- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

This magnetic book, filled with authentic cries and tears of suffering people, tells the story of a true tragedy a fall from a high place caused by pride.
Nelson Lankford, who edits the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, lays out in his sure, slow and linear way the onrushing story of a great city's death by arms and by fire, and even, it would seem, by heavenly retribution and self-destruction. It is the fall of Richmond in April 1865, the death knell of the Confederacy, and the distillation in a few spring days of all the hatred, the hope and turmoil of our dreadful Civil War.
It is as if the war had dragged on and on, to these Richmonders, until they were used to the short rations, the lack of luxuries, the growing load of bad military news, and yet nothing happened. Isolated in the capital and almost surrounded by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's forces, their lives were almost normal for a nation on the losing side of a great war.
Then, in these few days of spring, the end comes, not quietly, but like a hurricane of violence and chance. All had foretold it, but when it happened, no one could really believe it was happening to them.
Destruction begins with the first tiny leak in a dam, the first loose bolt in the machine, the first tiny crack in the weld. This is how, in loving, ominous detail, Mr. Lankford, last known for his fine biography of diplomat David K.E. Bruce, "The Last Aristocrat," shows the hour-by-hour struggle of a city, its leaders and its commoners as they are first faced with invasion, then with the departure of the city's defending forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and then the cataclysmic fire that destroyed the heart of the city's business district even as the hated Federal forces were entering unopposed.
It is a beginning, in Mr. Lankford's telling, of near normalcy, of weddings and legislative arguments, trade and domesticity. But it is an end of smoking ruin, penetration, debauchery, and looting and prostration. Those who lived through it felt their lives marked forever.
Yet many cities have been conquered, and many have been destroyed far more thoroughly than was Richmond. After all, there was no battle for the capital, and no artillery bombardment to topple its buildings, no house-to-house fighting. Yet the combination of Lee's departure, made a military necessity by the failure of the last Confederate offensive at Petersburg, plus the terrible fire seemed to add a moral weight to events that crushed the spirit of the city.
That fire's exact point of origin, of course, is still disputed. Mr. Lankford's thorough research shows it was started by the city's last defenders, the leaders who dutifully followed Lee's orders to leave nothing valuable for the Federal forces' benefit. Thus, they broached and destroyed thousands of gallons of spirits, whisky and rum, and set on fire the tobacco stored at Shockoe and Van Gronin's warehouses, as well as the Mayo Bridge across the James.
An ill wind seems to have done the rest that night, and the fire raged unchecked as a mob of looters, scooping up the liquor running in the streets, saw their chance and descended on downtown, effectively ending all semblance of control and order. At the same time, the scene of perfect bedlam was reinforced by mighty explosions as the remnants of the Confederate navy ironclads in the navigable James were blown sky high following the scorched-earth policy.
Not only lives and property were lost that night, but history, too, Mr. Lankford points out. As drunken mobs and freed slaves moved through the city, they tore apart the Legislature, scattering books and records. The fire destroyed insurance records and much else. When President Abraham Lincoln made his surprise visit to the ruined city a few days later, the streets still swirled with official documents, Confederate bonds, Confederate note and bank checks, deeds and pamphlets "so worthless that the boys would not pick them up," Mr. Lankford writes.
Events accelerate. Lincoln visits, the Federal forces take over, Lee surrenders at Appomattox, Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre. It all took place in the space of a couple of weeks; the events, to contemporaries, were simply too overwhelming to understand.
Yet by midsummer, the same city resounded with the sound of carpenters' saws and the clink of new brick being hoisted into place. Richmond suffered, but it did not die. The author follows the various threads of his story in politics, business and civil affairs through to their natural resting point. His tale is done, complete.
This is exactly why this fine book deserves a wide readership. In a climactic time of American history, Mr. Lankford holds his magnifying glass to a few days and to many people, all of them witnesses or parties to the action. This is modern history telling at its best.

Duncan C. Spencer is a Washington writer.


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