One hundred-fifty years ago today — and tomorrow — most of the core of Richmond, Virginia was consumed in flame. We tend to romanticize the past and we can catastrophize our present. From a homeland security perspective our current situation is much less dire than the context reported below, even as the Union was successfully reclaimed. This is a transcript from the Richmond Whig reported in The New York Times.
The evacuation of Richmond commenced in earnest Sunday night, closed at daylight on Monday morning with a terrific conflagration, which, was kindled by the Confederate authorities wantonly and recklessly applying the torch to Shockoe warehouse and other buildings in which was stored a large quantity of tobacco. The fire spread rapidly, and it was some time before the Fire Brigade could be gotten to work. A fresh breeze was blowing from the south, and the fire swept over great space in an incredible short space of time. By noon the flames had transformed into a desert waste that portion of the city bounded between Seventh and Fifteenth streets, from Main-street to the river, comprising the main business portion. We can form no estimate at this moment of the number of houses destroyed, but public and private they will certainly number six or eight hundred.
At present we cannot do more than enumerate some of the most prominent buildings destroyed. These include the Bank of Richmond, Traders’ Bank, Bank of the Commonwealth, Bank of Virginia, Farmers’ Bank, all the banking houses, the American Hotel, the Columbian Hotel, the Enquirer building on Twelfth-street, the Dispatch Office and job rooms, corner of Thirteenth and Main streets; all that block of buildings known as Devlin’s Block; the Examiner Office, engine and machinery rooms; the Confederate Post-office Department building; the State Court-house; a fine old building situated on Capitol-square, at its Franklin-street entrance; the Mechanics’ Institute, vacated by the Confederate States War Department, and all the buildings on that square up to Eighth-street and back to Main-street; the confederate arsenal and laboratory, Seventh-street.
At sunrise on Monday morning Richmond presented a spectacle that we hope never to witness again. The last of the Confederate officials had gone; the air was lurid with the smoke and flame of hundreds of houses weltering in a sea of fire.
The streets were crowded with furniture and every description of wares, dashed down to be trampled in the mud or burned up where it lay. All the government storehouses were thrown open, and what could not be gotten off by the government was left to the people, who, everywhere ahead of the flames, rushed in, and secured immense amounts of bacon, clothing, boots, &c.
Next to the river, the destruction of property has been fearfully complete. The Danville and Petersburgh Railroad depots, and the buildings and shedding attached thereto, for the distance of half a mile from the north side of Main-street to the river, and between Eighth and Fifteenth streets, embracing upward of twenty blocks, presents one waste of smoking ruins, blackened walls and smoking chimnies.
After the surrender of the city, and its occupation by Gen. WEITZEL, about 10 o’clock, vigorous efforts were set on foot to stop the progress of the flames. The soldiers reinforced the fire brigade, and labored nobly, and with great success. The flames east on Main-street, were checked by the blowing up of the Traders’ Bank about noon.
The flames gradually died out at various points as material failed for them to feed upon; but in particular localities the work of destruction went on until towards 3 or four o’clock, when the mastery of the flames was obtained, and Richmond was safe from utter desolation.
We regret to learn that a serious loss of life resulted from the blowing up of the powder magazine on the suburbs early on Monday morning. The shock was tremendous, jarring every house in the city, extinguishing the gas, and breaking a great quantity of glass in dwellings…. From that moment law and order ceased to exist; chaos came, and a Pandemonium reigned. MORE