Civil War 150th: Confederates come to Richmond

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

By Katherine Calos
Published: June 26, 2011

Richmond before the Civil War was important – symbolically for its Revolutionary history, politically as Virginia’s capital, materially as a manufacturing center and wrenchingly for its slave market.

But after Richmond became the capital of the breakaway Confederate States of America, the city became the single most important strategic location on the continent.

From a Southern perspective, Richmond was a magnet for Confederate politicians, bureaucrats, office-seekers, lobbyists, businessmen, refugees and soldiers. From a Northern perspective, “on to Richmond” signaled the path to victory.

If there’s a parallel to the impact of moving the capital to Richmond in the first months of the Civil War, it’s hard to find. Mike Gorman, a ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park and creator of a Richmond Civil War website, has considered the possibilities.

The influx of people might be like the Olympics, except those visitors are gone in a few weeks. The flow of refugees might be like recent conflicts in Africa, except the earliest Civil War refugees were often wealthy people who moved to secure their property (especially their human property) rather than the downtrodden escaping oppression. The military buildup might have been similar to American troops flooding England in World War II, except Allied forces were more widely dispersed.

And all of it was happening at the same time.

“What had been the third-largest city in the South becomes the political and military and cultural center overnight,” Gorman said. “I don’t think you can find anything like that anywhere.”

Targeting of the city was immediate.

Winfield Scott, a Virginia native and commanding general of U.S. troops, promised to dine in Richmond on July 4, 1861, expecting the city to be captured by then. The New York Tribune picked July 20 as the date the Stars and Stripes would be flying over Richmond if Washington did its duty. “The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there,” the Tribune wrote on June 26.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was also impatient. He arrived in Richmond on May 29, and on June 18 he wrote to his brother, Joseph E. Davis, that western Virginia was “no doubt against us and the counties bordering on the Potomac are to a great extent unsound.

“Had the people of this state been as united as those of the cotton states, we should have felt less the embarrassment of imperfect preparation,” Davis wrote. “Perhaps we might now have been contending for the bank of the Susquehanna instead of retiring from the Potomac.

“Troops are daily arriving from the South and I hope before long to be able to change from the defensive to an offensive attitude.”

The Virginia Convention had voted for Union on April 4, 1861. Less than two weeks later, delegates reversed themselves on April 17 and voted to secede, subject to approval by voters on May 23. On April 25, according to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, the convention ratified a temporary military alliance with the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Congress accepted Virginia in a secret session on May 7 and voted May 20 to reconvene in Richmond on July 20.

June was when the city population began to explode from 37,910 in the 1860 census to double or possibly triple that number. The city changed from a place where everyone knew one another to a place where people never knew who might be around.

The Confederate Provisional Congress brought in 116 members. About a thousand civil servants came with the government from Montgomery, Ala. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 troops were in camps waiting for assignment to the lines.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was decidedly in favor of moving the government to Richmond, said Dean Knight, supervisor of the White House of the Confederacy.

Montgomery had become the first Confederate capital almost by chance, Knight said. “It wasn’t exactly chosen as the capital of the Confederacy. It was a meeting place,” he said. South Carolina asked delegates from the seceded states to gather there to write a provisional constitution. Those delegates became the Provisional Congress and Montgomery became the provisional capital.

“One of the problems with Montgomery, it was so small compared to Richmond,” Knight said. Montgomery had only about 8,500 people and two hotels. “A lot of the delegates were used to better things. They had spent time in Washington as Senators and Cabinet members. . . .

“Montgomery wasn’t doing a great job handling the new government moving in. They didn’t have the buildings, the space, the infrastructure, the transportation network. Richmond had a lot more of all of those things, compared to Montgomery.”

The state’s Revolutionary War history was also appealing to a new government that envisioned itself as continuing the Revolution against government tyranny. The equestrian statue of George Washington appeared on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

Richmond’s manufacturing center was crucial to the South, and Davis knew it would have to be defended. Virginia would be a battleground.

“Davis wanted to be in the thick of things, and he knew it was going to be in Virginia,” Knight said.

Richmond was better prepared than Montgomery, but events moved faster than preparations.

“It was perceived as a mass migration to Richmond,” said Emory Thomas, a native Richmonder, history professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and author of “The Confederate State of Richmond.”

Davis and his wife, Varina, moved into the Spotswood Hotel at 8th and Main streets, where the new social pecking order began to be sorted out around the Davis dinner table that summer. The city of Richmond had paid $35,000 for a house at 12th and Clay streets to serve as the executive mansion, but it wasn’t ready yet.

“Richmond’s social matrons went ballistic. These outsiders were taking over,” Thomas said, “and they ultimately resented Varina Davis, who should have been the first lady of not only the Confederacy but Richmond society, and she wasn’t . . . The whole nature of society changed in Richmond.”

Other hotels also were busy.

