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.


View of Richmond from Church Hill

Like most Southern cities, Richmond opposed secession on economic grounds. After all, Richmond’s merchants supplied Northern markets with tobacco; its flour-milling firms dominated trade with South America; and Tredegar ironworks produced railroad iron and ordnance for the federal government as well as state governments in the North. Such interests encouraged moderation in politics. While many states in the Deep South were dominated by the Democratic Party and its radical, “fire-eater” wing, Richmond and the state of Virginia had a tradition of healthy political competition between Democrats and former members of the Whig Party. (The Whig Party had collapsed by 1856, but its former members in Virginia were inclined to oppose secession.) People debated secession at length and, like many across the Upper South, tended to adopt a cooperationist stance. The term was not meant to imply actual cooperation with the North; rather, cooperationists resolved to wait for the North to act aggressively first.

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

Capitol of Virginia

Word of Virginia’s secession produced jubilation in Richmond. There were torchlight parades, fulsome speeches, and the mobilization of local guard units. There was also talk of moving the Confederate capital, then in Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond. Even before secession, the idea had been suggested by Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens of Georgia as a way of luring hesitating Virginians into the Confederacy. Now that they had joined, the government of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in consultation with officials in Richmond, moved quickly to relocate the 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 Saint 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.

Richmond as Confederate Capital

As it happened, those defenses would be sorely tested. Relocating the Confederate capital to a city just a hundred miles from the United States capital caused much consternation in Washington. “On to Richmond” became the rallying cry for the first three years of the war, as the Army of the Potomac attacked the capital from the north, the east, and the south. After being routed at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, Union troops marched up the York Peninsula to within four miles of Richmond before being turned away by General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at the Seven Days’ Battles in June 1862. Indeed, Lee drove Major General George B. McClellan‘s army all the way to the outskirts of Washington, allowing Richmond’s industry the room to thrive.


Tredegar Ironworks

Tobacco manufacturing and flour milling had dominated Richmond’s antebellum economy, but Confederate authorities were most interested in Tredegar ironworks. Established in 1837, Tredegar assumed regional and national prominence under the aegis of West Point–trained Joseph R. Anderson. Anderson expanded the works and obtained lucrative contracts in both the North and the South, with the firm manufacturing everything from armor plates to artillery pieces. By 1860, Joseph R. Anderson and Company, as Tredegar was officially called during the war, was the largest enterprise of its kind in the region and stood ready to arm and equip the Confederate military for four years.

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.

Confederate Cartridge Packages

Still, problems plagued Tredegar. On March 13, 1863—it happened to have been Friday the 13th—an explosion at the Confederate States ordnance laboratory on Brown’s Island killed more than sixty young women and children and briefly halted production. Two months later, a fire at the neighboring Crenshaw mills spread to some of the Tredegar’s machine shops, destroying them. Labor shortages also proved to be an issue. Anderson had always augmented his labor force with slaves, but as demand increased and the needs for manpower stripped factories of work details, he was forced to rely even more heavily on slave labor to keep the works in operation. Coal and iron from forges in the Shenandoah Valley were critical to the Tredegar’s operations, but Union cavalry raids in 1863 and 1864 proved disastrous to those operations and further crippled the works’ ability to supply Confederate armies.

Overcrowding and Inflation

Map of Richmond Virginia. A.D. 1863.

As soon as the war started, the population of Richmond began to swell. In addition to laborers and bureaucrats, refugees, spies, Confederate soldiers, journeymen, and less savory sorts, including prostitutes, gamblers, and speculators, all poured into the capital. By the summer of 1861, locals believed the city had become one vast armed camp; others argued the city was little different from the wicked biblical city of Sodom. In 1860, Richmond had almost 38,000 residents, including 11,739 slaves. Although no census was taken during the war, city officials estimated the population grew to more than 100,000 by 1863; some believed between 130,000 and 150,000 people crammed the capital by 1865.

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.

