The Engineer Who Captured Richmond
In April of 1865, it was a young civil engineer born in Germany and raised in Cincinnati who captured the Confederate capital and effectively ended the Civil War.
By G. William Quatman, Esq.
This article is adapted from the book, “A Young General and the Fall of Richmond,” by G. William Quatman, Ohio University Press (2015)
Name the Union general who captured the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., in April 1865. No, not Ulysses S. Grant—nor any of the others you have likely heard of.
You would be surprised at how many Civil War buffs would be stumped at this same question. It was a 29-year old German immigrant named Godfrey Weitzel, a West Point-trained engineer, a major general of the volunteer army, and captain in the Army Corps of Engineers. His military achievements were matched by his post-war engineering feats, yet his name has been largely lost to history. This is his story.
We have all heard the expression “Like Grant took Richmond.” Most are, therefore, surprised to learn that General Grant never set foot in Richmond until after the end of the Civil War. It was not the short, bearded general from Galena, Ill., who seized the Confederate capital; instead, it was a tall young officer, measuring 6' 4" and hailing from Winzeln, Germany, Godfrey Weitzel, who bravely led the all-black 25th Army Corps of Union troops into the burning city on April 3, 1865.
No doubt about it, Grant’s nine-month siege and his final assault on nearby Petersburg led to the evacuation of Richmond and Weitzel’s ability to enter unopposed. But the federal officer who officially accepted the surrender of the Rebel capital was, in fact, a young civil engineer.
Godfrey Weitzel was always in the right place at the right time. If it was not for a chance first assignment in New Orleans, fresh out of West Point, he might have never amounted to more than a first lieutenant, perhaps an engineer assigned to one of the lesser-known major generals. One success led to another, however, and Godfrey Weitzel’s mentors saw to it that he gained recognition and promotions, each one placing him into a key location or battle. Win or lose, he seemed to come out on top with another commendation, brevet or promotion. His timing was impeccable. Maj. George C. Strong, the Chief of Staff for Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, once said of Godfrey Weitzel: “A braver and stronger man doesn't live.” Weitzel was respected by the top commanders in both the blue and the gray: P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee, David G. Farragut, David D. Porter, Benjamin F. Butler, Ulysses S. Grant, and President Abraham Lincoln, all of whom played a significant role in shaping his career. Yet for a man who was known by all these great names of American history, he is one of the least known of all the war’s heroes.
POTENTIAL AT AN EARLY AGE
Godfrey Weitzel immigrated with his parents in 1837 and the family settled in Cincinnati, like so many other Germans did. His father ran a small grocery store in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, where “Gottfried” excelled in all of his classes, graduating at the top of his high school class. Civic leaders encouraged the boy to apply for a position at West Point Military Academy, which was not only maybe the best education a young man could get, but it was free. Local politicians lobbied for the appointment even though Godfrey was just 14-years old, two-years below the required age for a cadet. Fibbing about his age, he was accepted to the academy and arrived in June 1851 as the youngest cadet on campus.
A year into his education at West Point, a new superintendent took over, a colonel from Virginia named Robert E. Lee. Superintendent Lee took special interest in the top cadets in each class and young Godfrey rose to the top, graduating second in his entire class (just as Lee had done in 1829).
The top cadets got assigned the best positions in the Corps of Engineers and Weitzel was chosen for duty in New Orleans, where he worked under Maj. P.G.T. Beauregard for four years from 1855 to 1859 on the new Custom House and on improvements to Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, two key locations below the city that guarded against a foreign invasion. After duty in New Orleans, Weitzel was tapped as an assistant professor and sent back to West Point until the outbreak of the war in April 1861.
THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
In Washington, D.C., Federal Army and Navy officers met to plan an attack on New Orleans, knowing that whomever held that port city could control the supply line to the South from the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi River. The only problem was that these Northern men did not know how to pass the two impressive Southern forts that blocked their path. Lt. Godfrey Weitzel, ironically, was stationed in Washington at the time and soon it became known that a young officer had intimate details of Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, including their weaknesses. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler made Weitzel his chief engineer and gave him authority to obtain all the supplies he would require to seize the two forts.
Following Weitzel’s advice that the Navy should run up close to the forts to draw fire, while Union infantry paddled up streams in the unprotected rear, the Federals seized both forts on April 24, 1862, and later captured New Orleans. For this, Weitzel was made the military mayor of the city (twice) until his services were needed in the battlefield. At age 26, Weitzel was made a brigadier general and given command of troops to flush out Rebel resistance in the back woods, cane fields and bayous of Louisiana. He went on to participate in some of the most critical land and sea battles in Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia as his career rose to unimaginable heights. The bright young engineer was promoted to full major general at age 29 and given command of an entire Army Corps, the 25th Corps. This corps was unique in that it was comprised solely of black troops, the only such corps in the Union Army and the very last corps formed during the war. His command of former slaves led to a death sentence from Jefferson Davis, the “black flag,” which the Confederate president ordered against all commissioned officers who commanded black troops. An injury to Gen. Edward Ord resulted in Weitzel being given command of all Union troops outside of Richmond, just as spring arrived in 1865. With Grant’s success breaking Lee’s lines outside of Petersburg, Weitzel found himself knocking on the door to Richmond, which was set ablaze on April 2, 1865 and abandoned by Jefferson Davis’s local guard as they fled town.
