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The Rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia, falls to the Union, the most significant sign that the Confederacy is nearing its final days.
For ten months, General Ulysses S. Grant had tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate the city. After Lee made a desperate attack against Fort Stedman along the Union line on March 25, Grant prepared for a major offensive. He struck at Five Forks on April 1, crushing the end of Lee’s line southwest of Petersburg. On April 2, the Yankees struck all along the Petersburg line, and the Confederates collapsed.
READ MORE: American Civil War: Causes and Dates
On the evening of April 2, the Confederate government fled the city with the army right behind. Now, on the morning of April 3, blue-coated troops entered the capital. Richmond was the holy grail of the Union war effort, the object of four years of campaigning. Tens of thousands of Yankee lives were lost trying to get it, and nearly as many Confederate lives lost trying to defend it.
Now, the Yankees came to take possession of their prize. One resident, Mary Fontaine, wrote, “I saw them unfurl a tiny flag, and I sank on my knees, and the bitter, bitter tears came in a torrent.” Another observer wrote that as the Federals rode in, the city’s black residents were “completely crazed, they danced and shouted, men hugged each other, and women kissed.” Among the first forces into the capital were black troopers from the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, and the next day President Abraham Lincoln visited the city. For the residents of Richmond, these were symbols of a world turned upside down. It was, one reporter noted, “…too awful to remember, if it were possible to be erased, but that cannot be.”
READ MORE: Why the Civil War Actually Ended 16 Months After Lee Surrendered
Prisoners In Richmond
The conflict was supposed to end quickly. However, as the war dragged on into 1862 both Union and Confederate governments needed prisoner of war camps to hold the growing number of captured men. An estimated 400,000 prisoners were held in harsh and squalid conditions of deprivation at Union and Confederate camps during the war. Roughly 56,000 of these prisoners, ten percent of the war’s dead, perished in these camps. As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond was a center of activity during the war. Numerous prisons were established in and around the city to accommodate the large influx of Union prisoners from both the Eastern and Western theaters. Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, Castle Lightning, and Belle Isle are representative of the prisons in Richmond, distinct in the captives they held and in the daily life of those imprisoned.
- Libby Prison
In 1861, Confederate authorities confiscated a three-story brick warehouse at Cary and Canal Street that would become Richmond’s most notorious prison: Libby Prison. This isolated and easily guarded location was ideal for a prison, and it was accessible by both railway and water. Soon after the first prisoners arrived in March of 1862, Libby Prison quickly became overcrowded and additional prisons in the city were needed. Libby Prison served as the headquarters for the Confederate States Military Prisons and was the depot where all captured POWs were brought before being transferred to surrounding prisons. Although Libby Prison primarily housed imprisoned Union officers, it did not offer any advantage in quality of life over other prisons. Inmates suffered from cramped quarters, poor sanitation, outbreaks of disease, and extreme temperatures during winter and summer months.
When General Lee abandoned Petersburg and advised Jefferson Davis to evacuate Richmond in April of 1865, Libby Prison also evacuated, leaving only a few sick or wounded POWs behind. The building survived the evacuation fire, was dismantled in December of 1888, and was taken to Ohio to be set up as a museum. By 1895 it had been dismantled again for the purpose of relocating it to Washington D.C. The project went bankrupt, and Libby Prison remained disassembled with its parts distributed as souvenirs.
Libby Prison was not as inescapable as Confederate authorities believed it to be –follow this link to read about one of the most successful prison escapes of the Civil War.
Gleanor’s Tobacco Factory and two smaller brick buildings, Palmer’s Factory and Whitlock’s Warehouse, were seized by the Confederate government and repurposed as a prison. This complex was aptly named for its extreme brutality: Castle Thunder. The three buildings housed 1,400 political prisoners and deserters who were segregated by gender, race, and criminal offense. Conditions at Castle Thunder were particularly inhumane with extreme physical punishment and abuse. It has been noted that on principal, prison officials would often give 50 to 100 lashes to newly arriving Confederate deserters.
Like Libby Prison, Castle Thunder survived the evacuation fire that destroyed nearly all other tobacco factories and warehouses in the city. Following the war, the property was returned to its original owners, who set the compound on fire in 1879.
Across the street from Castle Thunder stood Castle Lightning, a prison established to hold criminally accused Confederate soldiers and civilians. This prison primarily housed deserters from the Confederate Army as well as overflow prisoners from Castle Thunder. Castle Lightning appears to have closed in 1863 and was converted into barracks for the accommodation of several companies engaged in guard duty within the city. The prisoners confined here were removed and most likely placed in Castle Thunder.
Some imprisoned deserters never lost their desire to escape the war. Read their stories here.
This popular recreational area for 19 th century Richmonders was converted into a training sight for new recruits at the beginning of the Civil War. By the second summer of the war, however, Belle Isle opened as a prisoner of war camp to ease overcrowding at Libby Prison. Belle Isle closed by September of that same year because a prisoner exchange system enacted between the Union and the Confederacy decreased the number of soldiers needing long-term confinement. However a breakdown of this system made the space on Belle Isle needed once again, and the prison was reactivated in May 1863.
Located near a fall line in James River, the swift currents surrounding Belle Isle served as a deterrent against prisoner escape. The camp consisted of prisoner tents, officer and guard quarters, a cookhouse, five hospital tents, and a graveyard. Although its intended capacity was 3,000, there were only 300 prisoner tents for shelter. At its peak, there were 10,000 prisoners on Belle Isle, and many prisoners suffered from lack of shelter. During the cold winter of 1863, up to fourteen people would freeze to death each night.
