Author: Mary DeCredico

a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland

Richmond during the Civil War

Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861–1865). It also served as the capital of Virginia, although when the city was about to fall to Union armies in April 1865, the state government, including the governor and General Assembly, moved to Lynchburg for five days. Besides being the political home of the Confederacy, Richmond was a center of rail and industry, military hospitals, and prisoner-of-war camps and prisons, including Belle Isle and Libby Prison. It boasted a diversified economy that included grain milling and iron manufacturing, with the keystone of the local economy being the massive Tredegar ironworks. From the start of war, Confederate citizens flocked to the capital seeking safety and jobs, leading to periodic civil unrest, manifested most notably in the Bread Riot of April 1863. Because of its economic and political importance as well as its location near the United States capital, Richmond became the focus for most of the military campaigns in the war’s Eastern Theater. In a sense, its success—especially in mobilizing, outfitting, and feeding the Confederate armies—predestined it to near-destruction in 1865. Just as ironic, that destruction was largely caused by Confederates, although images of the city’s ruins have become iconic representations of the cost of war.


Confederate Impressment During the Civil War

Impressment was the informal and then, beginning in March 1863, the legislated policy of the Confederate government to seize food, fuel, slaves, and other commodities to support armies in the field during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The tax-in-kind law, passed a month later, allowed the government to impress crops from farmers at a negotiated price. Combined with inflationary prices and plummeting morale following military defeats, impressment sparked vocal protests across the South. Discontent was exacerbated by what was perceived as the government’s haphazard enforcement of the law, its setting of below-market prices, and its abuse of labor. As a result, citizens hoarded goods and in some cases even impersonated impressment agents in an effort to steal commodities.


Josiah Gorgas (1818-1883)

Josiah Gorgas was a Confederate general and chief of the Ordnance Bureau during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born in Pennsylvania, Gorgas was a veteran of the Mexican War (1846–1848) who married into a prominent political family in Alabama. His new Southern connections, along with dissatisfactions with his army career, helped fuel his decision to join the Confederacy. In 1861, he was the only experienced ordnance officer available to Confederate president Jefferson Davis‘s new government, and he almost single-handedly created a department charged with supplying Confederate armies with weapons and ammunition. He bought all the arms and supplies available in Europe and created a fleet of blockade-runners to transport them to Southern ports. At the same time, he worked to build Confederate industry and reinforce its railroads so that by 1863 the Confederacy was self-sufficient in military hardware. Following the war, Gorgas suffered financial difficulties and served briefly as president of the University of Alabama. He died in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1883.


Bread Riot, Richmond

The Richmond Bread Riot, which took place in the Confederate capital of Richmond on April 2, 1863, was the largest and most destructive in a series of civil disturbances throughout the South during the third spring of the American Civil War (1861–1865). By 1863, the Confederate economy was showing signs of serious strain. Congress’s passage of an Impressment Act, as well as a tax law deemed “confiscatory,” led to hoarding and speculation, and spiraling inflation took its toll, especially on people living in the Confederacy’s urban areas. When a group of hungry Richmond women took their complaints to Virginia governor John L. Letcher, he refused to see them. Their anger turned into a street march and attacks on commercial establishments. Only when troops were deployed and authorities threatened to fire on the mob did the rioters disperse. More than sixty men and women were arrested and tried, while the city stepped up its efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor and hungry.