Virginia: Richmond Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Richmond, the capital of Virginia, is a city rich in American history. It served as a site of several encounters during the American Revolution. As the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was a central target for the Union army. Richmond today is a vibrant city, offering a multitude of interesting sites and side trips, and is surrounded by the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Site Office

Metropolitan Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau

Sixth Street Marketplace

550 East Marshall Street

Box C-250

Richmond, VA 23219-1852

ph.: (804) 782-2777

One of the oldest cities of the United States, Richmond has survived many tribulations in American history, from the early 1600’s through modern times. It has served as the capital of Virginia since 1779, when Thomas Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor and the state’s seat was moved from Williamsburg. Benedict Arnold led British forces into Richmond in 1781, embarrassing the colonists’ cause with his easy victory. Many famous statesmen and artists have spent time in the city over its long life. It was the Civil War that many believe defined the modern character of Richmond. For four arduous years, the city was the capital of the Confederacy, and the world watched the city with more attention than ever before or since. “On to Richmond!” became the North’s battle cry as it struggled to hold the Union together.

Early History

The site for Richmond was discovered long before it became a center of commerce and politics. On May 24, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and a small group of men reconnoitering the area planted a wooden cross near the Falls, then a thundering waterfall in the James River, before they returned to the Jamestown settlement, some sixty miles away. The cross was used, most likely, to mark the territory for King James I, though efforts to further settle the area then met with fierce Indian resistance. The site would later become the heart of downtown Richmond. In 1645, the British built Fort Charles on the north side of the river. One year later they dismantled it and rebuilt it on the south side of the river, where land was easier to cultivate.

Ongoing disagreements with Indians over the territory led to a fierce battle in 1656. The colonists, under Colonel Edward Hill, suffered a huge defeat in the fighting and had to sue for peace. In 1659, Thomas Stegg, Jr., son of a wealthy Virginian merchant, contracted one thousand acres at the Falls, south of the river. By 1661, Stegg had purchased a total of eighteen hundred acres of land in the vicinity, an area later to be known as Falls Plantation. When Stegg died childless in 1671, he left most of his properties to his nephew, William Byrd, who immediately moved into his uncle’s stone house and began laying plans for his inheritance. Though the site was isolated and dangerous, particularly due to the roving bands of Indians still vying for the land, Byrd established a trading post at the Falls. Trading was hampered by the continual conflicts with the Indians, and when colonists determined to fight under leader Nathaniel Bacon in 1675, without the support of government officials, Byrd led several companies against the Indians.

Conflict finally died down several years later, when a treaty was signed with area tribes, and Byrd expanded his trading post, traveling as far as North and South Carolina to trade cloth, kettles, hatchets, beads, rum, arms, and deerskins for beaver and other furs, herbs, and minerals. Byrd was also involved in trading African slaves, and he managed large tobacco warehouses near the Falls. He also continued to acquire more land in the area. In 1688, he bought Westover Plantation, an area of twelve hundred acres about twenty miles downstream from the Falls. He and his wife and children moved into a house there in 1689. When Byrd died in 1704, his son, William Byrd II, inherited Westover as well as another twenty-six thousand acres of land. Erudite, London-educated, and well-connected, this Byrd relished his role as a promising young leader of eighteenth century Virginia, though he spent much time in London and only occasionally inspected his extensive tracts of land on either side of the James River.

Laying Out of Richmond

By the 1720’s, the area around the Falls was becoming more thickly settled, not only because of steady commerce with the Indians but also because of the growth of the tobacco trade, of which the Falls was a center. Members of the Virginia House of Burgesses–the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly–asked Byrd to sell them approximately fifty acres of riverside property, for the purposes of building a town. Byrd vehemently opposed the idea of being “forced” to sell and was loath to give up some of his most profitable holdings to potential competitors. Reluctantly, and not without a legal fight, Byrd finally gave in, and by 1737 a town was laid out and lots were sold with the stipulation that purchasers would build houses within three years. Byrd donated land along the banks of the river to be used as a common area, where town fairs would be held, as well as land for a church, and he named the town Richmond, because the new town reminded him of the English village of Richmond on Thames. In 1742, the Virginia General Assembly incorporated Richmond as a town, with 250 inhabitants, covering one-fifth of a square mile. The town was well situated for steady development, and by 1769 Richmond’s population had increased to 574.