The next morning, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel marched into the Confederate capital and accepted its surrender from the city’s mayor, Joseph C. Mayo.
SEIZING THE CONFEDERATE CAPITAL
The irony of freed slaves wearing the Union blue and marching into the Southern capital was apparent to everyone who witnessed the scene. Flames roared out of windows and rooftops, and brick walls came crashing down. Missiles and projectiles from the exploding Confederate armory looked like holiday fireworks. Weitzel rode into the city with a force of several thousand troops not far behind him. As musicians played strains of “Yankee Doodle” the emotion was too much to restrain. Union troopers began to shout, cheer, and sing. Weitzel rode up Main Street when suddenly, through the smoke and haze, crowds of dark figures materialized. Hundreds of recently freed slaves pushed and shoved to get the closest look at the liberators, reaching out to touch the flanks of the strong cavalry horses.
The young general inherited a city dying in its own fires, set not by Federals, but by Confederates. “I found the greatest confusion, pillaging and disorder reigning, and the city on fire in several places,” Weitzel wrote. “I immediately set everyone to work to restore order and to assist in subduing the fires. I succeeded in doing this at about 2 p.m., by which time a large and valuable portion of the city had been consumed.”
Richmond was in a perfect pandemonium, with fires and explosions in all directions, the citizenry running to and from on the streets while slaves emerged to greet the all-black Union troops. Weitzel’s assessment was that there were about 20,000 people left in Richmond, half of them freed slaves who packed each side of the street rejoicing as tears streamed down their excited faces. Godfrey Weitzel had important news to share and he needed to send an urgent message to Gen. Grant. He wrote a dispatch announcing the 25th Corps’ triumphant entrance into Richmond. “We took possession of Richmond at 8:15 a.m. I captured many guns &c. The rebels evidently left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. I am using every effort to put out the fire. A great many people are here and the whole is a mob. We were received everywhere with enthusiastic expressions of joy,” he wrote.
The telegraph message was taken off the wires at City Point and sent to the War Department in Washington. From there to the rest of the northern states, sparking spontaneous celebrations when read in cities like New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. Within 24 hours, the message was quoted in every Union newspaper, turning young Godfrey Weitzel a national hero.
That night, Weitzel was given living quarters in a three-story mansion on the corner of 12th and Clay Streets, which had been set aside for his use by none other than the Confederate executive, Jefferson Davis. The housekeeper was under instructions from Davis that the Confederate “white house” was to be surrendered for the occupancy of the commanding officer of the federal troops who might occupy the city. That officer was Godfrey Weitzel.
LINCOLN ARRIVES IN RICHMOND
The next morning, April 4, 1865, an anxious Abraham Lincoln had planned to see Richmond as soon as it was in Union hands. Despite warnings from the Secretary of War of the danger, President Lincoln was determined to see the capital and to greet the people of Richmond. “Thank God that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond,” Lincoln said. The presidential party of Lincoln and his 12-year old son Tad steamed out of City Point aboard the River Queen and transferred to Adm. David Porter’s flagship the Malvern, which steamed toward the fallen city. Porter’s ship ran aground on a sandbar and the admiral transferred the Lincolns to his captain’s gig, a barge rowed by 12 sailors as oarsmen. Lincoln called it “his buggy.”
President Lincoln came on shore about nine o’clock in the morning, with no fanfare or official reception. Godfrey Weitzel had received a telegram from City Point that the president was headed toward Richmond; but Adm. Porter made better time in coming up river than Weitzel expected. Weitzel was terribly embarrassed that he was in his office at the Virginia Capitol and not present to greet President Lincoln on the landing, and that no military escort had been provided. With a dozen sailors for protection, the presidential party proceeded on foot to Weitzel’s headquarters, some two miles away. “I was therefore very much surprised to hear, just about the time I intended to get into my [carriage], that the president was already at my quarters. I drove over as hastily as possible and found the report correct,” Weitzel wrote.
The bright young engineer was promoted to full major general at age 29 and given command of an entire Army Corps, the 25th Corps. This corps was unique in that it was comprised solely of black troops, the only such corps in the Union Army and the very last corps formed during the war.
President Lincoln was shown into the reception room by one of Weitzel’s aides and took a seat at Jefferson Davis’ desk, when there was a knock on the door. Judge John A. Campbell, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who held a position in the Confederate government, had stayed behind in Richmond and asked for an audience with the president. Lincoln agreed to meet with the judge but only if Weitzel could sit in as a witness.
