Virginia at War: Part I

Before the Storm
Roche Cannons Landscape
T.C. Roche made this haunting and well-composed panorama of captured Confederate guns at the wharf in Richmond.

Virginia had a rich history long before the Civil War.  The American Revolution had ended at Yorktown, and the names of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Henry were known to all.  Six of the country's fifteen pre-war Presidents were born in Virginia.  When the political situation became more inflammatory as the 1850s drew to a close, Virginians remained sharply divided over the issue of secession, but eventually cast their lot with the new Confederacy when Lincoln called for volunteers after the fall of Fort Sumter.  This decision would come to define Virginia and scar her landscape forever.


The pre-war U.S. Army was small, insular, and spent most of its time guarding distant forts along the western frontier. Here officers at Fort Monroe, near Hampton, entertain their ladies.


John Brown's 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry deepened an already gaping sectional divide. Northerners lionized Brown in song and poem, which deeply offended the South. Brown's hanging was an important step in the long road to war.


One hundred miles south of Washington, D.C., Richmond was a fast-growing cosmopolitan city of 37,910 souls. In 1858, a new equestrian monument of George Washington was fitted to its base in Richmond's Capitol Square.


In May 1861, Col. Elmer Ellsworth was shot by the proprietor of the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria after removing a Confederate flag from the roof, becoming the first Union officer killed in the Civil War.


Why Virginia

Unlike most of the Deep South, Virginia was an industrialized state by the time of the Civil War.  Factories and mills drew more and more people to her cities.  Boosters of the day thumped their chests with pride at the rapid advances made and hoped for a bright future.  Tobacco, flour and textiles made Virginia's economy strong.  When Virginia cast her lot with the seceding Southern states and Richmond became the Confederate capital, the city was destined to become a seat of war.

Virginia is surrounded and crisscrossed by rivers and mountains, making invasion difficult. Harpers Ferry, in northwest Virginia, which had been a flashpoint for sectional tensions in 1859, was a literal stronghold, perfectly illustrating the challenge of invasion.


Barely 20 miles south of Washington, invaders encountered their first formidable river. Confederates saw these rivers as natural barriers, ready-made for defense. These Confederate soldiers posed defiantly for a camera across the Rappahannock River from their position at Fredericksburg.


What logic placed the Confederate capital so close to Washington? As shown in this pre-war engraving, five railroad lines crossed the James River near Richmond. Rails and canals made up an extensive and valuable transportation network that few southern cities could match.


Richmond's industry was also booming. The Tredegar Iron Works -- the largest in the South -- was capable of making railroad material, cannon and ironclad plating for the Southern war machine. In this light, the decision to make Richmond the Confederate capital is quite logical.

Peculiar Institution

In 1860 Virginia was home to more slaves than any other state.  Her 490,865 slaves were often used as a commodity, and sold "down the river" to other slave states.  By the time war came, slavery was becoming intertwined with industry, just as it had been with agriculture.  Prior to the war, several major events focused national attention on slavery in Virginia.  Gabriel Prosser led a slave rebellion near Richmond in 1800.  Nat Turner's 1831 revolt left 55 white men, women and children dead.  John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry failed to incite a slave rebellion, but caught the national attention.  Increasingly, Northern sentiment cast slavery as a moral evil, while Southerners viewed their "peculiar institution" as a social and economic good.

Once the Union army had occupied Alexandria, photographers found this former slave dealers' building.


Inside, the filthy jail cells made an irresistible, and haunting, target. The proximity of the location to Washington, D.C., was not lost on Northern viewers.


Even before emancipation was a war policy, slaves in Virginia saw Union armies as their beacon of freedom and thronged into their camps. Most slaves behind Union lines, like these at Cumberland Landing, were considered 'contraband of war,' and were put to work in camps.


Alexander Gardner captured this contraband family at Haxall's Mill, Richmond in 1865. This powerful image focuses the viewer's attention on the former slave family in front of the ruins of the Confederate capital, shifting attention toward honoring wartime promises made to families like this one.

Confederate Capital

Within 100 miles stood two warring capitals.  Both sides thought the war would be a quick affair.  The realization that this was not to be forced Northern and Southern statesmen to construct an apparatus for winning the war, as well as governing their countries.  Richmond, the new Confederate capital, suddenly found itself glutted with politicians, office-seekers, wounded and sick soldiers, captured Union prisoners and slaves whose owners had fled the oncoming Union army.

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.


Buildings never designed for the purpose became Confederate Government office buildings. The former Customs House, pictured here in 1865, held the offices of the Treasury Department, the War Department (briefly) and the Executive Branch. President Jefferson Davis' office was on the left side of the building.


Richmond's pre-war hospitals and private residences were ill-equipped for the thousands of sick and wounded flooding the city. Eventually, the Confederate government established large, general facilities, such as Chimborazo Hospital, which could accommodate 5,000 patients at once and treated more men during the war than any other hospital.


The capital needed to house prisoners of war, too. Union troops lounge outside Libby Prison, pictured here in 1865 after Richmond had fallen. Libby was the main depot for prisoners in the Eastern Theater and a notorious prison for Union officers.

Making an Army

Both sides expected the war to be a quick, decisive affair.  Eager young men, often in resplendent militia uniforms, joined the opposing armies and were offered short terms of enlistment.  Few expected the war to last into the winter of 1861, let alone beyond.  When it did, both sides had to scramble to transform their sunshine soldiers into professional armies.

Manassas, in July 1861, was the first major battle of the Civil War and a Northern disaster. The Union army fled back to Washington and the Confederates had a new hero -- newly promoted Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.


In the wake of the disaster, Lincoln summoned 34-year old Maj. Gen George B. McClellan, at center, to organize the demoralized Union forces. No one looked the part like McClellan -- his image was carefully cultivated to inspire his troops. Often, it worked.


The recruits who crowded Washington and Richmond were patriotic and eager, but both those qualities were not enough. McClellan and his Confederate counterparts spent many long months molding this raw clay, such as these Connecticut soldiers, into a fighting force.


Despite calls for action, the fall and winter of 1861 passed without an offensive. Union soldiers spent the winter in relative ease and comfort. Here, soldiers of the 7th New York form a human pyramid. Opportunities for such play diminished the following year.

Learn More About Virgina at War: Confederates Ascendant | In the Trenches | Panoramas of War