The election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president in November 1860 was not provocation enough, especially since Republicans failed to gain either house of the U.S. Congress. In the end, what proved too much for Virginians was Lincoln's insistence on resupplying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and his subsequent call, on April 15, 1861, for 75,000 ninety-day volunteers. The Virginia Convention, which had been convened in Richmond since February, finally voted to secede on April 17, 1861. The decision was ratified by a statewide referendum on May 23.
The Confederate Capital
The move made sense for symbolic, economic, and military reasons. From its inception, Richmond bore the imprimatur of revolution: Patrick Henry thundered "Give me liberty or give me death!" at St. John's Church, and Thomas Jefferson designed the Capitol building. On a more practical level, Richmond was the South's leading industrial city, an important transportation hub, and source of agricultural resources. Virginia, meanwhile, was the richest in natural resources and most populous state in the South and boasted the region's largest rail network, as well as a mixed agricultural economy. Although Richmond's proximity to Washington, D.C., was hazardous strategically, Virginia's topography—the Appalachian Mountains and rivers, such as the James and Rappahannock, that flowed east to west—served as a natural defense against invasion.
The Confederate government relied on Tredegar and a number of smaller local firms to manufacture everything from heavy ordnance and iron cladding for naval vessels to buttons and bullets. In 1864, Ordnance Bureau chief Josiah Gorgas noted that the Confederacy had become self-sufficient in the production of war matériel. This was remarkable considering that in 1860, the future states of the Confederacy had accounted for only 16 percent of the nation's capital invested in manufacturing. Such an economic turnaround was largely due to the output of Richmond's manufactories and especially the Tredegar ironworks.
Overcrowding and Inflation
This huge increase in population had severe consequences. The local police force was small and could not contain the crime wave that plagued the city until the war's end. Even after Confederate general John H. Winder took day-to-day control of the city beginning in February 1862, gambling dens and houses of prostitution flourished, while rival juvenile gangs threatened locals with petty larceny and assault. Accommodations were limited and according to some, abysmal. Nonetheless, they commanded high rents; it was not unusual to see several families living in cramped, unheated spaces. Epidemics of smallpox and other diseases threatened the city late in 1862 and in 1863. Food and fuel became scarce, especially as the armies battled on prime farmland in the Virginia Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. Shortages of consumer goods and a worthless paper currency created unheard-of levels of inflation. Indeed, by 1863, prices in Richmond were 700 percent higher than they had been in 1861.
Women at Work
Tompkins was not the only white woman who actively worked for the Confederate
cause in Richmond. Other women
filled key positions in the Treasury Department, the
Not all of Richmond's women were as dedicated to the Confederacy. Elizabeth Van Lew and her mother were staunch Unionists. Indeed, Union generals Benjamin F. Butler and Ulysses S. Grant deemed the information the younger Van Lew provided them as critical to the 1864 campaigns. In recognition of that assistance, Grant, as U.S. president, appointed her postmaster of the city after the war.
Scholars debate the impact women's work exerted on gender roles; many assert the effect was short-lived and ended with the advent of peace. Nevertheless, locals, visitors, and news correspondents commented repeatedly on how many women had entered the work force. Given the high number of casualties and disabilities the war produced, one wonders if Confederate women could, indeed, return to solely the domestic sphere. With a quarter of the white male population dead, many women had no choice but to continue working to support their families.
Enslaved African Americans
The war had a significant impact on Richmond's slave population. During the antebellum period, the city's enslaved men and women often had enjoyed freedoms common to urban slaves, including the freedom to live independently and "hire their own time," or choose their own employers, make their own work arrangements, and pay their masters a set annual fee in exchange for these privileges. Whether they worked in industrial or household settings, many of Richmond's slaves had gained this autonomy before the war began, and often lived and socialized with free blacks as well as other slaves. But when Virginia seceded, Richmond officials feared that the city's slaves would take advantage of the chaos of war and their measured autonomy to plan a rebellion. They passed new ordinances prohibiting slaves from living independently of their masters, shut down many of the city's informal hiring markets, and instituted a stringent pass system to restrict slaves' movements around the city.
