April 2, 1865, from a vantage point within the Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond

Posted on April 2, 2015 by


Taking the time to read various works of fiction from the antebellum period (and shortly after the war), one comes to understand that, quite often, the authors of these works were writing accounts of their own experiences. Mary Tucker Magill was one of those authors. Interestingly, in 1886, Magill’s story (which had originally appeared in the New York Independent) of the fall of Richmond made its rounds in a good number of newspapers. I transcribed part of this account for a post from last week. The most commonly “syndicated” part of that story, however, focuses on April 2, 1865, and was a condensed version of what Magill had published 15 years earlier, in her book, Women, Or, Chronicles of the Late War. Whether she embellished her experiences in any way or not, it’s still an excellent read.

The following is the “uncut version”, as transcribed from Magill’s book:

SILENTLY yet surely the day was striding on, big with the fate of the Southern cause, while rocked in false security the people dreamed not of its approach. They stopped their cars to warning voices, and willfully closed their eyes to the truth, and went on laughing and singing on the very brink of destruction; and when at last the blast sounded the knell of hope and faith and happiness.

Never did the sun shine more brilliantly than upon the morning of the 2d of April 1865, and never did it shine upon a people more unconscious of the fate that day had in store for them.

It was the Sabbath, and the sound of the bells ringing out the “call to prayer,” broke sweetly upon the stillness, and the people in glad obedience to the summons poured into the churches.

“What news?” asked one friend of another in passing greeting.

“All quiet,” was the answer; “not even ‘Sunday rumors’ this morning. The croakers look peaceful, and were undisturbed by the shots along the lines a few hours since. I did see some stragglers looking at the bulletin board as I passed, but I did not stop.”

“Ah!” answered the other, “officers of the Commissary Department say Richmond made a narrow escape a few weeks since; but she was near being starved out. But all this stir has roused the people at last, and they have been crowding provisions into the city, and I was assured this morning by Captain H— that we had not been so safe for months.”

“Oh yes, it’s very cheering,” said his friend. “I never have had any doubt of our success, and I think the other side must be pretty well convinced that we never intend to give up. We have given them a specimen of our invincible determination.”

And they passed on into the churches, and heard not the voices everywhere crying, “Blind! blind! blind!” for even now the messengers were speeding onward with the awakening tidings.

It was the Sabbath for the administration of the Holy Communion at St. Paul’s Church, and President Davis went up with the rest of the people of God to lay his burden of care at the foot of the Cross; but before the time for that service arrived, a soft-footed messenger sought him out and handed him a note. He glanced at it, and had not the congregation been devoutly attentive to their religious duties they might have seen a sudden spasm cross his pale face, and with faltering steps he left the church.

The note was from General Lee, conveying the intelligence that Richmond was no longer tenable!

At the [Second] Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. [Moses D.] Hoge held the attention of his people in the strong grasp of his eloquence, so that they scarcely noted the summons which withdrew one member and another of the congregation from the church, first the Mayor of the city, then the Medical Director. The Rev. Doctor had finished his discourse and fervently commended his people to God, and was in the act of reading the closing hymn, when the sexton handed him a note. Thinking it some notice to be read, he laid it beside him a moment while he finished the hymn, and then in the act of turning to his seat, opened it. In a second, before the choir had time to sound the first note of praise, he turned back again, and those who saw him then can never forget the change which that one moment had wrought. Winters of sorrow seemed to have rolled over his soul.

So terrific was the transition, that as his congregation caught his expression they arose as one man to their feet, and waited with suspended shriek upon their lips to hear the doom. It was delayed a moment while the minister struggled for utterance, and then the voice came shaking and quavering, and broken with the agony which overwhelmed him, and in the terrible silence they heard:

“My dear friends, I have just received news; news which wrings my heart for myself, for you, and for your children; news which makes it improbable that I will meet you in this house again for a long time. I thank you for your unfailing kindness and love, which have brightened my life. Farewell; go quietly to your homes, and remember amidst these waves of sorrow that your Father holds the helm.” He then pronounced the benediction.

There is a grief which scorches the tear-drops ere they fall; and the great groan which burst from the heart of that assembly of people was the only sound which demonstrated the agony of the moment. Faces were distorted, but the moisture which cools the brain was denied them. Friend grasped the hand of friend, as on the eve of a long parting, or a meeting where life’s hopes lie dead; words were few and brief; comforters there were none, all were mourners. The men hurried out into the street to gain fuller intelligence, and the women, as if the fire already consumed the homes, hurried to their children.

Update: Title corrected (though the actual Web address for the post remains the same)… I got too wrapped-up in Magill’s initial description of Jefferson Davis at St. Paul’s, but her experience (as we can see in the text) was in Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond.