Gettysburg and the End of the War, Part 1 – The Fall of Richmond
Updated: Apr 21
This is the first in a three-part series which focuses on reactions in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the end of the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. As the site of the costliest battle of the entire conflict in July 1863, the Adams County seat felt its effects more directly than any other town in the Keystone State. These entries examine Gettysburgians’ and associated soldiers’ feelings on the effective culmination of the rebellion through three events—the fall of Richmond, the surrender at Appomattox, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
When writing about his Civil War experience in 1903, Brevet Maj. Gen. St. Clair Mulholland, former colonel of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, recalled that 40 years earlier, “Gettysburg became the victory that marked the beginning of the end of the war.” But it was not this south-central Pennsylvania battlefield and its effects that delivered his most profound wartime memories. That distinction belonged to news he received on a spring day nearly two years later.
“There are hours in the life of all men that are filled with a joy so great that nothing can add to or increase it,” Mulholland recalled. “The morning of April 3d, 1865, was an occasion of this nature, giving to each and every tired and weary soldier a meed of happiness and a thrill of joyful emotion the like [sic] of which he might never experience again. ‘Richmond and Petersburg taken and the Confederate Army in full retreat’ was the news that flashed through the ranks.” After ten months of siege around Petersburg, Virginia, United States forces had finally broken through enemy lines on April 2, opening the door to a newly evacuated Richmond, set afire by fleeing Confederate sympathizers. “Thus the great capital of treason and rebellion, which had defied the Union army for four years fell,” recalled Bvt. Maj. Penrose Mark of the 93rd Pennsylvania. “Richmond and Petersburg were now captured; hundreds of guns and thousands of prisoners taken; [Robert E.] Lee’s army demoralized, shattered, broken and driven to the four winds.”
The 11th Pennsylvania (a famous Battle of Gettysburg regiment known for its canine mascot, Sallie) was encamped near Petersburg on April 4. Chaplain William Henry Locke noted, “it was not until this morning that we knew of the successful storming of its outer defenses, and the compression of our lines around the city. It was while the men were waiting for the order to fall into ranks, that a deep and prolonged cheer came rolling along the line of troops, like the swellings of a tornado, telling that Petersburg and Richmond were both evacuated, and that the whole rebel army was in precipitate retreat....If the quartermaster...had issued to each man of the regiment a new pair of legs, they could not have marched forth with a more supple step.”
Amid the Union troops were, “Scores of stragglers from the Southern army, and multitudes of contrabands, who had lost their masters,” wrote Locke, who overheard a newly freed man named Harvey remark to “a group of darkies” gathered around him, “‘I feels better to-night than I did after that fight at Gettysburg....That was a mighty warm place, I tell you.’” In hindsight, when Harvey learned “‘de Johnnies is gitting whipt’” at Gettysburg, “‘I felt good then’”—but in light of the fall of Richmond and the looming defeat of his former enslavers, he added, “‘I feels a heap better now.’” It was also April 4 when Gettysburg residents first read about the martial developments in their local press. A headline in the Adams Sentinel screamed, “Glorious News! PETERSBURG & RICHMOND CAPTURED! TWELVE THOUSAND PRISONERS AND FIFTY CANNON TAKEN!” The paper detailed the movements of belligerents, the “telegraphic despatch[es]” (sic) of major commanders, and the response of Abraham Lincoln, who visited the front lines in Petersburg on April 3, and entered Richmond on April 4—a scene which must have sounded familiar in Gettysburg, a town and battlefield the president had previously toured on November 18 and 19, 1863. Overall Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. “Grant is pushing on after Lee, who is in full retreat...,” the Sentinel lauded. “Our town was quite jubilant last evening over the glorious intelligence. The flags, the ringing of bells, the firing of salutes, bonefires [sic], and the cheering of the crowds, were evidences of the general rejoicing. We shall be now daily in receipt of stirring news.”
Local soldiers serving in Virginia wrote personal stories to family members in Gettysburg, which were, in turn, published in their hometown papers. “The unanimous testimony of officers who were in the fight...in front of Petersburg, is, that the Rebel soldiers do not fight with any heart or zeal, but on the contrary, when outside of their earthworks, are evidently more intent on being captured than using their arms,” according to the Sentinel. “They surrender by companies and regiments on the first suspicion of being flanked, and, in short, the fight is entirely taken out of them.”
“After their capture a large number of prisoners requested permission to take the oath, so that they need not be subjected to an exchange,” the Sentinel continued. “The revelation of the feelings and dispositions of the soldiers of his pet army must have convinced General Lee, if nothing else would, of the hopelessness of further efforts to sustain the Rebel cause.” In another story published a week later on April 11, the Sentinel reported (in a slightly sarcastic tone in a few instances): “One of our brave boys, who was at the capture of Petersburg and Richmond, sent us copies of the Richmond ‘Whig’ and ‘Dispatch,’ of the 1st of April, the last issue by the Rebels before their flight. They were of interest under the glorious events which have characterized the past week. They have disappeared from our table, much to our regret, through the kindness of some one who took advantage of our absence to ‘hook’ them. We hope they will let the neighbors see them, as we intended to do.”
