preceding It." Reprint from Richmond
4 July 1897- SHSP 25 (1897), pp. 267-273.
[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, July 4, 1897.]
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA: THE EVACUATION OF THE CITY AND THE DAYS PRECEDING IT. How the News was Received in Danville - Some of the Closing Scenes of the Confederacy
(Colonel J. H. AVERILL in Nashville Banner.)
The coming of the remnants of that army in gray, whose deeds so astonished the world a
third of a century ago, and the presence among us here of the last survivor of the cabinet
of President Davis, brings vividly back some of the closing scenes of the Southern
Confederacy, in which the writer participated, and which were several years since written
out, and are here retold at the request of the Banner.
The scene I will describe pertains to the evacuation of Richmond and the fifteen days
The writer was at the time trainmaster of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and
stationed at Danville, Va., the road then running only from Richmond to Danville, there
connecting with the Piedmont road to Greensboro, N. C. How this railroad line, then the
mainstay of the Southern Confederacy, the only line of communication between its capital
and the Southern States, has grown and extended its lines; how the old Richmond and
Danville went down, as the Confederation of States it supported, and how, from that wreck,
has arisen the now well-known Southern Railway, permeating every Southern State! Can the
growth and improvement of the South, and can we paint the picture of the two eras as
having any connection?
But to our story: It is well remembered by all who lived in the closing days of the
Confederacy that the first official news of the intended evacuation of Richmond on that
Sunday in April was communicated to its citizens in church, and through the hurried
calling of the President from church.
Our first intimation of it was not in being called from church, but at noon on that quiet
Sabbath day in Danville, for it was quiet there, 140 miles away from the city, which was
so soon to witness the sad-
Page 268 Southern Historical Society Papers.
dest scene in its history. On being awakened from a sound sleep, the first I had enjoyed
for twenty-four hours (for in those days a railroad-man slept when he could, and that was
not often), by the telegraph operator with the information that "Richmond says come
to the key at once." Reporting there as soon as possible, I soon received the
following: "Hold all trains in Danville; send nothing out."
Having heard nothing of impending danger to Lee's army, or of the probability of the
evacuation, I asked the reason for the order. None was given, and our construction of it
then was that Richmond had news of a raid out from the Federal army, and that it was
feared that our lines would be cut between Burkeville and the Staunton river. We took our
local wire and interrogated the operators on the line for news of the raiders, but they
It was time for the regular passenger train to leave to Richmond. Many passengers were
gathering, and the question was frequently asked, "Where is the train? Why is it not
at the platform? What is the matter?" Leaving time had come and passed. Then those of
the passengers who lived in Richmond grew anxious and suspicious. I was questioned on all
sides, but could tell nothing. Soon, however, another message came as follows: "Come
to Richmond with all engines and empty passenger and box-cars you can pick up. Bring no
freight or passengers."
We got the four engines we had in the yard ready to run with what cars we had, and
reported for running orders, and were told to await further instructions. They came. I
have them yet. The message was short, and read as follows:
"Too late. Richmond is being evacuated. We will all leave this P. M. Arrange for all
track room possible in Danville."
Now we must tell the waiting, expecting passengers. It was a scene never to be forgotten.
One man shed tears as he came and offered any amount I would name for an engine to take
him to Richmond, where his wife and children were. Others seemed to be completely crushed
and unable to express themselves. Some walked off looking as though they had lost their
Soon Danville knew the story, and the noble people of that Virginia city began their
preparation to receive and take care of as many of the refugees as possible. Daylight
brought the first train - the President of the Confederacy, his Cabinet, their families
and many members of Congress. Other trains soon followed. There were women and children in
box-cars, many without baggage, few
Page 269 Evacuation of the City of Richmond.
with anything to eat. It was a sad scene, but the doors of the Danville houses were wide
open, an old Virginia welcome me the refuges, and they were soon housed as comfortably as
We then knew all in regard to the evacuation of Petersburg, and that Lee and his generals,
with that gallant remnant of our Army of Northern Virginia were (we could not realize it
then), in retreat, as we supposed, moving to join Johnston's army, and we were ordered to
prepare to take trains of supplies to them at Mattoax Station, where they would cross the
railroad. There were large government storehouses in Danville, all filled to the ceiling,
as well as many loaded cars, awaiting shipment. Trains of supplies were made up, but it
was slow work. The yard was crowded with cars. Cabinet Ministers and their families and
other prominent people, living in box cars, were in our way, and could not get rid of
them, but did the best we could. Our first train was ready when the order came to hold it.