Richmond Bread Riot

Overcrowding and inflation hit the laboring classes especially hard. Although wages rose throughout the period, they could not keep pace with the rising cost of consumer goods. This situation created a social powder keg that finally exploded on April 2, 1863, with the Richmond Bread Riot. “Celebrating” their right to live, working women, many of whom were employed by the city’s government bureaus and factories, marched to the Executive Mansion seeking a meeting with Virginia governor John L. Letcher. Angered by his rebuff, the crowd surged into the business district, attracting hundreds of others along the way. Plunder and mob violence roiled the city for two hours until the threat of artillery dispersed the mob. Nonetheless, the Bread Riot sobered local and Confederate officials and underscored how desperate some in the city had become.

Hospital Center

Moore Hospital

Adding to the city’s burdens was the constant arrival of sick and wounded soldiers. Richmond reveled in military victories at Manassas in 1861 and during the Seven Days in 1862, but those successes produced massive casualties that threatened to overwhelm the capital. The situation only grew worse as the campaigns of 1863 and 1864 again centered on the Confederate capital. Initially, locals opened their private dwellings and individual Confederate states operated “wayside homes” to tend to the sick and wounded. The Confederate Congress implemented legislation in the autumn of 1861 that standardized the hospital system and put it under the control of the Confederate Medical Department. The city’s Chimborazo Hospital, located on a hill east of the business district, became the largest in the Confederacy while also boasting one of the lowest mortality rates among hospitals in the Union and the Confederacy. At Chimborazo alone, nearly 78,000 patients were treated during the course of the war.

Sally Louisa Tompkins

One hospital managed to avoid the Confederate government’s centralization efforts. Sally Tompkins convinced wealthy Richmonder Judge John Robertson to allow her to operate a hospital out of his home while he moved to a safer area in the Shenandoah Valley. Robertson Hospital could care for only a hundred patients at a time but was also able to provide them with more personal attention than they might receive elsewhere. “Then men under Miss Sally’s kind care look so clean and comfortable. Cheerful, one might say,” the diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote. The hospital’s success prompted Jefferson Davis to commission Tompkins a captain in the Confederate cavalry, which allowed her to escape the Medical Department’s purview. She continued to operate her hospital until the end of the war.

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

Women in the Confederate Treasury

Ordnance Department, the Quartermaster Department, and the Confederate commissary. Women sewed uniforms, made percussion caps, and signed currency, all for wages and in support of the Confederate cause. In most instances, white women were forced to labor in the capital’s factories and bureaus because their husbands, fathers, and sons—the breadwinners—were off fighting for the Confederacy.

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.

First African Baptist Church

If the war brought some work opportunities to Richmond’s slaves, it also brought increased competition for available jobs, especially among household servants. As refugee families poured into Richmond from the Virginia countryside, the city’s slave population increased dramatically. In addition, prices for housing and basic commodities skyrocketed during the last two years of the war, forcing many Richmond families to make cuts in the number of household servants they hired, or to hire only slaves without children.

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

Call to Arms in Richmond

Confederate military fortunes waxed and then waned in 1863 and 1864. The ninth “On to Richmond” campaign culminated in the overwhelming Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But following on the heels of that battle came twin Confederate debacles at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When Grant was appointed general-in-chief of Union armies after Gettysburg, he determined to follow Lincoln’s directions to target Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and not the Confederate capital. Yet Richmond necessarily loomed large because Lee determined to defend it: it was his logistical lifeline.

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.

The Fall of Richmond

The evacuation of Richmond remains a controversial topic because the officers in command disagreed over who gave the orders to torch stockpiles of supplies within the city. Throughout the war when the city was threatened, locals had vowed to destroy anything of value to keep it from the hands of Union forces. Confederate and city officials, however, worried that such destruction could not be contained and that it might spread to residential areas and endanger civilians.

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 redegar ironworks survived the evacuation fires only because Anderson deployed the Tredegar Battalion to protect it from the angry hordes.

