Virginia State Capitol during the Civil War, The


The State Capitol on Capitol Square in Richmond served as the center of political power and civic ceremonies for both Virginia and the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The building was the meeting place for the Virginia Convention of 1861 and wartime sessions of the General Assembly and the Confederate Congress. Robert E. Lee accepted command of Virginia’s military and naval forces there in April 1861. President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on Capitol Square in February 1862 and Governor William “Extra Billy” Smith was inaugurated inside the Capitol in January 1864. Political speeches, military drills, band concerts, and public assemblies for celebration and protest occurred on the Capitol grounds throughout the war. Several prominent Confederate leaders lay in repose inside the Capitol. Capitol Square became a safe refuge for city residents during the Evacuation Fire in April 1865 and the Capitol itself quickly became a headquarters for Union authorities in the early phase of the military occupation of Richmond.

Early History

The Capitol of Virginia was designed by Thomas Jefferson with help from Charles-Louis Clérisseau in 1785 and occupied by the General Assembly in 1788. It is the first American state capitol building designed after the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the first public building in the New World to be constructed in the form of a classical Roman temple. During the Civil War the building did not have the front steps or the legislative wings that exist today. From 1788 until 1904 the House of Delegates met in a large chamber on the second floor in the north end of the building. From 1840 until 1861 the Senate of Virginia met in a smaller chamber on the same floor in the south end of the building, with windows looking onto the portico. A private office for the governor was located on the east side of the third floor. Two new constitutions for Virginia were created by conventions meeting at the Capitol before the Civil War.

Virginia's Ordinance of Secession

The Virginia Convention of 1861, which had convened at Richmond in February to consider secession, moved on April 8 from the hall of the Mechanics Institute at Ninth and Franklin streets to the House of Delegates chamber at the Capitol after the General Assembly adjourned. On April 17 the Convention delegates voted 88 to 55 to secede from the Union, subject to ratification by the people of Virginia in a May 23 referendum. On April 23, per the unanimous consent of the Convention, Robert E. Lee entered the House chamber and accepted command of Virginia’s military and naval forces. Two days later the Convention voted to enter into an alliance with the Confederate States of America and passed an ordinance to accept the Confederate Constitution, contingent on the outcome of the popular referendum in May. The Confederate Provisional Congress meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, passed an act to admit Virginia into the Confederacy on May 7. Responding to an offer made by Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter on behalf of the Virginia Convention to relocate the Confederate capital to Virginia, the Confederate Congress resolved on May 20 to move the entire Confederate government to Richmond by July 20, 1861.

Confederate Government Moves In

On June 28 the Virginia Convention, about to adjourn, offered the House chamber for the upcoming meeting of the Confederate Congress at Richmond. From July 20 until August 31 and on September 3, 1861, the Provisional Congress (a unicameral body with 116 members) met in the House chamber. The vacant state Senate chamber was converted into four congressional committee rooms using temporary screen partitions. In October the Virginia Senate chamber was modified and enlarged to become the “Hall of Congress” for Confederate legislators. The displaced Virginia Senate with fifty members was relocated to a chamber in the northeast corner on the third floor, above the Virginia House chamber, for the rest of the war.

In November 1861 Confederate legislators reassembled in the new Hall of Congress and the Virginia Convention of 1861 reassembled for a final session in the Virginia House chamber on opposite ends of the same floor. In the first week of December the Virginia House and Senate also reconvened at the Capitol, which was already crowded with visitors and members of Congress and the Virginia Convention of 1861. More than 450 lawmakers were expected to be in attendance. On December 4 and 5 the Electoral College of Virginia assembled in the Senate chamber on the third floor and cast the state’s votes for Jefferson Davis as president and Alexander H. Stephens as vice president. The Richmond Daily Dispatch for December 2 marveled at the “unprecedented spectacle of four deliberative bodies [meeting] at the same time” in the overcrowded Capitol.