The elements were not the only threat in camp. Diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and small pox raged through Richmond and the prisons. Sick inmates on Belle Isle were treated in the nearby hospital tents, with severe cases being sent to a hospital in the city. The meager and inconsistent supply of food was not enough to sustain the captives, and desperate prisoners resorted to stealing. Hungry soldiers were known to steal the guards’ pets, such as chickens and dogs, and devour them.
By February 1864 prisoners on Belle Isle were moved to a newly established prison in Andersonville, Georgia. The men who left Belle Isle were dirty, poorly clothed, and almost all of them weighed less than 100 pounds. In its eighteen months of periodic operation between 1862-1864, roughly 20,000 prisoners were received and nearly 1,000 died. Today Belle Isle is a popular recreational area for local residents, much like it was prior to the Civil War. By simply looking at the beauty and serenity of the island today, one would not expect it witnessed such horror and suffering.
Some prisoners kept diaries of their experiences. Read about one man’s experience on Belle Isle here.
Richmond, Embattled Capital, 1861-1865
April 3, 1865. " As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. All the horrors of the final conflagration, when the earth shall be wrapped in 'flames and melt with fervent heat, were, it seemed to us, prefigured in our capital. The roaring, crackling and hissing of the flames, the bursting of shells at the Confederate Arsenal, the sounds of the Instruments of martial music, the neighing of the horses, the shoutings of the multitudes. gave an idea of all the horrors of Pandemonium. Above all this scene of terror, hung a black shroud of smoke through which the sun shone with a lurid angry glare like an immense ball of blood that emitted sullen rays of light, as if loath to shine over a scene so appalling. . [Then] a cry was raised: 'The Yankees! The Yankees are coming!'"
Thus did Sallie Putnam, who had lived in Richmond throughout the war, recall the final disastrous hours of the city whose existence preoccupied northerner and southerner alike through four bitter, bloody years and whose final subjugation signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.
Situated at the head of navigation on the James River and only 176 kilometers (110 miles) from the Federal capital of Washington, Richmond had been a symbol and a prime psychological objective since the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. If the city were to be captured, southerners might lose their will to resist--so reasoned leaders on both sides. But there were even more compelling reasons why Richmond became a military target, for besides being the political center of the Southern Confederacy, it was a medical and manufacturing center, and the primary supply depot for troops operating on the Confederacy's northeastern frontier.
Of the seven major drives launched against Richmond, two brought Union forces within sight of the city-George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign of 1862, culminating in the Seven Days' Battles, and Grant's crushing Overland Campaign of 1864 which ultimately brought the Confederacy tumbling down.
By early 1862 Gen. George B. McClellan had forged around the "cowering regiments" that survived the First Battle of Manassas a ponderous but disciplined 100,000-man fighting machine called the Army of the Potomac. With it he moved by water to invest east central Virginia and capture Richmond. The operation was to have been assisted by an overland assault by troops under Gen. Irvin McDowell and coordinated with a water-borne move up the James River. A Union naval attack was halted on May 15 at Drewry's Bluff and by May 24, when McClellan was deployed within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the Confederate capital, President Lincoln had become alarmed for Washington's safety and suspended McDowell's movement.
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander. now believing that McClellan planned to stay north of the James River, decided to attack. On May 31 Johnston's troops fell on the Federals near Fair Oaks. Although the resulting battle proved indecisive, it did produce significant results for both armies. The already deliberate McClellan was made even more cautious than usual. More important, because of a serious wound sustained by General Johnston during the battle, President Jefferson Davis placed Gen. Robert E. Lee in command of the defending forces.
McClellan, who had maintained a dangerous position astride the Chickahominy River expecting McDowell's corps to join him, hesitated too long. On June 26 Lee's Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Union right flank at Mechanicsville, then suffered heavy losses in futile attacks against the strong Union positions on Beaver Dam Creek. Thus began the Seven Days' Battles, a series of sidestepping withdrawals and holding actions that climaxed the Peninsular Campaign at Malvern Hill and enabled the Union army to avoid disaster by circling east of Richmond to the security of Federal gunboats on the James River at Harrison's Landing. When the Seven Days ended, some 35,000 soldiers, north and south, were casualties, and many on both sides probably shared the view of a young Georgian who wrote home: "I have seen, heard and felt many things in the last week that I never want to see, hear nor feel again. "
For two years, while the armies fought indecisively in northern Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Richmond entrenched and applauded Lee's unbroken successes in keeping northern armies at bay. In March 1864 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the field. Attaching himself to the Army of the Potomac, then under the command of Gen. George Gordon Meade, Grant embarked on an unyielding campaign against Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia. Said Lee: "We must stop this army of Grant's before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere matter of time."
In a series of flanking movements designed to cut Lee off from the Confederate capital, the Union army slipped past the southerners at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Totopotomoy Creek, although it suffered heavy casualties. At Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Grant's massive frontal assaults against the strongly entrenched Confederate lines failed dismally, with appalling casualties. For 10 days the badly bruised Federals and hungry Confederates broiled in the trenches under 100-degree heat then Grant silently withdrew, crossed the James River, and drove toward the important rail center of Petersburg, south of Richmond.
Throughout the late summer and fall Grant continued to threaten the outer defenses protecting Richmond and Petersburg. Several major assaults met with partial success, including the capture of Fort Harrison in September 1864. Winter weather eventually brought active operations to a close. Life in the trenches around the besieged cities became routine and humdrum. Just finding enough to eat and keeping warm became constant preoccupations.
