Phoebe Yates Pember Recalls the Fall of Richmond in April 1865
Phoebe Yates Pember was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1823. She married Thomas Pember of Boston in 1856. Soon after that, he contracted tuberculosis and the couple moved back to the south in the hope it would aid in his recovery, but in July of 1861, Thomas Pember died. Phoebe Pember then briefly moved back in with her family, at that time living in Marietta, Georgia, before she relocated to Richmond, Virginia.
In December 1862, Phoebe Pember accepted a position as matron of a division of Richmond’s huge Chimborazo Military Hospital. She served as both a nurse and hospital administrator for the rest of the war, caring for countless wounded and dying soldiers and keeping the hospital going despite wartime shortages of everything.
The end finally came in early April 1865, when Union cavalry overran the Confederate defenses at the Battle of Five Forks and General Robert E. Lee was compelled to abandon the siege line at Petersburg, south of Richmond, as well as the defenses of the Confederate capital. Though the Confederate government and many others left the city in the hope of escaping the Union Army, Phoebe Pember stayed and continued her duties at the hospital until Federal authorities assumed control of the facility. In her 1879 memoir, she wrote of her experiences during the war, including her eyewitness account of the Fall of Richmond:
On the 2nd of April, 1865, while the congregation of Dr. Minnegarode’s church in Richmond were listening to his Sunday sermon, a messenger entered and handed a telegram to Mr. Davis, then president of the Confederate States, who rose immediately, and without any visible signs of agitation or surprise, left the church. No alarm was exhibited by the congregation, though several members of the president’s staff followed him, till Dr. Minnegarode brought the service to an abrupt close, and informed his start[l]ed flock that the city would be evacuated shortly, and they would only exercise a proper degree of prudence by going home immediately, and preparing for the event. This announcement, although coming from such a reliable source, hardly availed to convince the Virginians that their beloved capital, assailed so often, defended so bravely, surrounded by fortifications on which the engineering talents of their best officers had been expended, was to be capitulated. Some months before, a small number admitted behind the vail [sic] of the temple had been apprised that the sacrifice was to be accomplished; that General Lee had again and again urged Mr. Davis to yield the Mecca of his heart to the interests of the Confederacy, and resign a city which required an army to hold it, and pickets to be posted from thirty to forty miles around it, weakening his depleted army; and again and again had the iron will triumphed, and the foe, beaten and discomfited, retired for fresh combinations and fresh troops.
But the hour had come, and the evacuation was only a question of time. Day and night had the whistle of cars proved to the anxious people that brigades were being moved to strengthen this point or defend that; and no one was able to say exactly where any portion of the army of Virginia was stationed. That Grant would made [sic] an effort to strike the Southside railroad–the main artery for the conveyance of food to the city–every one knew; and that General Lee would be able to meet the effort and check it, everybody hoped, and while this hope lasted there was no panic.
The telegram which reached Mr. Davis that Sunday morning, was to the effect that the enemy had struck, and on the weakest point of the Confederate lines. It told him to be prepared in event of the repulse failing. Two hours after came the fatal news that Grant had forced his way through, and that the city must instantly be evacuated, What is meant by that simple sentence “evacuation of the city” but few can imagine who have not experienced it. The officials of the various departments hurried to their offices, speedily packing up everything connected with the government. The quartermaster’s and commissary’s stores were thrown open and thousands of half-starved and half-clad people of Richmond rushed to the scene.
Delicate women tottered under the weight of hams, bags of coffee, flour and sugar. Invalided officers carried away articles of unaccustomed luxury for sick wives and children at home. Every vehicle was in requisition, commanding fabulous remuneration, and gold or silver the only currency accepted. The immense concourse of government employees, speculators, gamblers, strangers, pleasure and profit lovers of all kinds that had been attached to that great center, the Capital, were “packing,” while those who had determined to stay and await the chances of war, tried to look calmly on, and draw courage from their faith in the justness of their cause.
The wives and families of Mr. Davis and his cabinet had been sent away some weeks previously, so that no provision had been made for the transportation of any particular class of people. All the cars that could be collected were at the Fredericksburg depot, and by 3 o’clock P.M. the trains commenced to move. The scene at the station was of indescribable confusion. No one could afford to abandon any article of wear or household use, when going where they knew that nothing could be replaced. Baggage was as valuable as life, and life was represented there by wounded and sick officers and men, helpless women and children, for all who could be with army were at their post.
Hour after hour fled and still the work went on. The streets were strewn with torn papers, records and documents too burdensome to carry away, too important to be left for inspection, and people still thronged the thoroughfares, loaded with stores until then hoarded by the government and sutler shops.
The scream and rumble of the cars never ceased all that weary night, and was perhaps the most painful sound to those left behind, for all the rest of the city seemed flying; but while the center of Richmond was in the wildest confusion, so sudden had been the shock that the suburbs were quiet and even ignorant of the scenes enacting in the heart of the city. Events crowded so rapidly upon each other that no one had time to spread reports.
There was no change in the appearance of the surroundings till near midnight, when the school-ship, the Patrick Henry, formally the old United States ship Yorktown, was fired at the wharf at Rocketts (the
extreme eastern end of the city). The blowing up of her magazine seemed the signal for the work of destruction to commence. Explosions followed from all points. The warehouses and tobacco manufactories were fired, communicating the flames to adjacent houses and shops, and soon Main street was in a blaze. The armory, not intended to be burnt, either caught accidentally or was fired by mistake; the shells exploding and filling the air with hissing sounds of horror, menacing the people in every direction. Colonel Gorgas had endeavored to spike or destroy them by rolling them into the canal, and but for this precaution with the largest, the city would have been almost leveled to the dust.
No one slept during that night of horror, for added to the present scenes were the anticipations of what the morrow would bring forth. Daylight dawned upon a wreck of destruction and desolation. From the highest point of Church hill and Libby hill, the eye could range over the whole extent of city and country–the fire had not abated and the burning bridges were adding their flame and smoke to the scene. A single faint explosion could be heard from the distance at long intervals, but the Patrick Henry was low to the water’s edge, and Drewry but a column of smoke. The whistle of the cars and the rushing of the laden trains still continued–they had never ceased–and the cloud hung low and draped the scene as morning advanced.
Before the sun had risen, two carriages rolled along Main street, and passed through Rocketts just under Chimborazo hospital, carrying the mayor and corporation towards the Federal lines, to deliver the keys of the city, and half an hour afterwards, over to the east, a single Federal blue-jacket rose above the hill, standing transfixed with astonishment at what he saw. Another and another sprang up as if out of the earth, but still all remained quiet, About seven o’clock, there fell upon the ear the steady clatter of horses’ hoofs, and winding around Rocketts, close under Chimborazo hill, came a small and compact body of Federal cavalrymen, on horses in splendid condition, riding closely and steadily along. They were well mounted, well accoutered, well fed–a rare sight in Southern streets,–the advance of that vaunted army that for four years had so hopelessly knocked at the gates of the Southern Confederacy.
They were at some distance in advance of the infantry who followed, quite as well appointed and accoutered as the cavalry. Company after company, regiment after regiment, battalion and battalion, and brigade after brigade, they poured into the doomed city–an endless stream. One detachment separated from the main body and marching to Battery No. 2, raised the United States flag, their band playing the Star Spangled Banner. There they stacked their arms. The rest marched along Main street through fire and smoke, over burning fragments of buildings, emerging at times like a phantom army when the wind lifted the dark clouds; while the colored population shouted and cheered them on their way.
Phoebe Yates Pember, A Southern Woman’s Story