Lee had not been heard from. The next we heard it was too late; he had crossed the road,
going in the direction of Appomattox, and no provisions in sight to feed the starving
soldiers, while there were thousands of rations in the storehouses and cars in Danville,
soon to be raided and plundered by a mob. Some one blundered Time passed rapidly. There
was no opportunity for sleep or rest. I was in the yard busily engaged in getting a train
off for Greensboro.' The assistant superintendent came up and said: "John, come
here," I joined him. "Lee has surrendered." I felt as though the ground had
opened up under me. He was an operator, and had caught the news off the wire as it was
flashed to President Davis. It was then 3 P. M., and at 5 P. M. an aide of the President
came down and ordered an engine, a flat-car, a stock-car a box-car, and a passenger coach,
to carry President Davis and party to Greensboro', then held by General Johnston.
The train was made ready, but one after another of the President's Cabinet and men of
prominence arranged with the President's staff officer for their box-car to be taken on.
All this took time, but with as much haste as possible, car after car was added, until ten
cars composed the train. We told them we could take no more. They, however, insisted, and
two more were added. The engine was in bad order, and blew out a cylinder-head five miles
from Danville. More time was lost in getting another engine to take its place. When the
morning dawned the operator said the wire to Greensboro's was gone, and it was impossible
to obtain information of the President's train. We did not, however, wait long. Soon the
Page 270 Southern Historical Society Papers.
tick of the instrument was heard. I asked the operator who it was. He said
"Beneja," a station eleven miles from Greensboro'. "What?" said he.
"Ah, this is the reply: 'Watchman at Big Troublesome Trestle is here. Says just at
dawn as train passed going to Greensboro', Yankees came out and burned trestle, missing
train by only two minutes.'" The President had a narrow escape; the road was broken,
and we were cut off from the South. Soon, however, we had the wires in working order, but
the dawn of day brought other trouble to us in Danville, and we gave very little thought
to the Greensboro's end.
Shifting the scene, I come down to the picturesque old town of Washington, Ga., where
recently I had pointed out the house in which President Davis and his party stopped on
their retreat. Here was held the last official meeting of the Confederate government; here
the President and his Cabinet gave up the cause as lost, and each member undertook to
provide as best he could for his own safety. Had I the notes of the memorable journey from
Danville to Washington, Ga., the meeting with Johnston at Greensboro's, pages could be
written of this meeting. The journey from Greensboro' to Charlotte, the flight from that
point through South Carolina, and last that final meeting at Washington, are all events of
greatest interest, and columns could be written; but these notes cannot be obtained in
time for this article.
But to resume our story at Danville. As stated before, there were warehouses filled with
provisions, stores, etc., for the army. The neighboring hills of Virginia and North
Carolina and the valley of the River Dan were well populated. The news of the fall of
Richmond, the surrender of Lee, and the flight of the Confederate Government had been
carried to them. Many stragglers from the army had already reached Danville; in fact, they
had been coming daily since the retreat of Lee from Petersburg. With the dawn of day women
and children, old and young, began to pour in from the surrounding country and congregated
in crowds around the warehouses. There was a rear guard of two companies left to protect
the property; they tried to stop the rising storm. The crowd only waited for a leader.
Soon one was found in a tall woman, who, with the cry, "Our children and we'uns are
starving; the Confederacy is gone up; let us help ourselves," started in, followed by
hundreds. Aided by the stragglers, the unresisting guards were soon swept out of the
Page 271 Evacuation of the City of Richmond.
way and the work of plundering began. A major from Lynchburg attempted to stop it, but he
was soon glad to be able to retreat. Soon wagons, carts, wheelbarrows and every other
conceivable means of removing the coveted supplies were pressed into service; women and
children staggered under loads impossible under other circumstances for them to carry. But
this scene was speedily put to an end in an unexpected and fatal manner. Near two of the
largest warehouses the Confederate Ordnance Department had stored a large amount of loaded
shells and a large amount of powder.
