Before the War
In October 1859, a small band of white and Black men, led by John Brown, attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start a rebellion of enslaved people. Brown was captured by U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee and his aide, J. E. B. Stuart. Brown was tried in Charles Town, where cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, led by Thomas J. Jackson and John A. McCausland, helped provide security. After Brown was sentenced to die for murdering five men (four white and one Black), Virginia governor Henry A. Wise met with him personally and decided to let the execution go ahead. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.
Brown was a radical abolitionist who opposed slavery and treated African Americans as his equals. Even in the North, where the states had outlawed slavery, his views were uncommon. In Virginia, which had the largest population of African Americans of any state, Brown was especially feared and reviled. Enslaved laborers were an integral part of the Virginia economy. Some worked on tobacco farms, some were employed in light industry, and others were rented out to companies building railroads and mines. However, Virginians made much of their money selling enslaved people to the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Virginia abolitionists, like Moncure Daniel Conway, were rare; more common were Virginians like George Tucker, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who had not always supported slavery but didn’t want Northerners interfering with it.
Most Virginians did not question slavery, and some were radical in its defense. So-called fire-eaters, such as Edmund Ruffin, argued that states like Virginia must secede, or leave the Union. Ruffin was a farmer from Prince George County who for much of his life was interested in finding new and scientific ways to grow crops. But John Brown’s raid radicalized him. Although many Northern politicians, including Lincoln, expressed their disapproval of Brown, Ruffin became convinced that Northerners were conspiring to use politics and violence to destroy slavery and with it the Southern economy and culture.
Proponents of states’ rights argued that states had joined the United States voluntarily following the American Revolution (1775–1783) and could leave voluntarily. While they objected to the power of the federal government, their objections were loudest when they thought slavery was threatened. Fearing such threats, they had used their political power to pass legislation that protected their “peculiar institution.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, for instance, forced Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners in the South. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) ruled that African Americans could never be citizens. Few Southerners complained about these uses of federal power, but they worried that Republican Party candidate Lincoln, if elected president in 1860, would prevent slavery from expanding into the western territories won during the Mexican War (1846–1848).
Southerners attempted to link Lincoln to John Brown and the potential for violence. But the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings, primarily over the issue of slavery, helping Lincoln to win the election in November 1860. Fearing the worst, South Carolina seceded the next month, followed by a number of other Deep South states. Virginia, however, hesitated. Communities like Lynchburg opposed secession, but not because they opposed slavery. The town produced plug, or chewing, tobacco, and its factories used enslaved labor. But so much money was made selling to the North that residents were concerned that secession would hurt business.
The Virginia Convention, called to consider secession, met in Richmond beginning in February 1861. At first, there were more Unionist than secessionist delegates, including Jubal A. Early, the former Whig Party member and future Confederate general. The tide began to turn, however, as Virginians came to believe that Lincoln would attempt to use the military to force the seceded states back into the Union. After Confederates, including Edmund Ruffin, fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from all states, including Virginia, to help put down the rebellion. On April 17, the Virginia Convention voted 88 to 55 to secede. A statewide referendum on May 23 made secession official. Virginia had joined the Confederacy.
Young white men in Virginia rushed to join the new Confederate army, leaving schools like Emory and Henry College virtually empty. They formed units such as the Richmond Howitzers and the Botetourt Artillery, as well as infantry regiments, a few of which joined together into the famed Stonewall Brigade. About 155,000 Virginia men served in the Confederate forces during the war, while another 32,000 served in Union forces. (These were recruits from the counties that now form West Virginia, and some of these included men from the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.) These soldiers had an average age of twenty-six, and more than half of them were the heads of their households. The wealthiest counties sent more men than the poorest ones, and counties with the most enslaved laborers sent more soldiers than those with fewer enslaved people. Soldiers fought for many reasons, but protecting what they considered to be their property was an important one. Most signed up for twelve months, but, beginning in April 1862, when the Confederate government passed the first draft in American history, they were required to serve for the rest of the war. Young white women, meanwhile, worked at home, in the fields, and even in some factories. Several Richmond women sewed the first Confederate battle flags. Belle Boyd of Martinsburg and Antonia Ford of Fairfax Court House worked as Confederate spies while Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond spied for the Union.
Virginia was a significant battleground for both Union and Confederate forces. It contained the Confederate capital, the capture of which would be an important symbolic victory for Union forces. For Confederates, Virginia was critical to defend because it was home to valuable industry, mining, and food production. At the same time, its geography—mountains in the west, and rivers that flowed west to east—made its defense somewhat easier.
Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott, the elderly hero of the Mexican War, created his Anaconda Plan to win the war. Because it didn’t include a march on Richmond, Lincoln overruled him. Union troops headed south, but were promptly defeated by Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861. (Thomas Jackson, the former VMI instructor, earned his famous nickname “Stonewall” at the battle.) George B. McClellan became the new Union general-in-chief and led his Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe in the spring of 1862. During the Peninsula Campaign, he then marched between the York and James rivers in an attempt to take Richmond from the southeast. McClellan fought Confederates to a standstill at Yorktown and Williamsburg. At the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks, Johnston, the Confederate commander, was badly wounded. Robert E. Lee took over the Army of Northern Virginia and defeated McClellan in the Seven Days’ Battles fought near Richmond. He was helped by Stonewall Jackson, who quickly marched east after he had defeated Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
Lee was not a popular general at first, but his victories against McClellan won over the Confederate public. He defeated Union generals Nathaniel P. Banks at Cedar Mountain and John Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas in August, and then invaded the North. At the Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, he and McClellan fought to a draw, but Lee was forced to retreat. (The Battle of Shepherdstown helped secure his crossing of the Potomac River.) Lee defeated Union general Ambrose E. Burnside at Fredericksburg in December and then another Union general, Joseph Hooker, at Chancellorsville and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg in May 1863. Although a victory, Chancellorsville was especially costly for Confederates. Stonewall Jackson, one of Lee’s most trusted generals, was accidentally shot by his own men and died eight days later.
Lee decided to invade the North a second time. War had been difficult on the land and people of Virginia and he hoped to take the fighting into Maryland and Pennsylvania. He also hoped to encourage the political prospects of those Northerners who wanted peace by bringing the war to their doorsteps. During Lee’s first invasion, the year before, there was a chance that a victory might bring recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain, which depended on its cotton. Now, in 1863, that chance was even slimmer. After J. E. B. Stuart won a huge cavalry battle at Brandy Station, and Confederates under Richard S. Ewell captured Winchester, Lee’s army met Union forces, now under George G. Meade, at the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle lasted for three days, from July 1 to July 3, 1863.
On the third day, Lee gathered up troops from the commands of A. P. Hill and James Longstreet and sent approximately 12,500 of them in a long line across an open field. Pickett’s Charge, named for the Confederate general George E. Pickett, failed, and Lee was forced again to retreat south to Virginia. Pickett survived the famous charge, but two other Virginia generals, Lewis A. Armistead and Richard B. Garnett, did not. Another Confederate soldier who died was young Wesley Culp, a Gettysburg native who had moved to Virginia before the war and joined the Confederate army. He fell on or near a hill bearing his family’s name.
Some Virginia families were split between North and South because of the Civil War. George H. Thomas, a U.S. Army officer from Southampton County whose family had once fled the rebellion of enslaved people led by Nat Turner, stayed with the Union. So did J. E. B. Stuart’s father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke. (An angry Stuart, who had named his son after Cooke, renamed the boy after himself.) The Terrills of Bath County were another family that split. William R. Terrill became a Union general and was killed in 1862. His two brothers, however, fought for the Confederacy, including James B. Terrill, a general who was killed in 1864.
Even when families didn’t split apart, life at home was difficult. In fact, the distinction between the home front and the front lines was not always clear. At the beginning of the war, Union leaders believed that most Confederate civilians were at heart Unionists. If they were treated well, they would turn against their government. Southern morale remained fairly high, however, so Lincoln and his generals attempted a different strategy, called hard war. They targeted anyone or anything that they thought aided the Confederate war effort. In the Shenandoah Valley—which produced food crops but also had symbolic value—Union generals David Hunter and Philip H. Sheridan destroyed crops and livestock. Hunter burned VMI and ransacked Washington College. Some homes were also destroyed.
In the meantime, communities did what they could to aid the war effort. Towns like Danville and Charlottesville were home to large military hospitals where local doctors and nurses used the best medicine available to treat wounded soldiers. Richmond’s Chimborazo Hospital was the largest and most famous of the war hospitals. In addition, Richmond and later Danville also hosted large military prisons. In Richmond, Libby Prison, Belle Isle, and Castle Thunder were often overcrowded and the prisoners were not well fed or protected from the elements. During the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid (1864), Union cavalry attempted to free prisoners and burn the capital. They failed, but Confederates soon after moved prisoners farther south.
Food was scarce for everyone, not just prisoners. In Richmond, a group of women marched to the Capitol to protest the rampant speculation and inflation that had led many people to go hungry. The protest turned into what became known as the Bread Riot (1863), which ended only after Governor John Letcher threatened to send in troops. However, the governor also promised to step up his efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor. Some Confederate civilians protested the government for other reasons. They worried that President Davis and the Confederate Congress were infringing on their civil liberties, and protested declarations of martial law in Richmond, Petersburg, and Lynchburg.