“The rapid influx overwhelmed them,” wrote newspaperman T.C. DeLeon in his 1893 memoir, “Four Years in Rebel Capitals,” which he based on his notes during the war.

The Spotswood, Exchange and American Hotels “held beds at a high premium in the parlors, halls and even on the billiard tables. … Crowds of guests stood hungrily round the dining-room doors at mealtimes, watching and scrambling for vacated seats. … Such a thing as a clean room, a hot steak or an answered bell were not to be bought by flagrant bribery.”

People with extra rooms started renting them out. Some houses were turned into apartments. Families crowded together as refugees began to arrive from areas under Union control.

Meanwhile, lobbyists, businessmen, job-seekers and hucksters looked for ways to profit from the new government.

When Robert E. Lee wrote the governor on June 14 requesting more laborers to work on the defenses of the city, free blacks were commandeered to do the work at a private’s pay of $11 a month.

Regiments of soldiers marched through the streets on their way to assignments in the field. DeLeon decided he could identify the troops by sight.

“Here the long-haired Texan, sitting on his horse like a centaur, with high-peaked saddle and jingling spurs, dashed by – a pictured gaucho. There the western mountaineer, with bearskin shirt, fringed leggings, and the long, deadly rifle, carried one back to the days of Boone and the ‘dark and bloody ground.’ The dirty gray and tarnished silver of the muddy-complexioned Carolinian; the dingy butternut of the lank, muscular Georgian, with its green trimming and full skirts; and the Alabamians from the coast, nearly all in blue of a cleaner hue and neater cut; while the Louisiana troops were, as a general thing, better equipped and more regularly uniformed than any others in the motley throng.”

The colorful New Orleans Zouaves weren’t universally admired, however. At restaurants, they told the owners to bill their lavish meals to the government. Chickens disappeared near any of the military encampments.

Crime increased, including prostitution. On June 6, police closed down a house of ill repute run by Mary Wilson near Shockoe Creek. Less than a week later, according to Thomas’ research, her partner Mary Walker charged three soldiers with the crime of “violating her person.” On July 20, when the house was in full operation again, the two Marys were fined $200 and sent to jail.

Prices also increased rapidly.

As early as April 29, Abby Manly Gwathmey wrote to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Basil Manly, that “These times are truly trying times. Husbands, brothers, children and friends all gone off to fight for our rights. Provisions so high and scarce that they can hardly be bought. Business men failing and everything in such an excited state that it almost sets one crazy.”

She thanked her mother for sending some recipes. “I must try to make as many things of eggs and milk as I can so as to save using so much butter and meat,” she wrote. “Butter is from 40 to 50 cents a pound, and the meat that we get is hardly fit to eat. As yet there are no vegetables in market; sometimes there are a few asparagus, radishes and lettuce, but they ask so much for them that it hurts my conscience to buy them.”

Ordinary family life continued despite the disruptions. Anita Dwyer Withers of Texas, wife of Capt. John Withers, was excited on June 8 that their son Eddie had taken his first steps. She remembered July 4 very differently:

“The fourth was celebrated here in a very quiet way. Eddie was taken sick suddenly last night about twelve o-clock. He suffered very much. We were up with him all night.”

On the 10th, she said “he couldn’t even hold his little head up,” and by the 19th “the darling got very low. By evening we could not warm his little feet and hands.” The next day, “my babe departed,” she wrote. “The bishop tried to comfort and console us, but it was difficult at that time of intense grief and anguish of heart. I felt as if they were tearing my soul from my body.”

Later in the war, grief would become a constant companion in many of the diaries, said John Coski, historian and vice president for research and publications of the Museum of the Confederacy.

“People were getting accustomed to the idea of being at war,” Coski said. “In later periods things [like] that would not elicit much comment. . . . [They were] in more innocent times when each death could be mourned rather than the mass killing that came later.”

Mary Chestnut, the famous diarist who was married to a South Carolina congressman, remembered the first summer of secession as a happy time to be in Richmond. On July 4, she wrote about the “noise of drums, tramp of marching regiments all day long; rattling of artillery wagons, bands of music, friends from every quarter coming in.

“We ought to be miserable and anxious, and yet these are pleasant days. Perhaps we are unnaturally exhilarated and excited.”

The pace of change in Richmond was dizzying.

“It all comes down so fast,” Gorman said. “At the beginning of April, it’s no [to secession]. At the middle of April, it’s yes. By the end of May, they’re the capital of the Confederacy.

“It’s so fast that I can’t even imagine how even then you get your arms around it.”

City leaders swelled with pride, but an increased risk came with the city’s new status. By summer, Richmond was beginning to see disease outbreaks from crowding. Some newcomers couldn’t find homes. Prices were rising. People started to speculate on ordinary necessities like sugar and salt.

“It was a really hectic time,” Gorman said.

“It was simultaneously the best thing ever and the worst thing ever.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>