April 3, 1865: Richmond Falls, and John Surratt Departs

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, fell to the Union.

The day before, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had fled the city, having authorized the burning of warehouses and supplies that might prove useful to the approaching Union army. Winds spread the fire, destroying much of the city’s business district. Resident Sallie Putnam wrote, “As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.  . . . The fire was progressing with fearful rapidity. The roaring, the hissing, and the crackling of the flames were heard above the shouting and confusion of the immense crowd of plunderers who were moving amid the dense smoke like demons, pushing, rioting and swaying with their burdens to make a passage to the open air. From the lower portion of the city, near the river, dense black clouds of smoke arose as a pall of crape to hide the ravages of the devouring flames, which lifted their red tongues and leaped from building to building as if possessed of demoniac instinct, and intent upon wholesale destruction. All the railroad bridges, and Mayo’s Bridge, that crossed the James River and connected with Manchester, on the opposite side, were in flames.”

The electrifying news of Richmond’s fall arrived in Washington, D.C., that same day, sending the federal city into a frenzy of celebration which would gain even more momentum with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. During the heady days from April 3 to April 14, Washingtonians lit up their public and private buildings, held parades, and struck up tunes.  The saloons, oyster bars, and music halls were packed.

Not all Washingtonians were in a mood to celebrate, however. In the evening of April 3, John Surratt, who had been acting as a courier for the dying Confederacy, turned up at his mother’s boardinghouse. Having just been in Richmond on a mission, he was stunned to hear that the Confederate government had abandoned the city. He also learned that federal detectives were looking for him, having recently arrested one of his fellow couriers.

In any case, John Surratt had a mission to complete: before Richmond fell, Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of War, had given him some dispatches to carry to Southern exiles in Montreal. Accordingly, John, having spent a short time at his mother’s house, went out to eat with one of the boarders, his friend Louis Weichmann, then checked into a Washington hotel. The next morning, he left on his journey to Canada, his dispatches safely hidden in a biography of the abolitionist John Brown. He would never see his mother again, and he would not return to Washington again until 1867, when he was brought there as a prisoner to stand trial for his alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Weichmann would be one of the chief witnesses against him, as he had been at Mary Surratt’s trial in 1865.

Here is a short excerpt from Hanging Mary, as told by Mary Surratt’s boarder Nora Fitzpatrick:

So it came to be that on April 3, 1865, I was sitting by a soldier’s bed, reading to him from Les Misérables (a great favorite among the men), when one of the doctors, a most dignified and reserved man, ran into the ward, threw his hat into the air, and bellowed, “Richmond has fallen!”

There would be no more reading that day.

Some men cheered, and some men cried. Some began to pray, and others just sat in silence, not yet able to grasp the fact that the war at last was nearly at an end. I had been at school when it had started, and I could still remember the nuns gathering us together and praying for a quick end to it. Now, four Aprils later, their prayers were at last being answered.

I slipped out of the hospital and into a city that was going wild. Men were embracing each other in the street; men in uniform were being hoisted up and carried by cheering crowds. Clerks were abandoning their offices; shops were shutting. Who could sit at a desk or stand behind a counter on a day like this? The only people who seemed to be working were the newsboys, and all they had to do was stand still and pocket the money as the extras they held were snatched from their hands. Even if they had tried to shout, they wouldn’t have been heard through the salutes of guns, the ringing of church bells, and the bands that appeared as if out of nowhere to strike up “Yankee Doodle.”

***

I went upstairs and was reading in the parlor, Mr. Rochester purring in my lap, when Mrs. Surratt and her son went into her bedroom.

Presently, Mrs. Surratt emerged. “Nora, dear, do you have some cologne I can use for Johnny? His head is still pounding.”

I nodded and went into the bedroom, where Mr. Surratt was sprawled out on a sofa, looking rather Byronic. My cologne, straight from Paris, had been a Christmas gift from my father. I wore it on special occasions, such as to the theater—and,I confess, on my last few hospital visits to poor Private Flanagan. Once or twice, I had seen him sniff appreciatively.

After I pulled the cologne from my trunk, Mrs. Surratt dabbed some on Mr. Surratt’s temples with her handkerchief. “Try to rest a little, Son,” she said tenderly. “You have been wearing yourself to rags with your travels.”

We left Mr. Surratt alone on the sofa. An hour or so later, he emerged looking much refreshed and bounded upstairs. When he returned, he had Mr. Weichmann, still wearing the blue pants that had so offended Anna, in tow. “Weichmann and I are going for oysters.”

“Why, you just ate,” Anna said.

“Yes, but there’s nothing like destruction and doom to whet a man’s appetite for oysters. Don’t wait up for us, Ma.”

 

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