Burned District in Richmond
Burned District in Richmond
Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Depot
Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Depot
Women amidst destruction in Richmond
Women amidst destruction in Richmond, Virginia
The Exchange Bank Amid Rubble
The Exchange Bank Amid Rubble
Richmond & Petersburg Railroad locomotive
Richmond & Petersburg Railroad locomotive
The arsenal grounds in Richmond
The arsenal grounds in Richmond

The Union army that occupied Richmond and extinguished the fire found burned-out buildings and homeless women and children. Photographers captured the destruction and provided Northern audiences with picture after picture of the ruins in the Confederate capital. Many soldiers and other visitors remarked on the numbers of people dressed in mourning attire. Hunger forced many Richmonders to queue up on Capitol Square to receive provisions from their occupiers. A week after the city fell, on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his gaunt army to Grant at Appomattox Court House.


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.

April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
May 20, 1861
The Confederate Congress, meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, votes to move the capital to Richmond. The move had been offered as a way of luring hesitating Virginians into the Confederacy.
May 23, 1861
The Ordinance of Secession is approved by Virginia voters by a vote of 125,950 to 20,373, with many western Virginia votes being discarded from the tally.
May 26—29, 1861
The Confederate capital relocates from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond.
July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Manassas is fought near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad. Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard decisively defeat Union forces commanded by Irvin McDowell.
February 22, 1862
Jefferson Davis is inaugurated on Capitol Square as the elected president of the Confederate States of America.
June 25—July 1, 1862
In the Seven Days' Battles near Richmond, Robert E. Lee defeats George B. McClellan in a series of fierce engagements. In contrast to the Shenandoah Valley campaign, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's movements are slow, sparking controversy among contemporaries and subsequent historians over the reasons for Jackson's performance.
August 28—30, 1862
At the Second Battle of Manassas, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia defeats Union forces under John Pope.
March 13, 1863
On Friday the 13th, an explosion at the Confederate States ordnance laboratory on Brown's Island kills more than sixty young women and children and briefly halts production.
April 1, 1863
A group of women—workers in Confederate ordnance establishments and the wives of the Tredegar ironworks laborers—meet at the Belvidere Hill Baptist Church in the Oregon Hill neighborhood of Richmond to discuss food and fuel shortages. They resolve to seek a meeting with Governor John L. Letcher.
April 2, 1863
Denied a meeting with Governor John Letcher, a group of Richmond women begin looting shops downtown to protest insufficient food, initiating what came to be known as the Bread Riot. One account claims Letcher calls out the Home Guard and threatens to have the women shot unless they disperse.
April 3, 1863
For the second straight day, a group of Richmonders gathers to protest food shortages, but is discouraged from rioting. The previous day, the City Battalion had threatened violence against protesters.
May 15, 1863
Crenshaw Mills burn, causing destruction to portions of the Tredegar ironworks.
May 5—June 3, 1864
Ulysses S. Grant, the Union's new general-in-chief, directs the Army of the Potomac south toward Richmond. Bloody and largely inconclusive fights at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, along the North Anna River, and at Cold Harbor result in Grant's army's taking up siege positions before Petersburg.
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.
  • Chesson, Michael B. Richmond After the War, 1865–1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
  • De Leon, Thomas Cooper. Four Years in Rebel Capitals: An Inside View of Life in the Southern Confederacy from Birth to Death, From Original Notes, Collated in the Years from 1861 to 1865. Reprint ed., Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Co., 1975.
  • Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. 2nd ed. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999.
  • Kimball, Gregg D. American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. University of Georgia Press, 2003.
  • Lankford, Nelson. Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital. New York: Viking Press, 2002.
  • Thomas, Emory M. The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
APA Citation:
DeCredico, Mary & Martinez, Jaime. Richmond during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/richmond-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
DeCredico, Mary, and Jaime Martinez. "Richmond during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 05
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