Grant's successful siege of Petersburg over the winter of 1864-65 forced Lee to retreat westward from that city on April 2,1865. The following day, soon after dawn, Richmond's mayor, Joseph C. Mayo, delivered the following message to the commander of the Union forces waiting to enter the Confederate capital: "The Army of the Confederate Government having abandoned the City of Richmond, I respectfully request that you will take possession of it with organized force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property."
Upon evacuation of the city, the Confederate government authorized the burning of warehouses and supplies, which resulted in considerable damage to factories and houses in the business district. Before the charred ruins of Richmond had cooled, Lee, with the remnant of his army, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The collapse of the Confederacy followed swiftly.
Capital Cities of the Confederacy
The Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia (Library of Congress)
Founded in 1819, on the high bluffs above the Alabama River and 330 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Montgomery, Alabama quickly became the heart of the state's plantation economy. By 1846 Montgomery was named Alabama's capital. In 1861, 9,000 people lived in the city, considered the richest for its size in the nation. Montgomery was a transportation center, with steamboats traveling to Mobile, stagecoaches traveling east, and a railroad running northeast and southwest.
On January 11, 1861, the State of Alabama seceded from the Union. Less than one month later, in early February, the Alabama secession convention invited delegates of the other seceded states to meet in Montgomery to form the new Confederate nation. Delegates from six of the seven seceded states (the Texans arrived late) wrote a constitution for the Confederate States of America in only four days the next day they elected Jefferson Davis the Confederacy's president. In late February, Davis took the oath of office while standing on the portico of the state capitol in Montgomery.
Montgomery's three hotels and numerous boarding houses were crowded with government officials, politicians, soldiers, and newspapermen. It became more of a metropolis than a quiet village, with its streets crowded with carriages and horses, and people on the prowl for gossip, argument, and discussion. Everyone admired the town's beauty.
But by May the summer's humid heat and the mosquitoes changed many people's minds about Montgomery. So when the newly seceded Virginians offered their own state and their own capital as the seat of the Confederacy, many were eager to accept the offer. Mary Boykin Chesnut noted in her diary that her husband, a former U.S. Senator, was against the move. However, she remarked, "I think these uncomfortable hotels will move the Congress. Our statesmen love their ease."
Jefferson Davis was at first opposed, believing the capital should reside in the Deep South, where the feelings for secession were most fervent. However, the Confederate Congress approved the move and adjourned May 21, and scheduled to meet in Richmond two months later. As Dr. James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, "Virginia brought crucial resources to the Confederacy. Her population was the South's largest. Her industrial capacity was nearly as great as that of the seven original Confederate states combined. The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was the only plant in the South capable of manufacturing heavy ordnance. Virginia's heritage from the generation of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison gave her immense prestige. "
The Confederacy's Most Permanent Capital: Richmond, Virginia
Davis left Montgomery May 26 at the climax of the fervor following the fall of Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops. Arriving in Richmond, the capital of Virginia, on May 29, he was met by crowds at the railroad station and throngs along the streets to the Spotswood Hotel.
Richmond was a much larger metropolis than Montgomery. The heart of the South's industry, Richmond was also a market town specializing in flour and slaves. It was a beautiful town located at the foot of the Great Falls of the James River and on seven hills. Its citizens compared it to Rome. Between 1861 and 1865, its population swelled to 100,000 and more. Much to its citizens' dismay, many of the new residents were rowdy, noisy, and troublesome. In addition, because the city was the Confederate capital, it became the focus of Union attention. The threat of capture by Federal forces was constant.
Richmond at first thrived as the capital of the Confederacy. Then starved. Then burned when, at last, Robert E. Lee's forces were forced to retreat, leaving the city defenseless.
The Last Capital: Danville, Virginia
Located in south central Virginia, not far from the North Carolina border, Danville was the western terminus of the Richmond and Danville Railroad and a major Confederate supply base. Jefferson Davis and his government traveled to Danville as Richmond fell to the Federal army. The city was the seat of the Confederate government for only eight days, April 3-10, 1865.
Danville's quartermaster, Major William T. Sutherlin, offered his home to Davis and the Confederate government. Davis occupied an upstairs bedroom, and the Confederate cabinet met in the Sutherlin dining room. Davis delivered his final proclamation to the Confederate nation from the home on April 4.
Davis believed that Danville was only a temporary location for the government. He believed that the Confederacy had "entered upon a new phase of the struggle" in which the fight would not be tied to the defense of cities, but taken to the mountains in guerrilla warfare.
But Lee's decimated army could not hold out. The cabinet was sitting at dinner when word of Lee's surrender at Appomattox reached Danville. The Confederate government would have to move immediately. They had originally intended to move to Lynchburg, but with no army operating in Virginia, the government would have to move south, toward Joseph Johnston's army. Davis still had hope the Confederacy could survive the recent series of disasters. He left Danville, Virginia for Greensboro, North Carolina, in the rain.
Richmond Virginia during the Civil WarConfederate Museum (Jefferson Davis's house), Richmond, Va. Library of Congress
Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. While it is most notably known for being the capital, Richmond transformed as a city throughout the course of the war from an agricultural town to an industrial powerhouse. The tumultuous four-year period of the Civil War caused Richmond to shift from a city of government officials and industrial factories supporting the war effort in 1861 to a ravaged and crippled city in 1865.
The Virginia State Capitol had to accommodate the new Confederate Congress as well as the state legislature. The two legislative bodies met in this building until 1865, when it was captured by Union soldiers like these, who paused on the portico for a picture.
In 1860, much of Virginia was originally opposed to secession due to the strong economic ties to the Union through the tobacco industry, its agricultural trade, and the manufacturing powerhouse Tredegar Ironworks that produced iron used in railroads and weapons for the Federal stockpile.
When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17th, 1861, the debate of whether to move the capital of the Confederacy from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, was argued. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens believed moving the capital would provide Virginians with an incentive to fight for the Confederacy. Richmond’s proximity to Washington, D.C., would rally Virginians to fight for the newly formed Confederacy. Richmond also had an important symbolic history from the Revolutionary War era. Stephens, along with other Confederates knew of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech delivered in Richmond they also knew that Thomas Jefferson designed the Capitol building in Richmond. The symbolic history of Richmond was one reason for moving the capital, as Montgomery, Alabama, did not have such historic roots. Practically, however, Richmond was the most industrialized city in the South, as well as one of the few cities in the South with a large railroad network and provided a greater industrial advantage to the Confederacy than Montgomery could.
During the war, Richmond was an anarchic city that was riddled with crime. As Richmond’s population exponentially expanded due to an increase in Confederate officials from other states moving to the capital, criminal activity was widespread throughout Richmond. Whiskey shops lined Main Street and furloughed soldiers sprawled out on sidewalks in their drunken stupor. In the beginning of the war, drunken soldiers were the main cause of criminal activity in Richmond. Most civilians did not engage in criminal activity until the middle and end of the war. Civilians would pickpocket passersby’s pockets, and some would raid backyard gardens when there were food shortages. On April 2nd, 1863, the Richmond Bread Riot took place due to the rising cost of food and other necessities. Rioters took to the streets looting for two hours until the Confederate military threatened action against them. The Bread Riot increased the city’s awareness of how desperate the city had become for necessities and tried to make amends with starving Richmonders.
Richmond was the medical frontline to wounded soldiers arriving from the frontlines of battle. The largest hospital tending to wounded soldiers in Richmond was Chimborazo, located on a hill in the eastern part of the city. Chimborazo served as the largest hospital for the Confederacy and had one of the lowest mortality rates. The Medical College of Virginia (MCV) was one of the only medical southern schools that remained open and graduated classes throughout the entirety of the war. MCV’s recently constructed hospital in 1860 assisted in the treatment of wounded soldiers during the war, providing relief to Chimborazo as well as other field hospitals that were active in Richmond.
Richmond was the home of many enslaved individuals, and the war drastically impacted their lives. Before the Civil War, Virginia had the largest number of enslaved people in any Southern state in the Union. Slavery was the backbone of the Confederate workforce, especially in Richmond. Enslaved people in Richmond worked in all facets of the war. They worked on plantations to cultivate food and consumer goods such as cotton and tobacco. They worked in the industrial sector in Tredegar Ironworks as more white workers were needed by the Confederate army. Enslaved individuals were put to work at the Chimborazo Field Hospital as nurses and cooks. Slaves were also forced to build fortifications for the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg.
In 1865, Richmond and her surrounding neighbors experienced a long and drawn out siege. Dubbed the Siege of Petersburg, the siege itself was a multitude of brutal trench warfare battles fought in the town of Petersburg for nine months. Recently appointed General Ulysses S. Grant was at the mantle of the siege. Grant hoped to break a stalemate between the Union and the Confederacy by taking the fight directly to Robert E. Lee’s army. Grant bottled up Lee’s forces around Richmond and Petersburg, which in turn allowed the Federals to engage with Confederate forces in other sectors, and to seize or destroy southern war materials. Throughout the siege, Grant attempted to attack at Petersburg and Richmond simultaneously, which would apply pressure so that rebel forces could not shift reinforcements to threatened points.
General view of the burned district of Richmond Library of Congress
Following the crushing defeat at the Siege of Petersburg, the Confederate government began to evacuate from Richmond. While evacuating Richmond, the Confederacy burned any military supplies that they did not want to fall into Union hands. The fire could not be contained by the fire department due to a breeze that carried the fires across the city. After having no other choice, the mayor of Richmond relinquished control of the city to Union forces to extinguish the fires. On April 4th, President Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond and the former Confederate White House, along with the Virginia State Capital. Lincoln was met with a deafening roar of praise by newly freed slaves all along his route through the fallen Confederate capital. As Richmond finally fell after nearly four years of war, what was left General Robert E. Lee’s army trudged west, eventually finding themselves without supplies and cutoff by Federal forces at Appomattox. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9th, 1865, with the official surrender ceremonies taking place on April 12th, 1865.
After the war, Richmond rebuilt itself from the ashes of the Confederacy. Richmond was nearly destroyed from the fires. The lengthy process of reconstruction proved to be a challenging task for many Richmonders. State officials in Richmond rewrote Virginia’s Constitution that provided a sensible change that appealed to both Democrats and Republicans in Virginia.
Following the war, many deceased Confederate military officials were interred in Richmond, specifically Hollywood Cemetery. Hollywood Cemetery is the final resting place to officials such as former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with 25 Confederate generals including: J.E.B. Stuart, George Pickett, Fitzhugh Lee, and Henry Heth. Hollywood Cemetery is also the final resting place of former United States Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler. Hollywood Cemetery houses the remains of thousands of Confederate soldiers, as well as a large stone pyramid dedicated to 18,000 unknown Confederate soldiers. After the war, Richmond erected many markers and monuments commemorating the Confederate soldiers and generals who fought in the war on the famous Monument Avenue.
