Category: Cities and Counties

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Centreville during the Civil War

Centreville is an unincorporated community in Fairfax County, Virginia, settled by the English in the 1720s. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), its elevated topography and its proximity to Washington, D.C., made Centreville attractive to both the Union and Confederate armies. So, too, did the junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad with the Manassas Gap line, a few miles to the southwest, which allowed the village to be used as a supply depot throughout the war. The First Battle of Manassas (1861) and the Second Battle of Manassas (1862) were fought nearby, and the Confederate partisan John S. Mosby used the village as a base during the war.

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Charlottesville during the Civil War

Charlottesville provided the Confederate war effort with swords, uniforms, and artificial limbs during the American Civil War (1861–1865). It was also home to a 500-bed military hospital that employed hundreds of the town’s residents, cared for more than 22,000 patients, and was superintended by Dr. J. L. Cabell, a professor of medicine at the nearby University of Virginia. In the summer of 1861, the 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment was organized, recruiting most of its members from Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The unit served with the Army of Northern Virginia all the way through to the Appomattox Campaign (1865), including at Pickett’s Charge (1863), where it lost 60 percent of its men. African Americans, both enslaved and free, who composed a majority of the town and county’s population, were the subject of heightened white fears of violence, their movements controlled by a curfew. In 1863, black members of the biracial First Baptist Church established the Charlottesville African Church. Although the war’s fighting stayed mostly to the east and west, a raid led by Union general George A. Custer was stopped just north of the city in the spring of 1864. Early the next year, town leaders surrendered Charlottesville to Custer, preventing the community’s destruction.

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Cities of Virginia

Virginia’s thirty-eight incorporated cities are politically and administratively independent of the counties with which they share borders, just as counties are politically and administratively independent of each other. This separation of counties and independent cities evolved slowly beginning with the incorporation of the first city, Williamsburg, in 1722 and has no statewide parallel anywhere else in the United States. Virginia’s towns exercise some functions of self-government but in many respects are political subdivisions of the counties in which they are located. The General Assembly first passed an act in 1680 to establish towns for commercial centers in Virginia. When few towns resulted under the act, the assembly tried again in 1691 and in 1705 with the same result. Much of the colony was too sparsely populated and insufficiently productive to generate many thriving towns. Each time the assembly repealed the recent town act and after 1710 gave up the attempt to establish towns en masse altogether. Thereafter, when groups of individuals petitioned the assembly to establish a town, the legislature authorized trustees to lay out the town and sell lots. After establishment, towns that petitioned the General Assembly were incorporated under acts that gave them town charters and some self-government.

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City Point during the Civil War

City Point (now Hopewell), located in central Virginia at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers, was the site of Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant‘s field headquarters during the Petersburg Campaign at the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Founded in 1613 and incorporated as a town in 1826, City Point was a tiny, out-of-the-way place before the war, with few homes or businesses. But once the Union Army of the Potomac fought its way south to Petersburg late in the spring of 1864, City Point became a crucial Union port and supply hub. At least 100,000 Union troops and 65,000 animals were supplied out of the town, and in August 1864, a member of the Confederate Secret Service detonated a time bomb on a docked barge, hoping to disrupt work at the port. As many as fifty-eight people were killed, but the wharf was soon rebuilt and service to the front continued. City Point also was the site of the sprawling Depot Field Hospital, which served 29,000 patients. After the war, the United States government established City Point National Cemetery, and in 1983, the National Park Service reconstructed a cabin that had served as General Grant’s headquarters on its original location.

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County Formation during the Colonial Period

While it has traditionally been held that Virginia’s first counties were not formed until 1634, when the “country [was] divided into 8 shires,” subsequent research has shown that progress toward county formation had begun at least by 1622. An act passed early in that year provided for lower courts to be held in the various settlements throughout the colony to help relieve the governor and Council “from [their] vast Burthen of Business, and to render Justice the more cheap and accessible.” Although a large-scale attack on the English colonists by a group of Powhatan Indians in March 1622 halted progress for a while, an emergency system of military commanders set up a quasi-military structure over the local populations that included monthly courts. By 1634, when the eight original shires, or counties, were enumerated, five localities were already named for five of the shires and were sending burgesses to the General Assembly at Jamestown. In 1642, the assembly passed a law to call the monthly courts “countie courts,” thus concluding a twenty-year progression toward county government in Virginia. At the close of the colonial period, Virginia was home to a total of sixty-one counties, its population growth having moved north, south, and west from the original eastern settlements around Jamestown.

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Culpeper County during the Civil War

With a population of 12,063, Culpeper was the forty-seventh largest of Virginia’s 148 counties in 1860. More than half of that population was African American, including 6,675 slaves. The majority of citizens in this prosperous community—its principal commercial crop being wheat—had wished to avoid war. The county voted by a margin of one vote for John Bell and the Constitutional Union party over John C. Breckinridge and the Southern Democrats in the U.S. presidential election of 1860. Like most of Virginia, however, Culpeper endorsed secession on May 23, 1861, a month after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called on the state for volunteers to put down the rebellion. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the men of Culpeper served most prominently in five Confederate regiments: the 7th, 11th, and 13th Virginia Infantry, and the 4th and 6th Virginia Cavalry.

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Danville during the Civil War

Danville, Virginia, in Pittsylvania County, is situated on the banks of the Dan River just three miles from the North Carolina border. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), its relative remoteness spared its citizens from many of the hardships experienced by other Virginians. It successfully converted its pre-war tobacco industry–related buildings into a variety of facilities that supported the Confederate war effort, such as hospitals, factories, and prisons. Because of their relative prosperity throughout the war years, Danville’s residents extended charitable assistance to the families of soldiers and other needy individuals. The same isolation and wealth that protected Danville throughout the war made it the object of widespread interest at the end of the war. After the fall of Richmond on April 2, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet relocated to Danville, and following Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House, many homeward-bound Confederate troops found the town an attractive passing-through point. Union forces occupied the town briefly at war’s end, leaving by the end of 1865.

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Epidemic, The Norfolk and Portsmouth Yellow Fever (1855)

The yellow fever epidemic that struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in the summer and fall of 1855 was one of the worst in U.S. history. The disease was brought to the prosperous port region in June 1855 by the steamer Benjamin Franklin, which docked in Hampton Roads for repairs after arriving from the West Indies. Yellow fever spread from the dockside tenements occupied by Irish shipyard workers to Norfolk and Portsmouth, becoming epidemic by early August. Thousands became ill and thousands more fled the two cities in a panic, only to be met in many cases with quarantine zones that barred their entry. Life in both cities ground to a halt, with businesses, churches, and markets closed, the harbor shuttered, and the even the newspapers silenced by the death of their proprietors. City government essentially collapsed in the two cities, and the remaining residents survived only because of hastily formed civic aid organizations and outside help. Contributions for the beleaguered residents, as well as doctors and nurses, poured in from around the country. In the end, an estimated 3,000 people died in Norfolk, approximately one-third of the entire population, while upward of 1,000 died in Portsmouth. Neither city would truly recover until the twentieth century.

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Gordonsville during the Civil War

Gordonsville, Virginia, in Orange and Louisa counties, was founded as a stop on a stagecoach route and the site of a tavern. By the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865), it was a key railroad stop connecting the Shenandoah Valley and the Confederate capital at Richmond, and as such, it attracted attention from both Confederate and Union troops. The Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville was also used by the Confederacy as an important military hospital.

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