The Rise and Fall of Richmond
Before the War: Richmond was a thriving center of commerce in the years preceding the American Civil War. Richmond's merchants supplied Northern markets with tobacco; its flour-milling firms dominated trade with South America; and Tredegar Iron Works produced railroad iron and ordnance for the federal government. Richmond was also an integral part of the slave trade in America. Thousands of enslaved Africans passed through Richmond on their way to the various auction houses within the city.
Secession: Torn over the decision of whether or not to secede from the Union, Virginia was geographically, economically, socially and culturally “between” the North and South. The debate to remain in the Union had raged for months. On April 4, 1861 Virginia had in fact, voted to stay in the Union. Only after war had broken out between the North and South did Virginians make the decision to secede.
The New Confederate Capital: In May of 1861 the Confederacy moved its capital from Montgomery, AL to Richmond. The Richmond Dispatch reported President Jefferson Davis arrived in Richmond “to resounding, deafening cheers, oft repeated, for Davis and the Southern Confederacy, from several thousand willing mouths, honest hearts, and warm hands.”
The War Years: Richmond played many roles during the war. Capital, hospital and prison center and manufacturer of war supplies for the South - and a strategic military objective of the North. One-fourth of the war’s battles and 60% of its casualties occurred within a 75-mile radius of the city. Civilians suffered as well. Food and other items were often in short supply in addition to the continual threat of Union invasion.
The City Burns: On April 2, 1865 orders were given to evacuate the city and burn all the cotton, tobacco and other property which owners could not carry away to prevent it from falling into the hands of the advancing Union troops. By dawn of April 3, the warehouse district was in flames. A southerly wind spread the fire to many other parts of the city. Witnesses observed mobs had formed and “broke open and pillaged stores and committed excesses of every kind. From midnight until dawn the city was a pandemonium. A greater portion of the principal business part of Richmond was a blazing furnace.”
Union Occupation and Reconstruction: By April 3, 1865 the Confederates had evacuated and Union troops entered Richmond. Efforts were organized to extinguish the fires and on April 4, Lincoln toured the city just days before his assassination. During the next several decades Richmond rebuilt a new and thriving city from the ashes of war.