Richmond played an extremely significant part in the Civil War. Not only was it the headquarters of the Confederacy, but the city played a crucial part in executing the Confederacy’s war effort. From industrial centers manufacturing artillery and armaments to field hospitals tending to the wounded, Richmond during the Civil War was a city that took on the challenge of becoming a symbol for the Confederacy.
Confederate capital of Richmond is captured - HISTORY
When someone thinks of famous or important battles from the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg instantly springs to mind. The Civil War was fought between the Union (North) and the Confederacy (South). The strife arose from the debate over slavery, but in reality it had more to do with economics and geography. Cotton grew in abundance in the South, but not at all in the North. Much of the conflict arose from the fact that plantation owners were reaping huge profits by using free labor.
On this day, April 3, in 1865, Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederate States of America, was captured by the Union forces. This battle essentially marked the end of the Civil War. For anyone who understands strategy, gaining control of a government’s capital is the equivalent of cutting off an animal’s head. The North essentially subdued its prey.
Richmond was a central hub for the railroad, for military hospitals, and for prisoners of war. It was economically important to the Confederacy because of its diverse economic provisions, and it meant safety to many Confederates because of the jobs and military protection it offered. Capturing Richmond was the beginning of the end for one of the bloodiest wars in United States history.
History of Richmond, Virginia
Located along the fall line of the James River, Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although Richmond was incorporated as a town “to be styled the City of Richmond” in 1742, it was not until 1782 that it was incorporated as a city. Plentiful in Revolutionary War history, Richmond served also as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The beginning In 1607, after 10 days of travel up Powhatan’s River (later known as the James River), Captain John Smith and 120 men from Jamestown, Virginia, settled at the river's highest navigable location. Theirs was the first attempt to settle at the Falls of the James. Four years later in 1611, the governor of the new Jamestown colony organized an expedition to sail up the James and settled below the falls in a place they called Henricus. The first hospital in North America was located there, serving also as the home of Pocahontas. Struggles with the indigenous peoples began to simmer and then boil over after the death of Pocahontas in 1617, and her father Chief Powhatan the following year. Widespread Indian attacks during the Powhatan uprising of 1622 destroyed every English settlement along the James River except Jamestown. Led by the more aggressive Chief Opechancanough, the tribe massacred nearly 400 white settlers during a surprise attack in 1644. Two years later, the tribe was forced to sign a treaty that granted the English possession of the land below the Falls of the James. The neighborhoods of Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Slip, and Church Hill, where St. John's Church had been built the prior year, coalesced into one entity when Richmond was chartered as a town, in 1742. They were governed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, located in Jamestown. Importance during the Revolutionary War Richmond became a center of activity prior to and during the Revolutionary War. Patrick Henry’s famous speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” was delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s Church and was said to have inspired the House of Burgesses to pass a resolution to deliver Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War in 1775. One year later, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress. In 1780, during the War of Independence, Virginia’s state capital was moved to Richmond from Williamsburg. A year later, Richmond was burned to the ground by British troops during Benedict Arnold’s watch. By 1782, Richmond had recovered and was incorporated as a city. Slave trade center It is believed that between 1800 and 1865, an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 slaves were processed through the Shockoe Bottom slave auction blocks in Richmond, on their way to the Deep South. Shockoe Bottom served also as a burial ground for thousands of Africans whom had not survived the journey or died shortly after their entry into America. In one of the more creative and dangerous escapes by a slave in the mid-1800s, Henry “Box” Brown, with the help of a sympathetic white shoemaker, Samuel Smith, had himself nailed into a two- by three-foot box labeled “dry goods” and was loaded onto a northbound train from Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Civil War headquarters With an asset such as the city’s Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond became the capital for the Confederate States of America, in 1861. They served as the largest foundry in the South and the third-largest in antebellum United States. The foundry produced more than 2,200 cannon including 12-pounder Napoleans, three-inch ordinance guns, and heavy coastal cannon, and more than 700 tons of ironclad, some of which was used to cover the CSS Virginia * which engaged the USS Monitor, in the four-hour battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, in March 1862. When it was imminent that Ulysses S. Grant would overtake nearby Petersburg in April 1865, CSA President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet abandoned Richmond. Taking the last unobstructed railroad train out of Richmond, they fled south to safer territory in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they met in secret until the end of the war. Having been instructed to set the bridges, armory, and supply warehouses on fire, retreating soldiers caused a fire that destroyed large parts of Richmond. The following day the city’s mayor surrendered Richmond to Union soldiers and requested assistance to put out the fires. Federal troops were removed from Richmond in 1870, after the state was readmitted to the Union. Innovation and Invention Richmond kept its Confederate history alive even after Reconstruction ended, as it embraced the winds of change blowing through the city. Monument Avenue, established in 1877, was erected to honor such important Confederate figures of Richmond as Davis, JEB Stuart, Robert E. Lee, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew F. Maury, a prominent oceanographer and nicknamed “Pathfinder of the Seas.” In 1888, the country’s first successful trolley system opened in Richmond. Designed by electric power pioneer Frank J. Sprague, the system soon replaced horse-drawn cars. The street railway system of the late 1800s and beginning of the 1900s