Capitol Improvements for a Bicameral Congress

Accommodating the Confederacy

In February 1862 the unicameral Provisional Confederate Congress evolved into the bicameral Permanent Confederate Congress, with a House of Representatives and a Senate. A new chamber was needed. Anticipating this development, the Virginia General Assembly on December 21, 1861, agreed to a joint resolution authorizing the governor to “provide suitable accommodations within the capitol” for both houses of Congress, which “would not materially interfere with the sessions of the general assembly.” On February 18 the new Confederate Senate began meeting in a renovated chamber in the northwest corner of the third floor, next to the Senate of Virginia chamber. That same day the Confederate House began meeting in the Hall of Congress, which was further improved in 1862 with the addition of a spectator’s gallery and remodeled sash windows that provided direct access to the portico. Governor John Letcher estimated that the total expense to the Commonwealth for these Capitol improvements, including new furnishings, curtains, and carpets, exceeded six thousand dollars. In addition, Virginia paid for the coal, wood, and gas required by Confederate legislators. Congressmen and other high-ranking Confederate officials were given borrowing privileges at the State Library located on the south end of the third floor. Security for the building was provided by the Public Guard, a state infantry company formed in 1801 as a military precursor to the present-day Capitol Police force.

From February 1862 until March 1865 the Confederate House and the Virginia House met on the second floor, while the Confederate Senate and the Senate of Virginia met on the third floor. Sessions of the Confederate Congress and Virginia General Assembly frequently overlapped, especially between the months of December and March. When adjourning, the Virginia House and Senate occasionally offered their larger state chambers to their Confederate counterparts. Twenty-six Virginians, including Speaker Thomas S. Bocock, served in the Confederate House and three Virginians chosen by the General Assembly served in the Confederate Senate. Lawmakers and visitors alike could partake of chicken, peanuts, and hard-boiled eggs offered by enterprising women who set up food stands inside the crowded Rotunda. Tobacco juice and chicken bones frequently decorated the floors, to the annoyance of local newspaper editors.

Despite the best efforts of Virginia authorities to accommodate Confederate lawmakers, questions arose as early as 1862 about the suitability of Richmond as a seat of government. The Confederate House considered two resolutions on February 27 that would have opened the way for moving government departments and archives out of the city, either during emergencies or permanently. There also was growing dissatisfaction among some Confederate lawmakers over the suitability of Virginia’s Capitol for their meetings. Late in December 1862 and early in January 1863, the Richmond newspapers confidently predicted that Congress would either rent or purchase the Exchange Hotel in Richmond for legislative sessions, committee meetings, and perhaps lodgings. On January 17, 1863, Representative James Lyons of Virginia offered a resolution that “the Committee on Public Buildings be instructed to purchase the Exchange building and have it prepared for Congress.” Representative Henry S. Foote opposed the measure because “it would be an entering wedge for the permanent location of the capital at this place, to which he could never consent.” After more debate the resolution was tabled, as well as another resolution to rent the building for one year. Three days later a motion in the House to reconsider the Exchange Hotel option failed by a vote of 30 to 37. Ongoing use of the Capitol for Confederate purposes was evidently driven by regional politics and wartime expediency.

Public Symbol

Confederate Celebration at the Virginia State Capitol

The Capitol and its landscaped public square became a well-known symbol and setting for wartime events. In July 1861 large crowds gathered in the square to celebrate news of the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas. On February 22, 1862, Davis and Stephens emerged from the Capitol to be inaugurated as president and vice president, respectively, on a platform in Capitol Square. That same year the classical Capitol building was featured on Confederate currency, and in 1863 the large equestrian statue of George Washington on Capitol Square provided the inspiration for the official seal of the Confederate States of America. Inside the Capitol, captured Union flags were often hung from the public galleries and other battlefield trophies were displayed in the library. Several deceased Confederate generals, including Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and John Hunt Morgan, lay in repose at the Capitol during the war. In April 1863 a hungry mob converged on Capitol Square to demand food before marching into the commercial district of the city to commence the Richmond Bread Riot. In January 1864 William “Extra Billy” Smith entered the Virginia House chamber and delivered an inaugural address encouraging Virginians to remain committed to the war effort. In May 1864 the Cadet Corps from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington paraded on the square and was complemented by President Davis for their part in the recent victory at the Battle of New Market. In March 1865 African Americans recruited for service as new soldiers in the depleted Confederate States Army began drilling on the grounds of Capitol Square, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers.

