Hasty surrender leaves a lasting legacy


It was with no small amount of trepidation that Richmond mayor Joseph Mayo set out toward Osborne Turnpike in Eastern Henrico County at daybreak on April 3, 1865.

The day before, as Confederate lines around Petersburg continued to dissolve in the face of Union assaults, Gen. Robert E. Lee had sent a message to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight,” wrote Lee.

Receiving the message while at Sunday worship, Davis slipped quietly out of church, and evacuation plans began. Troops were told to set fire to all cotton, tobacco, and munitions warehouses to keep them from falling into Federal hands. The city council appointed a committee to accompany Mayor Mayo on an impromptu carriage ride so that he could surrender to Union forces east of Richmond.

Unfortunately, Mayo didn’t know who was in command of those forces.

As Nelson Lankford tells the story in his book Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, Mayo went in search of the Union commander with only a vaguely addressed document bearing the words “The General Commanding the Army of the United States in front of the City of Richmond.”

Mayo could only hope that by the time he reached the line of trenches along Osborne Turnpike, about two miles out, he would find the commander and complete his errand.

Meanwhile, outside the city, Federal troops had spotted smoke rising over Richmond and discovered empty tents abandoned by Confederates in withdrawal. Major Atherton Stevens prepared to march into town, leading a detachment of about 40 men from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry up Osborne Turnpike.

Near the junction of the turnpike with New Market Road, Stevens met the mayor’s carriage, and Mayo handed him the surrender note near a tree that still stands today. The act ranks No. 20 on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico history.

“A native of Cambridge, Mass., Stevens had turned 39 the day before,” writes Lankford. “Receiving the note surrendering the Confederate capital was a welcome belated birthday present.” Stevens accepted the note and told the mayor that he would forward it to his commander, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel.

“Imagine Mayo’s relief,” wrote Lankford, “when Stevens assured him that the U.S. Army intended to protect the people and property.”

As the mayor and his escorts returned to the city, Stevens and his party also continued toward Richmond by way of Rocketts Landing, where President Abraham Lincoln would land next day. Not far behind rode General Weitzel and his staff.

Only 30 years old himself, Weitzel had attended West Point during the time that Robert E. Lee was superintendent of the Academy and had spent many an hour at Lee’s home there. Having given the order that his brigade was to lead the division into the city, Weitzel passed ahead of his infantry columns along Osborne Turnpike – to loud cheers from the troops.

For days afterwards, Lankford wrote, the hot topic in northern newspapers was which Union regiment reached Richmond first. Some accounts said that soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops headed the columns entering the city.

Thomas Chester, an African American journalist who marched with the USCT, supported the claims of black troops who said they were first over the city line. In Washington, Gen. Benjamin Butler told a crowd it that it was “divine retribution” that black soldiers were first to liberate Richmond.

Lankford, however, suspects that the colored troops, like everyone else, were halted while still on the outskirts of town.

“Despite the sense of poetic justice that story represented to many northerners,” he wrote, “it probably was exaggeration.”

Among the soldiers who paused at Tree Hill Farm (owned by Unionist Franklin Stearns) were members of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers. From their perch above the city, they had a view of Richmond burning. Many of them – “aware that they were witnessing history in the making,” noted Lankford – took advantage of the wait to pen letters home.

“The sergeant wrote his on a sheet torn from a ledger book left by a Georgia regiment,” Lankford wrote. “His companions found a peacock and cut off its tail to send feathers home as mementos in their letters.”

At 8:15 a.m. at City Hall, Weitzel formally accepted the terms of surrender from Mayo. He ordered his troops to put out the fires, and, upon learning that Mrs. Lee was in her residence on Franklin St., sent a guard to protect her. His famous telegram, dispatched to General Ulysses S.Grant soon afterwards, began, “We entered Richmond at a quarter past eight this morning. . .”

Within hours, Lankford wrote, the first “tourists” appeared on the scene, steaming up the James from Norfolk and reaching Varina landing at dawn Tuesday. Leading the unauthorized visit was David Farragut, who brought several of his officers and their wives.

A number of souvenirs from the Jefferson Davis residence went home with the Norfolk party. But it was Emma Doane, wife of the ship’s purser, who apparently captured the biggest prize: the surrender note.

Long before the Civil War, Tree Hill already had been notable as one of the largest early plantations. During the post-Revolutionary War period it became a center of horse racing in the area and was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825.

With the surrender of Richmond, however, Tree Hill gained another measure of fame. As Lankford noted, “Although there were two surrenders, and the second one [at City Hall] was the formal ceremony, the more important event was the hurried surrender when Mayo rode out to meet Union soldiers east of the Capitol in Henrico.”

On Sept. 24, 2011, Henrico County will celebrate its 400th anniversary year with an encampment and exhibits at Tree Hill Farm, 6404 Osborne Turnpike. The event will include living history demonstrations and exhibits, and a ceremony to honor those who were Medal of Honor recipients for valor on Henrico soil. For details, visit Henrico400th.com.
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