Campbell pitched a novel to the president, assuring him that if he would allow the former Virginia Legislature to meet in Richmond, “it would at once repeal the ordinance of secession and then General Robert E. Lee and every other Virginian would submit.” Campbell’s suggestion was a way for Lee to save face, and to end the conflict—at least in Virginia—without further loss of life. The judge succeeded in convincing Lincoln of the feasibility of the peace-plan, primarily on the basis that it would save “the effusion of much blood.”
The next day, Lincoln directed Weitzel to grant passes to the members of the “so-called” legislature of Virginia with permission to meet in Richmond. Lincoln then departed for City Point, but wrote a letter to Weitzel confirming his instructions.
A WORLD TURNS UPSIDE DOWN
Following presidential orders, Weitzel issued the invitation to the Rebel government to return to Richmond when word got back to officials in Washington that the Confederate legislature was reconvening, by authority of a 29-year old Union officer. The Secretary of State countermanded the order and, under pressure, so did the president. Godfrey Weitzel’s world was about to be turned upside down. The president’s loyal advisors began to spin the story that Lincoln never issued such an order, attempting to cover what they felt was Lincoln’s blunder. Blame was thrown entirely on young Godfrey Weitzel, an inexperienced officer whose loyalty to the Union flag was even called into question. The order became moot a few days later when on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered. Lincoln wrote to Weitzel about the Virginia legislature, stating: “Do not now allow them to assemble, but if any have come allow them safe return to their homes.”
This was Lincoln’s last message to Weitzel. The president was assassinated just days later at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.
On April 13th, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel was officially removed from command in Richmond. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote to Grant asking: “Had not Weitzel better have duty elsewhere than Richmond?” The New York Times came to Godfrey’s aid in an article that attempted to defuse some vicious rumors, explaining his actions, but the damage was done to Weitzel’s reputation. Following his departure from Richmond, Weitzel’s 25th Army Corps was shipped to the Texas-Mexico border, where the French government had taken control and installed Emperor Maximilian I as its leader after exiling Mexican president Benito Juárez. Weitzel organized a large fleet at Hampton Roads, Va., that sailed for Texas in June. He set up his headquarters at Brazos Santiago, near the south end of what is now Padre Island. For nine months, Weitzel monitored the activities of the French military and its Imperial Guard stationed in Matamoros. When the French finally pulled its army out of Mexico and President Juárez resumed power, the 25th Army Corps was called home—the very last Army Corps to be mustered out of the U.S. Volunteers, on March 1, 1866.
The housekeeper was under instructions from Davis that the Confederate “white house” was to be surrendered for the occupancy of the commanding officer of the federal troops who might occupy the city. That officer was Godfrey Weitzel.
WEITZEL'S POST WAR LIFE
Despite all of his promotions in the volunteer army, Weitzel resumed his title of Captain of Engineers. On August 8, 1866, however, he was promoted to full major in the regular Army. Weitzel spent the next 16 years in the service of the Army Corps of Engineers, designing locks and dams, lighthouses and harbors on the rivers and Great Lakes. He worked on many projects including improvements to the Louisville Canal. In 1873, he was made Engineer of the 11th Light House District, where he designed a massive lock at the St. Mary’s Falls Canal on the U.S.-Canada border at Sault Saint Marie. The $2.4 million project was the largest-of-its-kind in the world when completed in 1881 and was named the “Weitzel Lock” in honor of its designer. He also served on at least five different engineering boards and translated several German engineering books into English.
Though the Weitzel Lock has since been replaced, several of his quaint lighthouse designs can be seen today. His design for McGulpin Point Light was so successful that the Lighthouse Board chose to use this design in the construction of Eagle Harbor Light, White River Light, and Sand Island Light. His design of the Saginaw River Lighthouse was challenging due to swampy ground, which required timber piles driven deep to provide a solid foundation on which timber forms for the concrete base could be erected and filled.
The Spectacle Reef Lighthouse on Lake Huron was designed by Godfrey Weitzel, the most expensive lighthouse ever built on the Great Lakes at that time and is said to be the most spectacular engineering achievement in lighthouse construction on Lake Huron. The Spectacle Reef Lighthouse was pictured on a U.S. postage stamp and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
DEATH OF A YOUNG GENERAL
Godfrey Weitzel’s health gradually began to decline and he was assigned to lighter duty in Philadelphia, where he and his wife Louisa moved in the summer of 1882. He died at his home from complications of typhoid fever on March 19, 1884, at the age of 49. His remains were taken by train to his boyhood home in Cincinnati, where he received a hero’s funeral, with his horse-drawn hearse escorted by a squad of enlisted soldiers. Godfrey Weitzel was buried in a modest family grave in Spring Grove Cemetery. In recognition of his service to the nation during the Civil War, a large gate and road were named in his honor at Arlington Cemetery on the property formerly owned by Robert E. Lee.
Although thousands of visitors today walk “Ord & Weitzel Street” at Arlington Cemetery, amid the rows of white tombstones, few know the story of its namesake, Godfrey Weitzel, the young engineer who captured Richmond.