brought welcomed growth to Richmond. The tobacco industry aided Richmond in coming out of the economic slump caused by The Great Depression. Thanks to tobacco producer Philip Morris and others, Richmond was back on its feet within five years, and the value of its real estate had increased 250 percent between 1935 and 1936. As Richmond was entering the post-[World War II] lifestyle, it was introduced to new uses for natural gas in 1950. In addition, the highest production of cigarettes in the city’s history occurred in 1952, at a 110 billion in one year. Originally approved for 15 exits, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike revolutionized travel when it opened in 1958. The toll road was soon given the designation of Interstate 95 through Richmond but divided into Interstates 85 and 95 South at nearby Petersburg. Modern Richmond When Hurricane Agnes dropped 16 inches of rain over central Virginia in 1972, the James River flooded Richmond. Flood waters in the river reached 6.5 feet higher than the historical 200-year-old record. Thirteen years later, a multi-million dollar floodwall was erected to prevent the rising waters of the river from overflowing again. To validate their place in the civil rights movement, Richmondites elected L. Douglas Wilder as the first African-American governor in America. A grandson of former slaves, Wilder was sworn in as governor of the State of Virginia, in 1990. After years of decline in the economy of the downtown area, the expanded floodwall opened up portions of the riverfront for development. At the beginning of the 21st century, revitalization efforts yielded a 1.25-mile corridor of trendy apartments, restaurants, shops, and hotels. Located along the Canal Walk, the corridor is located where the old James River, Kanawha Canal, and the Haxal Canal once flowed. In an attempt to lure more tourists to the history-rich area, the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service, opened three floors of exhibits and artifacts in the old Tredegar Iron Works in 2000. Other attractions Aside from the redeveloped riverfront, “River City” has a number of other places of interest for history buffs and travelers. Once deemed the “Black Wall Street” sometime during the 1800s because of its many banks, Jackson Ward continues as one of the most historic areas of the city and encompasses more than 40 neighborhood blocks. Known as the “Harlem of the South,” Jackson Ward was frequented by such famous blacks as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and James Brown, at such popular venues the historic Hippodrome Theater. Visitors can dine at popular Croaker’s Spot, Richmond's famous soul-food, seafood institution see the monument of “Bojangles,” who donated a stoplight for the safety of neighborhood children or view artifacts at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center located on Clay Street. Richmond is also home to the Museum of the Confederacy and the adjoining White House of the Confederacy, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which contains the largest collection of Faberge objects outside of Russia. For youth-oriented activities, visitors will enjoy the Children’s Museum of Richmond, with its IMAX theater, and the nearby Virginia Museum of Science. The American Civil War Center, with its debut sometime in 2006, will be the first museum of its kind to interweave, in a national context, the historical accounts of how Union, Confederate, and African-American soldiers fought next to and across from each other during the Civil War. Institutes of Higher Learning The diversity of population and culture is represented quite strongly in the higher learning institutions located in the area. Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts ranks one of the best art schools in the country. The University of Richmond was founded by Virginia Baptists, in 1830, as a liberal arts university, and currently enrolls 3,000 undergraduate and 1,200 graduate students in law, business, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Historically a black university, Virginia Union University was founded by a former slave trader, in 1865. Sports and live action Although the area does not have any major league professional sports team, Richmond residents are privy to many minor league sports activities, including the Richmond Braves baseball team, the Atlanta Braves’ AAA affiliate, which plays at The Diamond. The Richmond Kickers soccer team plays at the University of Richmond Stadium, and the Richmond Riverdogs, which represent the city in the United Hockey League. Others sporting events include NASCAR racing at the Richmond International Raceway, where two annual Nextel NASCAR races are held, and thoroughbred racing at Colonial Downs, which hosts the prestigious Virginia Derby and other horse races, in nearby New Kent county.
* The Virginia was built using the remains of the scuttled USS Merrimack. She was raised from the bottom of the James River at the shipyards near Portsmouth, rebuilt using the engines and the hull, and outfitted with ironclad siding.
The Fall of Confederate Richmond
On the morning of Sunday April 2, 1865 Confederate lines near Petersburg broke after a nine month seige. The retreat of the army left the Confederate capital of Richmond, 25 miles to the north, defenseless. This video provides a visual overview of some of the most significant events of the dramatic days that followed.
Over the next three days, the Confederate government evacuated, mobs looted countless stores, fire consumed as many as a thousand buildings, the Union army occupied the city, thousands were emancipated from bondage, and President Abraham Lincoln toured the former Confederate Capital. This animated map illustrates how these momentous events unfolded in time and space.
A Note on Sources and Tools
We know when and where many of the events of April 2, 3, and 4 occurred. Given their importance, some participants and observers recorded to the minute exactly when certain events happened. But for others we have ambiguous or even contradictory evidence. For instance, we know that looting was widespread on the night of April 3, but we don't know exactly when and where most individual acts of looting happened. (It probably is wishful thinking to hope that drunken looters would have kept detailed and accurate diaries.) To create this animated map we have considred a substantial number of sources and used our best judgment as to where to exactly to place events in time and space.
Indispensable newspaper accounts of the evacuation, fire, occupation, and Lincoln's visit appeared in the Richmond Whig , New York Herald , and New York Times in April 1865. Many of the key articles have been compiled by Mike Gorman on his Civil War Richmond website. The work of journalist Charles Coffin presents what little we know of slave trader Robert Lumpkin's efforts to evacuate his human property: his "Late Scenes in Richmond" in the June 1865 issue of the Atlantic and his Freedom Triumphant .
