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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.