Category: Cities and Counties

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Lexington during the Civil War

The town of Lexington is the seat of Rockbridge County in the Shenandoah Valley. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), it was home to Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and the Virginia Military Institute. Although not of great strategic importance, the town nevertheless smoldered in the atmosphere of war long before many other Virginian communities felt the conflict. In November 1859, a detachment of its resident corps of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute was deployed to Charles Town (in what is now West Virginia) to provide security at the execution of the infamous John Brown for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Unionist sentiments prevailed, however, until U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops, when many of Lexington’s male citizens enlisted in service of the Confederate States of America. Events such as the burial of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Union general David Hunter’s fiery raid brought the quiet mountain town momentary attention from the wider world, but the demands of the Civil War also siphoned its resources on a daily basis.

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Lynchburg during the Civil War

Lynchburg, Virginia, is located just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the banks of the James River, where its founder, John Lynch, established a ferry service in 1757. On the eve of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Lynchburg was Virginia’s sixth-largest city and a major transportation center, with access to the James River and Kanawha Canal, as well as the Virginia and Tennessee, the South Side, and the Orange and Alexandria railroads. In addition, the city was a major manufacturer of plug tobacco and, by the 1850s, the second-wealthiest city per capita in the United States. During the war, Lynchburg women established the Ladies’ Relief Hospital, and the Confederate military made the city a major hub of supplies and transport, which Union troops attempted to disrupt at the Battle of Lynchburg in June 1864. After the fall of Richmond in April 1865, the state government relocated to Lynchburg briefly, only to return after Robert E. Lee’s surrender a few miles to the east at Appomattox.

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Martinsburg during the Civil War

Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the county seat of Berkeley County, was in 1860 the Shenandoah Valley‘s second largest town, with a population of 3,364. Located in the northern portion of the valley, Martinsburg enjoyed a booming economy because of its location along the paved Valley Pike and because it was a major depot along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The same strategic location that made Martinsburg economically prosperous prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), however, also spelled its wartime demise. The town changed hands between Confederate and Union forces thirty-seven times, was the site of two battles, and played host for a time to the intrigue of Confederate spy Belle Boyd, who was born there.

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Petersburg during the Civil War

Petersburg, located in south central Virginia, was the second-largest city in the state at the outset of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Originally sharing the conservative political stance of most business-oriented cities in the Upper South, Petersburg’s white citizens eagerly embraced the Confederate cause after Virginia’s Convention of 1861 voted to secede in April 1861. The city hosted a variety of Confederate installations, particularly hospitals, and served as headquarters for a number of Confederate military departments that bore responsibility for southern Virginia and eastern North Carolina. Petersburg experienced its first nearby combat in the spring of 1864 during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign and then became the focal point of the Petersburg Campaign between June 1864 and April 1865. The city capitulated to Union forces on April 3, 1865, initiating the Appomattox Campaign and just six days before Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, ninety miles west of Petersburg.

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Reston, Virginia

Reston is a community in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area located in western Fairfax County, Virginia. Conceived as an alternative to ailing cities and sprawling suburbs, Reston, along with Columbia, Maryland, was among the first post–World War II “new towns” in the United States. Founded in 1964 by Robert E. Simon Jr., Reston took its name from Simon’s initials and represented a kind of urban utopia—a place with swimming pools, community centers, and tennis courts in every neighborhood and no restrictions based on race. Control of the project was taken over first by Gulf Oil—Simon’s major lender—and then Mobil, but the community grew steadily. Its 2007 population was approximately 60,000; the town, meanwhile, enjoys a strong economy based on high technology and information.

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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.

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Richmond during the Colonial Period

Richmond was the most prominent of the towns that emerged at the fall line of the James River during Virginia’s colonial period. As early as 1608, the English settlers eyed a community near the seven-mile-long series of rapids that divided the head of navigation at the river’s downstream end and the calm stretch of water upriver from it. The area provided a series of strategic advantages: as a port, as a location for mills, and as a transitional territory between the Tidewater-based Powhatan Indians and the Monacan Indians of the Piedmont. The English attempted to settle there with limited success in the first half of the seventeenth century, but the establishment of Fort Charles after 1644 and the end of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) brought increased English settlement. In 1679 the General Assembly expanded William Byrd‘s landholdings around the falls, hoping to stabilize the area further. Within a few years Byrd transformed the location into an international trading center. Byrd’s son of the same name established the town of Richmond on the north side of the James River in 1733; the General Assembly formally recognized the town in 1742. Benefitting from its prime location and strengthened by nearby communities such as Westham on the west side of the falls and Rocky Ridge across the river, Richmond served as a key port for Virginia’s interior and emerged as an industrial location by the advent of the American Revolution (1775–1783).

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Saltville during the Civil War

Saltville is a small town that lies mostly in Smyth County in southwestern Virginia, between the Holston River and the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Saltville was of strategic importance for two reasons: the railroad provided an important link between the eastern and western theaters of the war, and the town’s salt mines were crucial in supplying provisions for the Confederate army. As such, Saltville was the target of numerous Union raids. It was also the site of a battle on October 2, 1864, when outnumbered Confederate cavalry troops repulsed the advance of Union troops, including members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, under the command of General Stephen G. Burbridge. The next day, according to some accounts, Confederate soldiers killed a number of the wounded black troopers, who were being held as prisoners of war at nearby Emory and Henry College. The notorious and still-disputed incident is known as the “Saltville Massacre.”

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Staunton during the Civil War

Staunton, Virginia, the seat of Augusta County, was a key target in two major campaigns during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and remained strategically important throughout the entire war. With a population of about 4,000 in 1860, Staunton was situated at a vital transportation crossroads in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Confederacy sought to utilize and protect its infrastructure and wealth from the recurrent threat of destruction by Union forces. Various Confederate leaders, including the generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard S. Ewell, used the town as their headquarters, and it served almost continuously as an army depot, quartermaster and commissary post, and training camp. Union troops targeted Staunton for more than two years before they were able to break the Confederates’ protective hold and lay waste to much of the town and miles of nearby railroad track.

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Williamsburg during the Colonial Period

Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 until 1779. Plotted on land first used by Virginia Indians, it was settled by the English during and just after the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) and called Middle Plantation, for its location equidistant between the York and James rivers. In subsequent years, wealth and political prestige gradually shifted upriver from the first seat of English government, at Jamestown, and talk of moving the capital gained momentum during Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), when rebels burned the statehouse. The Crown did not agree to move the capital until after the establishment of the College of William and Mary at Middle Plantation, in 1693, and another fire at the statehouse, in 1698. In 1699, Middle Plantation became Williamsburg, after King William III, and the colony’s new capital. At the behest of the General Assembly, officials laid out streets and began building a new statehouse. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood oversaw the construction of a powder magazine (1715), the enlargement of Bruton Parish Church (1715), a public theater (1718), and the completion of the Governor’s Palace (1722). When the statehouse burned and smallpox hit in 1748, officials briefly considered, but then rejected, the idea of moving the capital, paving the way for a boom in building and population growth. During the American Revolution (1775–1783), Virginia’s royal governor dissolved the General Assembly and fled the city. After British troops invaded Virginia in 1779, Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond.

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