As I stated before, a large number of stragglers were in town, and we had asked to send
them as far as possible in the direction of Greensboro'. The train was partially loaded,
and nearly ready to start. They had broken into the powder house, and many of them were
carrying of quantities of it - others still lingered around. Many of the town boys, both
white and black, were securing their share of the ammunition. Suddenly a deafening sound
was heard, shells flew through the air, and bodies of men and boys, and fragments of limbs
were scattered in all directions. I was standing about 300 yards from the wreck of the
building, when a piece of shell weighing six pounds, passed between the superintendent and
myself. Had it deviated twelve inches either way, one of us would have been killed. The
wreck took fire. This heated the shells, and for six hours the bombardment, as it were,
continued. The stragglers and women did not grasp the situation, and the cry was raised:
"The Yankees are firing into us," and within thirty minutes not a straggler
could be found in Danville. Many had dropped their plunder in the hurried flight, thinking
only to get out of the way of the supposed Yankees. Soon we went to the scene of slaughter
to assist any needy survivor. The first we met was a well known citizen of Danville. In
his arms he bore the mangled remains of his only son, a bright lad of fourteen, whom I had
talked to not an hour before. We had two colored boys, twins, about fourteen years old,
both bright youngsters, and liked by all. We found Tom fatally injured. We raised him
tenderly to take him to the hospital near by. He said: "Jim is there." We found
his remains, but he was spared the agony Tom had to endure before death relieved him. The
explosion was caused by a soldier dropping a match, and fifty lives were sacrificed
through that carelessness.
Most of our trainmen and engineers had lived in Richmond, their families were there, they
had not been able to move them the day of the evacuation; the men had been gradually
leaving us, and all
Page 272 Southern Historical Society Papers.
belonging in Richmond were soon en route, walking the long, dreary 140 miles to try and
find their loved ones.
A couple of days after the evacuation of Richmond the bridge over the Staunton river had
been burned. We maintained train service between Danville and this point for several days
after the surrender of Lee's army, bringing in the men as fast as they came there, wending
their way to their, in many cases, desolate homes in the far South.
Soon we were advised that a corps of the Yankee army was approaching on the north bank of
the river; that they were arranging to rebuild the bridge, and were crossing the river on
a pontoon, en route for Danville, and to operate against Johnston's army. The
superintendent ordered the trains withdrawn, and I was instructed to take all of the
rolling stock of the 4-feet 8 1/2-inch gauge, go to Greensboro, report to General
Johnston, and follow the fortunes of that army.
Peace negotations were in progress between Johnston and Sherman. I was advised the evening
previous that the surrender would be officially announced in the morning. Calling all of
our men together, the information was given them, and I was unanimously asked to take them
all back to Danville at once. Engines were gotten ready, and sitting on the pilot of the
leading one, soon after night, I had my first sight of the camp-fires of the Fifth Army
Corps, encamped around Danville. Soon we stopped at the picket lines, and an officer was
interviewed. He was told all that we knew, and that our desire was to get into the
Danville yard, and go to our homes. Permission was given to proceed, and we were soon back
in our old quarters.
The flag we loved was furled, the cause we had served had failed, and two years; hard work
was at an end. We knew not where we would turn on the morrow, or what would be our future.
We all sought rest, to be aroused at the break of day by an aide of General Wright, the
Federal commander, with a request from the general to report to his quartermaster. Well do
I remember our first meeting with Major Wright, the quartermaster of the 5th Army Corps.
Numerous questions were put and answered in regard to the Richmond and Danville and
Piedmont roads and its rolling stock, and we were astonished to be asked to gather our men
and open up communications between Burkeville and Danville and Greensboro', for
Page 273 Sussex Light Dragoons.
the purpose of handling supplies for the Federal army at Greensboro' and Danville, and
other purposes. We were told to take out own men to man the trains and engines, and none
of the men who worked for Major Wright in the operations of those roads for the succeeding
ninety days will ever forget the uniform kindness of himself and his assistants. When the
corps was ordered to the frontiers of Texas, in anticipation of trouble with the French in
Mexico, the writer and many of his assistants were urged to go with them. We wanted rest,
many of us had families in the South that we had not seen for months, and in the latter
part of July we disbanded, as it were, and to-day we are like the survivors in
Two of the engineers who did faithful service to the Confederacy, and one or more of the
conductors who served with me in those trying days, are now trusted employees of the
Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. We are two small a body to think of
reunions. We sometimes meet, not as "ships that pass in the night," but on the
car or around the engine of to-day, and discuss those old days of the past - the days that
the average railroad man of to-day known so little about or can comprehend how armies were
moved and provisioned by the Southern roads, and how trains were run.
We are, like the survivors, fast passing away, and will soon be known no more.
COLONEL J. H. AVERILL.
[From the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, Sept. 18, 1897.]