Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his father
H.Q. 5th Mass. Cav’y, Sutherland St., near
Petersburg, April 10, 1865
Grant’s great movement was already under way and General Weitzel, to whom I reported, ordered me to get out to the front with no delay. The regiment was unarmed, lumbered up with surplus baggage and all disorganized by the rapid move from an old, permanent camp. Arms were to be drawn, stores turned in and the regiment forced to the front in a moment. To add to the trouble it rained incessantly all the two next days — bad enough for me; but that was nothing compared with the anxiety we all felt for the jeopardy in which the grand movement was placed. Thoroughly wet and knee deep in mud the work went on somehow and every official gave us all possible aid. Wagons, animals and arms were procured somehow. I went out to the front and selected a camp and the morning after I landed sent out one battalion. Friday noon it cleared away.
Meanwhile confusion in affairs regimental had become worse confounded and it needed all the head I had to keep things straight at all; but keeping cool and the assistance of first rate officers brought things round and Friday evening, having got ten companies sent forward, I broke up the receiving camp and moved out to the front. Here, in the deserted camp of the 1st N.Y. I found myself very comfortable on Saturday night, and the next evening the balance of the regiment arrived, and once more we were all together. I now found myself in command of all the Cavalry detachments north of the James — some two thousand men in all, of whom about 1000 were mounted. All Sunday reports of Grant’s successes were coming in and we were anxious and expectant. I felt sure that Richmond would be abandoned as Atlanta had been, but Generals Weitzel and Devens treated my suggestion to that effect so lightly that they quite put me out of conceit with it. However, the day, bright and warm, passed away and at night orders came to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. The miscellaneous Brigade of which I had charge was the hardest body to handle of which I had any experience, being made up of all sorts of detachments and being without any staff or organization. I went to bed anxious, weary and disgusted enough.
At dawn I received a dispatch from my picket line that the enemy was not to be seen, and immediately after an order to move my command to the Darbytown road “and there await further orders.” Then came vexations, for, without a staff, I had to get a column in motion. At seven o’clock, after fretting, fuming and chafing for an hour, I had the satisfaction of getting in motion at last. I had about one thousand mounted men and a battery. I got out to the Darbytown road, and by this time heavy explosions were heard towards Richmond, like the sound of heavy, distant fighting. Finding the enemy’s lines deserted and no orders coming I concluded something was up and it was best to push ahead; so we went through the lines and took the Richmond road. Then came an exciting march, not without vexations; but nine o’clock found me in the suburbs of Richmond. Of my march through the city I have written the details to John and he will doubtless forward the letter to you. I am still confounded at the good fortune which brought me there. To have led my regiment into Richmond at the moment of its capture is the one event which I should most have desired as the culmination of my life in the Army. That honor has been mine and now I feel as if my record in this war was rounded and completely filled out.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we lay near Richmond picketing all the roads. My impressions of the city and its people I sent to John; but I also had to ride round a portion of the line of defences, crossing the celebrated Chickahominy swamp and visiting the scene of McClellan’s old operations. The rebel earthworks are the strongest I ever saw and the city is wonderfully defensible. There, at last, however were those works, the guns still mounted and unspiked, with the ammunition beside them, taken at last without the loss of a man, flanked by great marches in Georgia.
Thursday afternoon I was surprised by an order to report with my regiment to General Hartsuff in Petersburg. I called in my pickets and made a moonlight flitting, leaving my camp at midnight. The regiment marched through Richmond at ten o’clock and found that conquered city quiet and silent as a graveyard. I believe I saw but one living being in the streets — a single sentry on his beat and I did not hear a sound. In fact all through the occupation the behavior of our Army has been wonderful. I have not seen or heard of any riot, blood-shed or violence. Of drunkenness there necessarily was a great deal; for, with an insane idea of propitiating our soldiers, the citizens actually forced liquor on them in the streets; but now those two cities are as quiet and orderly as any cities of the North. As for the usual scenes which have accompanied such captures abroad, there were absolutely none of them.
We found the slaves and the poor whites pillaging freely, but that was put a stop to and the soldiers, so far as I could see, behaved admirably. I got to Petersburg at nine o’clock and reported to General Hartsuff. He gave me until next morning to get the regiment together and rest it, and then sent me out here to cover the South Side Railroad.
Here I am on classic ground and see a good deal of the inhabitants. The rumor today is that Lee has surrendered. If this is so the fighting is over. Johnston must follow suit and there will hardly be another skirmish. Even if the rumor is false, however, I am persuaded the war is really over. For the first time I see the spirit of the Virginians, since these last two battles, completely broken; the whole people are cowed —whipped out. Every one is now taking the oath of allegiance. By the first of June you will not be able in these parts to find any confederates. The war is really over. These indications are new to me. In all former times these people might be broken, but they would not bend. Now they cower right down before us.
My present line runs right through both camps of the two armies. It is a curious region of desolation. I have ridden all through it and it seems to have been swept with the besom of destruction. All landmarks are defaced, not only trees and fences, but even the houses and roads. It is one broad tract, far as the eye can reach, dotted here and there with clumps of trees which mark the spot where some Head Quarters stood, and for the rest covered with a thick stubble of stumps of the pine. You ride through mile after mile of deserted huts, marking the encampments of armies, and over roads now leading from nowhere, nowhither. Large houses are gone so that even their foundations can no longer be discovered. Forts, rifle-pits and abattis spring up in every direction, and in front of Petersburg the whole soil is actually burrowed and furrowed beyond the power of words to describe. There it all is, freshly deserted and as silent as death; but it will be years and years before the scars of war disappear from this soil, for nature must bring forth new trees and a new race of men must erect other habitations.
So much for my experiences, so far in the most interesting bit of campaigning it has yet been my fate to take part in. As you will imagine I have been and am happy and contented enough. This continual change and movement, without the crush and drive of a fierce campaign, is most delightful. It is also most fortunate; for to have been forced into the field at once would have utterly ruined my regiment. As it is, it has now an excellent chance. In a word, my usual good fortune has accompanied me. I seem once more to have landed on my feet in just the right moment and at just the right place. . . .