Free and enslaved African Americans were uprooted by the war. In 1860 approximately 66,000 enslaved mens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five lived in Virginia; by 1865 that number was fewer than 26,000. About 61 percent of the state’s enslaved African Americans were killed or escaped slavery, a sudden and huge change for both the white and Black populations.
Many Confederates claimed that free Blacks supported their cause, but in reality most only did so by threat of violence. Martin R. Delany of Charles Town joined the Union army and became its first Black field officer, while Jim Limber lived in the Confederate White House. The Confederate government required many men, including African Americans, to serve the army or government; however, in Charlottesville in 1863 four enslaved men murdered a Confederate officer rather than comply. As Union armies neared, many formerly enslaved people escaped to Union lines. Union general Benjamin F. Butler declared them to be “contraband of war,” or property that would otherwise aid the Confederate war effort. This allowed him to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act and not return them to their enslavers. It also helped pave the way for emancipation.
Following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free all enslaved people in the Confederate states, including Virginia. For the Lincoln administration, the war became about ending slavery, not just preserving the Union. For the Confederate government, the war was being fought to save slavery, just as it was being fought in defense of states’ rights. Confederate troops often treated Black soldiers cruelly, murdering African Americans who surrendered at the Battle of the Crater (1864) and at Saltville (1864). Late in the war, however, the Confederate government devised a plan to use enslaved men as soldiers. Some whites feared that if these so-called black Confederates made good soldiers, slavery would no longer be justified. However, the idea was fairly popular in the ranks of the army and supported by General Lee.
Religion was an important means for African Americans to exercise their freedom. In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, for instance, African Americans established their own First Baptist Church in a hospital basement. Following the war, Black churches in central Virginia joined to form the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association, led by E. G. Corprew, an African American pastor and missionary. Of course, white Virginians also worshipped during the Civil War, and many Confederate soldiers organized huge religious revivals between battles.
End of the War (1864–1865)
In the spring of 1864, the new Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, launched a campaign against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Unlike his predecessors, Grant targeted the Confederate army rather than the Confederate capital. He sent Franz Sigel, David Hunter, and then Phil Sheridan to fight Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, including Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Grant then launched his Overland Campaign by attacking Lee in a stretch of woods called the Wilderness. The battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor were all bloody and inconclusive, but Grant kept pressure on Lee while always moving to the southeast. Ben Butler, meanwhile, almost captured the important railroad hub of Petersburg during the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys. Grant then laid siege to the city, a campaign that lasted ten months.
In the spring of 1865, Lee’s army was much smaller and less well equipped than Grant’s, despite the efforts of Josiah Gorgas and the Confederate Ordnance Department. (Tredegar ironworks in Richmond, operated by Joseph R. Anderson, was the largest producer of munitions in the Confederacy.) After Grant finally broke through
Confederate lines at the Battle of Five Forks, the South Side Railroad was cut and Lee was forced to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. He then retreated west. Thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted. At the Battles of Sailor’s Creek during the Appomattox Campaign, Lee lost 20 percent of his army, most of it captured. He surrendered to Grant three days later, on April 9, at Appomattox Court House. President Davis fled to Georgia where he was captured. (He was later imprisoned at Fort Monroe.) Johnston surrendered in North Carolina on April 26 rather than resort to guerrilla warfare. The Civil War was over.
The Reconstruction era (1865–1877) represented a difficult period of adjustment for both white and Black Virginians. At the Virginia Convention of 1864, Unionists led by Francis H. Pierpont had created a new state constitution that freed Virginia’s enslaved population and took away rights from many men who had served the Confederacy. It remained in effect until voters ratified the Underwood Constitution in 1869. African American men were able to vote at first, but over the next fifty years they mostly lost that and many other civil rights while often being subjected to violence. The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902, in particular, disfranchised most Blacks through such measures as poll taxes. Meanwhile, Jim Crow laws and later the Racial Integrity Laws ensured that Virginia was a strictly segregated society where freedom won in the Civil War did not translate into equal rights.
Many white Virginians, meanwhile, remembered the Civil War in terms of the Lost Cause. This view of the war argued that Confederates had fought to defend states’ rights, not slavery. In fact, Lost Cause advocates claimed that enslaved people had been loyal servants, many of whom hoped for Confederate independence. The Lost Cause view also argued that despite the efforts of brave Southern men and noble Southern women, the South lost the war because the Union army was larger and better equipped and its generals more willing to let their men die. Historians have responded that Lost Cause claims are largely untrue and helped to justify white supremacy in the South.
The American Civil War continues to be debated in Virginia—in arguments over the Lost Cause, slavery, and states’ rights; in novels from The Fathers (1938) and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) to The Known World (2003); and in discussions of how best to remember the era, either during the Civil War Centennial (1961–1965) or, later, the Civil War Sesquicentennial (2009–2015). Although many Virginians identify passionately with the war and its symbols, the conflict’s meaning is far from settled.