Not all Gettysburgians felt positive coverage of the fall of Richmond was entirely necessary, however. The conservative Compiler, for instance, likely disagreed with veteran Penrose Mark’s observation that “Washington gave us a country, but this day’s victory made it free.” Rather, the Democratic-backed paper chose to align itself more with Cpl. John Smith of the 118th Pennsylvania, who stated, “The news was received incredulously....But enough had transpired to warrant a reasonable exaggeration.” While the Compiler acknowledged, “Great Victory. RICHMOND HAS FALLEN! PETERSBURG EVACUATED! 15,000 Prisoners and 60 Guns Captured!” the remainder of the article which fell under that headline was a syndicated reprint, devoid of local editorializing on the U.S. triumph over a long-despised foe. Instead, the periodical used the occasion to promote the political ideal of accepting peace without punishment, and proceeded to lecture against Republicans, abolitionists, Lincoln, and African American soldiers. (Compiler editor Henry Stahle, a known white supremacist, had once been accused of “hatching treason” for conversing with Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Gettysburg, and was subsequently imprisoned for a brief period at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.)
“NOW FOR PEACE,” announced the Compiler on April 10. “The fall of the capital of the Southern Confederacy renders this, of all others, the time for those in power to act as statesmen and patriots....Will this be done?” the periodical pondered. “For the sake of humanity and the welfare of our common country, we devoutly hope so. Let us have practical efforts in this hour of triumph, if we really wish for peace and the restoration of the Union. The people are in earnest; let our rulers be honest.”
Subsequently, the Compiler inquired, “WHO OPPOSE PEACE?” The paper answered its own rhetorical question by proclaiming, “There are two classes of men who stand in the way of peace—and both have influence with President Lincoln. The first are the fanatics—the political madmen—who, for the sake of having their negro equality theories fully tested, are willing to have the war continued in the most bloody form.” The second were “those who are taking money out of the war, either directly or indirectly....They are manufacturers, contractors, shoddyites of all classes and descriptions, and Government officials.—Combined they constitute a vast and powerful body.”
“The one would help to crush the lives of millions beneath the Juggernaut of war to gratify its malignant hate,” the Compiler boasted; “the other would gladly continue to distill the blood of the people into gold, with which to fill its craving coffers.” The conservative weekly used its Richmond and Petersburg coverage to make partisan attacks, not against the Confederacy, but against its own Northern opposition, including “leading men,” who, “while not willing to grant the negroes entire social equality, are anxious that he should be allowed to vote.” The Compiler went so far as to editorialize that Republicans were “perfectly sure” that they might be “hurled from office so soon as the war is over,” and were thus “utterly opposed to offering any terms of peace to the South”—“unless in the meantime they can confer the right of voting upon the negro.”
“How long will the people consent to suffer and bleed, that fanaticism and avarice may be gratified?” the Compiler demanded. “Is it not the veriest mockery in the world for any people to call themselves free, while all they hold most dear is made to depend upon the caprices of a set of fanatics, or the avaricious desires of those who are coining money out of their country’s misfortunes, and growing rich upon the miseries of the populace?” The Compiler had another complaint, as well.
Several thousand U.S. Colored Troops in the 25th Corps of Maj. Gen. Godrey Weitzel (a German immigrant who eventually resided in Philadelphia) were the first Federal service members to enter the fallen Confederate capital. The Philadelphia Inquirer celebrated “that the great act of retribution of the nineteenth century had been accomplished by the victorious entry of negro soldiers into Richmond.” The formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass, an army recruiter who spoke several times in eastern Pennsylvania during the war, hailed, “when an American asks me any questions concerning my race, what they ever did...my answer will be, that the first soldiers who entered the long-beleaguered and long-desired city of Richmond, on the heels of the retreating rebels, were black soldiers.”
In response to this increasingly popular theme, the Compiler resisted. ““It is an outrage upon the white Union veterans, who did all the hard fighting in front of Petersburg, and compelled the evacuation of that place and the abandonment of Richmond by the rebels, to say that the rebel capital was captured by the negro troops—as a number of Abolition newspapers were saying on Tuesday,” the paper expounded. “It affords many Abolition politicians immense satisfaction when they can steal the laurels from the brows of brave Northern white soldiers to decorate the grizzled occiputs [back part of the skull] of the colored pets.” (This pontification was a sign of things to come, as Stahle’s periodical espoused more virulent and racist attacks in the Reconstruction-era years to come.)
While Gettysburg was divided in its reactions to what exactly the fall of Richmond meant, more objectively positive news flashed across the wires a few days later.
Part 2 of this series focuses on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It is available here.
 St. Clair A. Mulholland, The Story of the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion (Philadelphia: F. McManus, Jr. & Co., 1903), 132, 141.  Mulholland, The Story of the 116th Regiment, 339.  Penrose G. Mark, Red: White: and Blue Badge. Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. A History of the 93rd Regiment, known as the ‘Lebanon Infantry’ and ‘One of the 300 Fighting Regiments’ from September 12th, 1861 to June 27th, 1865 (Harrisburg, PA: Aughinbaugh Press, 1911), 326.  William Henry Locke, The Story of the Regiment (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1868), 393-396.  “Glorious News!” Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA), April 4, 1865, 3.  Adams Sentinel, April 4, 1865, 3.  Adams Sentinel, April 4, 1865, 2.  Adams Sentinel, April 11, 1865, 2.  Mark, Red: White: and Blue Badge, 326; Survivors Association, History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Philadelphia: J.L. Smith, 1888), 583-584.  “NOW FOR PEACE,” Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), April 10, 1865, 2; W.W. Goldsborough, The Maryland Line in the Confederate States Army (Baltimore: Kelly, Piet & Company, 1869), 138.  “NOW FOR PEACE,” Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), April 10, 1865, 2.  “WHO OPPOSE PEACE?” Compiler, April 10, 1865, 2.  “The Great News in Philadelphia,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 4, 1865, 8; Frederick Douglass speech, April 4, 1865, “PUBLIC MEETING IN FANEUIL HALL,” Liberator (Boston, MA), April 7, 1865, 54.  Compiler, April 10, 1865, 2.