Evacuation and Occupation

Union Occupation of Richmond

TheThe last session of the Confederate Congress adjourned on March 18, 1865. On April 2 and 3 the Confederate capital was hastily evacuated and fires spread out of control along Richmond’s waterfront. Refugees from the flames flocked to Capitol Square for the safety of the open grounds. The arrival of Union troops at the Capitol on April 3 heralded the beginning of military occupation. The large Confederate and Virginia flags flying from opposite ends of the Capitol were removed and replaced with U.S. flags. Union troops camped on the square and Union officers organized efforts to extinguish the conflagration raging just south of the Capitol.

On April 4 U.S. president Abraham Lincoln toured Capitol Square by carriage and may have briefly entered the Capitol itself. Union military authorities quickly commandeered various rooms in the Capitol to conduct their business. A guardroom was established in the basement. Military passes for men and women were issued from separate rooms on the second floor. The state Senate chamber on the third floor was used for administering oaths and issuing paroles to Confederate officers and soldiers. Permits for transporting goods were issued from the governor’s office. As late as September 1865 a visitor to the halls of the late Congress found them to be “a scene of dust and confusion,” while workmen were “sweeping out the last vestiges of Confederate rule.” The Virginia General Assembly reconvened in its prewar chambers on December 4, 1865, in the early days of Reconstruction.

The Civil War was the busiest four-year period in the eventful history of a notable building, which has served public purposes from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. On December 19, 1960, the Virginia Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark, in part because of its pivotal role for two governments between 1861 and 1865.

April 1861
Virginia secedes and Robert E. Lee assumes command of Virginia forces.
May 1861
Virginia is admitted to the Confederacy and the Confederate Congress resolves to relocate the seat of government to Richmond. Jefferson Davis arrives in Richmond.
July 1861
The Provisional Confederate Congress (unicameral) begins meeting in Virginia's Capitol.
November 1861
Confederate national elections are held for a bicameral Congress, Vice President, and President.
December 1861
Virginia Convention delegates, Confederate lawmakers, and the General Assembly hold overlapping sessions at the State Capitol in Richmond.
January 1862
The General Assembly elects Virginia's two senators to the Confederate Congress.
February 1862
The Permanent Confederate Congress, composed of a House and Senate, begins meeting at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. Former president John Tyler lies in state in the Capitol.
February 22, 1862
Jefferson Davis is inaugurated on Capitol Square as the elected president of the Confederate States of America.
January 1863
The Confederate States Congress considers but does not act on resolutions to use the Exchange Hotel in Richmond as a national Capitol.
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.
May 1863
Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson lies in repose at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. A state election for governor, lieutenant governor, and Virginia members of the Confederate Congress is held.
January 1864
William "Extra Billy" Smith is inaugurated as governor of Virginia, replacing John Letcher.
March 1865
The Confederate Congress adjourns and African Americans recruited for the Confederate army begin drilling on Capitol Square in Richmond.
April 1865
The Confederate government evacuates Richmond and the Union army enters the city, establishing a military presence at the Capitol.
December 1865
The General Assembly returns to the Capitol in peacetime.
  • Fergurson, Ernest B. Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
  • Journals and Papers of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 in Three Volumes. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1966.
  • Yearns, Wilfred Buck. The Confederate Congress. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1960.
  • Younger, Edward, and James Tice Moore, eds. The Governors of Virginia, 1860–1978. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1982.
APA Citation:
Greenough, Mark. Virginia State Capitol during the Civil War, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-state-capitol-during-the-civil-war-the.
MLA Citation:
Greenough, Mark. "Virginia State Capitol during the Civil War, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2022, March 14
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