The video draws heavily from the research of others. Nelson Lankford's Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital is arguably the best history of the fall of Richmond. For our map, A.A. and Mary Hoehling's The Last Days of the Confederacy and The Day Richmond Died were particularly useful as they provide nearly hour-by-hour accounts of events. For Lincoln's visit we relied on the detailed account provided in Mike Gorman's "A Conquerer or a Peacemaker?: Abraham Lincoln in Richmond" that appeared in volume 123.1 of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography . Leon F. Litwack narrates some of the dramatic events related to the end of slavery in Richmond in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery .A number of other works were helpful as well: Rembert W. Patrick's The Fall of Richmond , Ernest B. Furgurson's Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War , and James C. Clark's The Last Train South: The Flight of the Confederate Government .
The map was created using the mapping library Leaflet, and many of the animated features use CartoDB's visualization tools.
A Bit More About the Map
This video was created for the April 4, 2015 "Richmond's Journey in Nine Questions" "Pop-up" Museum on Capitol Square.
The map was created by the Digital Scholarship Lab. Robert K. Nelson created and developed the code for the map. Justin Madron created and managed much of the spatial data. Nate Ayers created the framework for the website and assisted with the design of the map. Lily Calaycay georeferenced a number of events.
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.
Fall of the South: Breakthrough and the Burning of Richmond
The endgame of the Civil War began on April 1, 1865, when Union forces defeated the ragged and outnumbered Confederates at the Battle of Five Forks, then shattered their defensive lines decisively at the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2. As Robert E. Lee led the battered Army of North Virginia west in a final, desperate retreat into central Virginia, Union forces entered the Confederate capital at Richmond unopposed – only to find it engulfed in flames, a fitting epitaph for the Southern rebellion (top, the ruins of Richmond).
On March 24, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general assault on the rebel lines to begin March 29, a plan unchanged by the desperate breakout attempt on March 25. As Union forces maneuvered to the southwest of Petersburg, threatening to cut off Lee’s line of retreat, on March 31 the Confederate general-in-chief tried to disrupt the unfolding offensive with two attacks of his own, at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Courthouse. Rebel commander George Pickett scored a limited victory over Philip Sheridan’s cavalry at Dinwiddie Courthouse, but withdrew as Sheridan was reinforced. This preliminary encounter set the stage for the Battle of Five Forks.
On the morning of April 1, Sheridan led his combined force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, 22,000 strong, northwest in search of Pickett’s smaller force of 10,600 men, now dug in facing south at Five Forks, where White Oak Road intersected three other roads (above, Five Forks today). Arriving in front of the Confederate positions around 1pm, Sheridan’s cavalry dismounted and pinned the Confederates down with rifle fire in order to gain time for the Union infantry to catch up.
Around 4:15 Sheridan ordered a general assault, with Gouverneur Warren leading an infantry attack on the Confederate left (eastern) flank, followed by two simultaneous attacks by dismounted cavalry troopers, one led by George Armstrong Custer (of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame) against the Confederate right (western) flank, and a second led by Thomas Devin against the Confederate front. Sheridan hoped the first attack would force Pickett to weaken his center and right to hold off the threat to his left flank, clearing the way for the dismounted cavalry to roll up the Confederate positions from the west.
However confusion reigned on both sides during the Battle of Five Forks. The Union troops believed the Confederate left wing was located much further east than it was, resulting in a delay as they hurried west to engage the enemy. Meanwhile the Confederate commander, Pickett, was enjoying a picnic a little over a mile to the north and didn’t know he was under attack at Five Forks at first because the landscape blocked the noises of battle he belatedly hurried south to take charge when the battle was already well underway.
By this point the Union attack attack was faltering under heavy rifle and cannon fire from the Confederate left wing – but Sheridan himself leapt into the fray and helped rally some of the disorganized troops for a crucial charge, as recounted by his staff officer Horace Porter:
Sheridan rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: 'Where is my battle-flag?' As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson-and-white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were now humming like a swarm of bees about our heads, and shells were crashing through the ranks… All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle.
There was plenty of dramatic heroism to go around that day, as the Confederates withdrew and reestablished their defensive line on the left flank two more times, requiring renewed attacks to dislodge them. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a college professor-turned-officer from Maine, already famous for his bravery and quick thinking at Gettysburg) described what it was like for Union infantry charging Confederate guns in the face of withering cannon fire near Ford’s Road:
Ploughed through by booming shot torn by ragged bursts of shell riddled by blasts of whistling canister— straight ahead to the guns hidden in their own smoke straight on to the red, scorching flame of the muzzles,— the giant grains of cannon-powder beating, burning, sizzling into the cheek then in upon them!— pistol to rifle-shot saber to bayonet musket-butt to handspike and rammer the brief frenzy of passion the wild 'hurrah' then the sudden, unearthly silence the ghastly scene the shadow of death…
By nightfall Sheridan’s attacking force had routed the Confederates, inflicting over 1,000 casualties and taking at least 2,000 prisoners (below, Confederate soldiers captured at Five Forks), at a cost of only 830 casualties to themselves – an especially favorable result considering Pickett’s force was just half the size and could scarcely afford these losses. On the other hand at least half the Confederate force managed to escape and Sheridan, annoyed and quick to judgment, took out his frustrations on Warren by relieving him of command, triggering a controversy that raged long after the war was over.
But for the moment jubilation reigned, as even ordinary Union soldiers understood victory was now within reach. According to Porter, “The roads in many places were corduroyed with captured muskets ammunition-trains and ambulances were still struggling forward teamsters, prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway… cheers were resounding on all sides, and everybody was riotous over the victory.”
