Quick: Name the high-ranking Union officer present at both the fall of New Orleans in 1862 and the fall of Richmond in 1865.
Can’t do it? Probably very few could, as it was just some 20-something named Godfrey Weitzel.
“This is a great story that until now has never been published,” said G. William Quatman, author of “A Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel.”
“He finds himself at the center of history,” Quatman said of Weitzel. “He’s the Forrest Gump of the Civil War, present at these events more by happenstance than by achievement.”
Then again, Weitzel did gain admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., at age 15.
Four years later, still a teenager, Weitzel received his first assignment to New Orleans. There he spent four years helping to reinforce two Mississippi River forts — Jackson and St. Philip — designed to guard the port city.
Weitzel considered much of the work tedious — making detailed drawings, often in triplicate, of the upgraded fortifications.
“Weitzel spent four years in New Orleans, sometimes bored to tears,” said Quatman, chief legal counsel for Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City when not writing history. “Then the Civil War breaks out, and then he was this kid who knew every detail of those two forts.”
When President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers in late 1861 decided to focus on the capture of New Orleans, Weitzel happened to be stationed in Washington. His boredom ended. He helped plan the attack on New Orleans and in April 1862 helped lead it.
Fast-forward three years. Weitzel, by then commander of the XXV Corps, the U.S. Army’s first all-black corps, led his troops into Richmond on April 3, 1865.
On that day he accepted Richmond’s surrender from the city’s mayor and sent a telegram to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant announcing the Confederate capital’s fall. He then went to the home of rebel president Jefferson Davis, who had just fled the city, and sat down at his desk. The next day Lincoln showed up.
Weitzel hosted him on a carriage tour of the conquered city and served as the president’s witness in negotiations aimed at ending the war.
He was 29.
Quatman will greet readers from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the County Club Plaza Barnes & Noble store, 420 W. 47th St.