As the war progressed, however, the feared slave rebellion never materialized, and the city's leaders began to relax some of their limitations on the slave population. In part this was due to necessity, as slave labor was absolutely crucial to the success of the Confederate war effort. Male slaves with industrial skills found their labor in particularly high demand, and could often command relatively high wages. In addition, the Confederate War Department hired thousands of black men to work in the government warehouses, tanning yards, and hospitals that soon filled the city; black women also routinely found employment in government hospitals as laundresses and cooks. By the end of 1862, the government hired more of Richmond's slaves than any other employer; unlike those employed by private companies, the slaves working in government jobs had little power to negotiate payments or living conditions. The War Department and the city council also routinely forced male slaves to dig trenches and build fortifications outside the city.
In June 1865, Richmond's black residents held a meeting at the First African Baptist Church and drafted a document demanding that the U.S. government grant former slaves all the rights of citizens, including the right to vote. The church's membership had swelled dramatically during the war, and thousands of people attended services there each week. The wartime growth of First African Baptist Church, and its political engagement in the early Reconstruction years, demonstrated that, while Richmond's officials had restricted the mobility and autonomy of the city's slaves throughout the war, they had ultimately failed to deter the city's black residents from pursuing their own political, economic, and cultural independence.
Siege and Evacuation
The Overland Campaign of 1864 was launched in the Wilderness and quickly became a slugfest in the woods. Lee inflicted horrific casualties, but Grant relentlessly continued his attack. By June, the campaign had settled into a siege at Richmond's backdoor—the city of Petersburg. As Lee and many Confederates knew, it was only matter of time before he must abandon the capital or be encircled by the Union juggernaut.
As the Confederate lines grew thinner and thinner during the nine-and-a-half-month siege, people in Richmond faced the real possibility of starvation. On March 25, 1865, Lee tried to break through Grant's lines, only to be repulsed. Just days later, Grant launched an all-out assault on Lee's army. Lee was forced to notify President Davis on April 2, 1865, that Richmond had to be evacuated.
Their fears became reality when Confederate army officials did, in fact, set fire to the tobacco warehouses. A fierce wind fanned the flames and allowed them to spread quickly. Local officials added to the chaos when they broke open stockpiled barrels of whiskey. As the army and Confederate leadership withdrew, mobs seized control. Rioting and plunder became the rule of the day as local citizens attacked government warehouses, seized food and other articles, and scooped up liquor as it coursed through the streets. The fires succeeded in burning down portions of the business district, but the residential neighborhoods were spared. One historian estimates that only 10 percent of the city was actually consumed by the fires. The Tredegar ironworks survived the evacuation fires only because Anderson deployed the Tredegar Battalion to protect it from the angry hordes.
In many respects, Richmond's success in mobilizing and outfitting the Confederacy's armies predestined its demise, because the city remained a powerful symbolic target until the very end. Its ability to supply the Confederate military for four years transformed a symbol of rebellion into a bona fide military target. In a conflict marked by irony, perhaps none is as profound as an agrarian region becoming capable of fighting a total war for four years.
July 21, 1861 - The First Battle of Manassas is fought near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia. Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard decisively defeat Union forces commanded by Irvin McDowell.
August 28–30, 1862 - At the Second Battle of Manassas, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia defeats Union forces under John Pope.
May 15, 1863 - Crenshaw Mills burn, causing destruction to portions of the Tredegar ironworks.
June 16, 1864–March 25, 1865 - The Union Army of the Potomac lays siege to Petersburg. The siege is characterized by 30 miles of trenches stretching Confederate defenses thin, and occasional pitched battles, including the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, and the more-decisive Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
April 2, 1865 - After Union forces break through Confederate lines around Petersburg at the Battle of Five Forks a day earlier, Richmond is evacuated.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
DeCredico, M., & Martinez, J. A. Richmond During the Civil War. (2014, June 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Richmond_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
DeCredico, Mary and Jaime Amanda Martinez. "Richmond During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: June 12, 2009 | Last modified: June 20, 2014
Contributed by Mary DeCredico and Jaime Amanda Martinez. Mary DeCredico is a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Jaime Amanda Martinez is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She received a PhD from the University of Virginia in 2008 and is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate slave impressment for future publication.