On the other side this anticipation was matched by dread of imminent defeat. One of Lee’s favorite generals, John Brown Gordon, remembered the great captain saying, “It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”
With the Confederate right flank turned, exposing the already overstretched defenders to attack from the rear, Grant knew Lee might now try to withdraw his whole army from Petersburg, abandoning Richmond to the Yankees, then quickly destroy Sheridan’s force and head south, hoping to join forces with Johnston’s army facing Sherman in North Carolina. Of course this would be a gamble for Lee, as it meant leaving strong defensive positions and hoping the enemy didn’t catch on until it was too late.
To prevent him from doing this, after Five Forks Grant immediately ordered a general assault to begin in the early morning of April 2, intending to pin Lee’s forces in their trenches while Sheridan began to roll them up from the west. The Union Army of the James under Edward Ord would hit all along the line, with the Union VI Corps under Horatio Wright and II Corps under Andrew Humphreys attacking the Confederate center southwest of Petersburg, while the IX Corps under John Parke pressed the Confederates east of the city. At the same time Sheridan would continue pushing north to cut off the Confederate line of retreat to the west.
At 4:30 am on April 2 the IX Corps launched its attack to pin down defenders east of Petersburg, and ten minutes later the left wing of Wright’s VI Corps began moving towards Confederate positions southwest of the city, advancing 600 yards over mostly open ground in gloomy darkness. This attack would pit around 14,000 attackers against just 2,800 defenders spread out along a mile of defensive line. As they forced their way through defensive obstacles Confederate artillery and rifle fire inflicted heavy casualties, but were unable to stop the blue wave that now washed over the rebel parapet. This breakthrough cleared the way for Wright’s VI Corps to turn southwest and attack the neighboring force of 1,600 Confederate defenders from the rear. By 7 am this force was also on the run, while further west Humphreys’ II Corps was attacking the next section of Confederate defenses.
As the sun rose the Confederate line had been broken wide open, and another Union army corps, the XXIV, was pouring into the gap to support the advance and defend against counterattacks. With rebel defenses completely collapsing, around 9 am Ord and Wright decided to turn northeast and join the attack on the remaining Confederate forces at Petersburg.
Seeing the situation was now untenable, Lee advised Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War John Breckenridge that he would have to withdraw his army from Petersburg before the enemy cut off its only remaining line of retreat to the west. Of course this meant abandoning Richmond, so the Confederate government would have to flee as well. As fighting continued into the afternoon of April 2, hundreds of wagons were hurriedly filled with government property and official documents and dispatched to Lee for protection (seriously impeding his mobility).
At 8 pm on April 2, the Army of Northern Virginia began to withdraw in an orderly fashion along roads northwest of Petersburg a few hours later the Confederate cabinet and treasury left Richmond on a train bound for Danville, Virginia. Richmond itself was left defenseless. On the other side, as soon as he found out the Confederates had abandoned Petersburg Grant ordered a hot pursuit, chasing the enemy west along the Appomattox River. John Brown Gordon later recalled the nightmarish days that followed:
Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on the flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On and on, hour after hour, from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle.
After 292 days, the Siege of Petersburg was over, and the last campaign of the war had begun.
Richmond In Flames
Unfortunately for the residents of Richmond, the end of the siege didn’t mean an end to their suffering – just the opposite. Many were about to lose their homes in a huge conflagration that began on the evening of April 2 and continue into April 3, gutting the center of the city.
While there’s still controversy about which side was responsible for burning Columbia, in Richmond’s case the Confederates were definitely to blame. Confederate commanders ordered their soldiers to set fire to bridges, warehouses, and weapons caches before retreating in order to deny them to the enemy. Although they probably didn’t mean to torch the whole town, these fires quickly blazed out of control and burned the entire downtown district to the ground (below, a Currier and Ives painting).
As with the burning of Columbia, the sights that greeted occupying Union troops in the early morning hours of April 3, 1865 was both terrible and spectacular. One observer, George A. Bruce, painted a vivid picture of Richmond in flames:
The wind, increasing with the conflagration, was blowing like a hurricane, hurling cinders and pieces of burning wood with long trails of flame over the houses to distant quarters of the city. The heated air, dim with smoke and filled with the innumerable particles that float from the surface of so great a fire, rendered it almost impossible to breathe.
Few in the north probably shed many tears for the capital of the rebellion, but the human cost was very real, as ordinary people, already facing starvation, now lost their homes as well. On entering the town Bruce encountered a pathetic and also rather surreal sight:
The square was a scene of indescribable confusion. The inhabitants fleeing from their burning houses – men, women and children, white and black – had collected there for a place of safety, bringing with them whatever was saved from the flames. Bureaus, sofas, carpets, beds and bedding, in a word, every conceivable article of household furniture, from baby-toys to the most costly mirrors, were scattered promiscuously on the green…
The only rational thing left for the Confederate government to do was surrender and bring an end to the suffering – and yet as so often in history reason was no match for the momentum of war. In North Carolina, where Johnston’s beleaguered army could do nothing to stop Sherman’s much larger force, Confederate Senator W.A. Graham bitterly criticized the irrational indecision and irresponsibility that now paralyzed the Southern elite, preventing it from accepting the inevitable:
… the wisest and best men with whom I had been associated, or had conversed, were anxious for a settlement but were so trammeled by former committals, and a false pride, or other like causes, that they were unable to move themselves… but were anxious that others should… it was now the case of a beleaguered garrison before a superior force, considering the question whether it was best to capitulate on terms, or hold out to be put to the sword on a false point of honor.