1862: “Better Die Here…”

May 14th – Our army has fallen back to within four miles of Richmond. Much anxiety is felt for the fate of the city. Is there no turning point in this long lane of downward progress? Truly it may be said, our affairs at this moment are in a critical condition. I trust in God, and the chivalry and patriotism of the South in the field.

The enemy’s fleet of gun-boats are ascending James River, and the obstructions are not completed. We have but one or two casemated guns in battery, but we have brave men there.

May 16th. – McClellan is intrenching [entrenching] – that is, at least, significant of a respite, and of apprehension of attack.

May 18th. – All quite today except the huzzas [huzzahs] as fresh troops arrive.

May 19th. – We await the issue before Richmond. It is still believed by many that it is the intention of the government and generals to evacuate the city. If the enemy were to appear in force on the south side, and another force were to march on us from Fredericksburg, we should be inevitably taken, in the event of the loss of a battle – an event I don’t anticipate. Army, government, and all, might, it is true, be involved in a common ruin. Wrote as strong a letter as I could to the President, stating what I have every reason to believe would the consequences of the abandonment of Richmond. There would demoralization and even insubordination in the army. Better die here!

Excerpts from John B. Jones Diary, a CSA war department clerk

McClellan At The Gates

Well, George McClellan finally started moving up the Virginia Peninsula. After the “siege” of Yorktown, the Confederates got outflanked along the Williamsburg line and retreated closer to Richmond. McClellan had established large supply bases, and the Southerners believed he was ready to bring up his large siege guns to attack the city. Most of the river was also in Union control, leaving the Confederates with limited defense options and without enough troops to launch a coordinated offensive movement.

However, miles away from Richmond, the Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley under the commander of General “Stonewall” Jackson fought back in May, scaring Lincoln and the leaders in Washington. They ordered the Union troops near Fredericksburg, Virginia, to stay put and not reinforce McClellan, leaving him to extend his lines to the into the Chickahominy area.

The delays to dig trenches and develop siege plans – along with the new line extensions toward the end of May – set up the situation for McClellan at the gates of Richmond. Unfortunately, for the Union commander, his delays would work against him and in the late weeks he would also fight a new Confederate commanders and reinforcements.

1862 illustration of Richmond

Evacuate or Fight?

In mid-May, the civilians in Richmond had to make a decision. Did they trust their defenders or did they want to relocate to a “safer” location? Not all civilians could move, but some did leave. President Jefferson Davis sent his family out of the city and made preliminary preparations for the government evacuation.

Jones – like others, both military and civilian – wondered what would happen if the Confederate government left Richmond. Where could it go? What would that action do to morale? If the government stayed in the capital, they would gamble that the Confederate army could defend the capital or launch attacks against McClellan. With the gradual arrival of troops and McClellan’s continued delays, hope started to rise, but there were still risks.

White House of the Confederacy where Jones wouldve sent his opinionated letter to Jefferson Davis

The clerk who kept the journal clearly believed evacuation wasn’t the answer. He thought the military could hold the city. He also believed that Richmond was the place to make a life or death stand for the Confederacy. If the capital was the defensive point, there would be significant fighting factor for the soldiers. If Richmond was abandoned, Jones argued, what would the army defend? He said – stay, fight, conquer – or die…but don’t abandon the city.

Historical Musings

I trust in God, and the chivalry and patriotism of the South in the field.

Trust in God becomes a common theme in Southern writings, regarding the 1862 defense of Richmond. (Remember, the mid-19th Century is a very religious era in America.)

However, “chivalry and patriotism” is what stands out to me. Chivalry isn’t the word I’d pick to describe the muddy, weary soldiers who waited in the defenses or gathered as reinforcements. But then I wasn’t there. Did they want to be called chivalrous? Common soldiers probably didn’t care much about chivalry idealism, but it continued in the thinking of some officers. Chivalry would get a boost with the actions of Confederate cavalry commander General J.E.B. Stuart in the coming weeks.

Richmond and the coming battles for the city became a poster-perfect mix of the idealism and reality of the Confederacy. Some wanted to be courageous “knights” carrying out daring feats. Others slogged through the mud -fighting, retreating, regrouping. All defended Richmond – the Confederate capital, but the experiences and ideals were different, almost as varied as the individual soldiers.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What might have happened if the Confederate government had abandoned Richmond?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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