Colonial displeasure with British rule was running high by 1770. Patrick Henry’s anti-Stamp Act speech in Williamsburg had raised eyebrows in 1765, but by 1773 the Boston Tea Party fed a growing fervor for independence. A Virginia Convention was called–without the governor’s permission–to discuss the chances of arming against Great Britain, and Richmond was chosen as the site, since it was felt that Williamsburg, then the capital, lay under threat of British attack. The convention was held in March, 1775, in the town’s church, later known as St. John’s. Delegates from all parts of Virginia arrived in Richmond for the meeting; they included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. The weeklong debate brought heavy discussion of war and of breaking with Great Britain, based on the new Declaration of Rights, which the first Continental Congress of 1774 had drafted in Philadelphia. During the convention, Patrick Henry spoke with passion: “We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!” He expounded, “Why stand we here idle . . . I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” His resolution calling for organization of militia caused great debate and was carried by only a narrow margin. Henry headed up the committee created to arm and train the militia. Hence, when the “shot heard round the world” was fired in April, 1775, at Concord, Massachusetts, the Virginians were prepared.

Richmond Becomes Capital of Virginia

The long-debated issue of moving the seat of state government from Williamsburg to somewhere more central and safe was decided in 1779, when the general assembly voted in favor of Richmond. Governor Thomas Jefferson, who had recently succeeded Patrick Henry in the position, moved to the state capital in 1780, and land was set aside for public buildings. Jefferson himself designed the architecturally famous Virginia State Capitol. The American Revolution was nearing its end when Benedict Arnold raided Richmond with his British troops early in 1781. Arnold, who had been an officer in the Continental Army before going over to the British, advanced up the James River with the British Navy to within twelve miles of the city, then marched on the town, taking it almost unopposed. Richmond was not heavily protected at the time; its best soldiers had been sent to colonies where there was heavier fighting. Jefferson recognized quickly that his small militia was no match for the British regulars, and he ordered much of the city’s stock of arms and important records to a safer place across the river, but Arnold’s troops discovered and destroyed most of the stock.

The British burned many of the city’s buildings and destroyed large reserves of tobacco as well as additional records kept in the Henrico County Courthouse. Arnold withdrew his troops the next day, after much damage had been done. He tried again to attack Richmond several months later but was thwarted by a force led by the Marquis de Lafayette. The General Assembly had fled from Richmond to Charlottesville, only to be driven from there to Staunton by the British cavalry. The British then returned to take unprotected Richmond a second time, where they remained for several days to rest and pillage the stores that the city had replenished after Arnold’s first assault. At last, in the autumn of 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army to Washington at Yorktown, and thus began the closure of the conflict.

Richmond spent the remainder of the century rebuilding and expanding as a city. By 1786, the city boasted a population of about 1,800. The influx of immigrants from France and Germany particularly influenced Richmond during those decades, as did immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands. This mix of people lent the city a cosmopolitan air. The tobacco industry also flourished, aided by slavery, although slaves in Virginia were becoming increasingly restless and resentful. By 1800, the city’s population had reached 5,737, half of whom were black.

Richmond in the Nineteenth Century

When a canal was completed around the Falls, Richmond became a significant manufacturing center, starting with numerous flour mills. With the extension of the James River westward and the growth of the railroads during the 1830’s and 1840’s, Richmond mills were producing large quantities of flour and shipping them to California and South America. Tobacco also became a large export industry, mainly in the form of chewing tobacco (cigarettes were not produced until after the Civil War). Iron and gunpowder also were increasingly important industries and were of vast significance to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Richmond also served as a bustling port for cargo ships during the early 1800’s.

As a capital city, Richmond was a center of politics and law. In 1807, former vice president Aaron Burr’s trial for treason took place in Richmond, with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, a Richmond resident, presiding. Burr had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and hence was considered a fugitive. Burr also stood accused of trying to set up a separate government, posing a threat to the United States. After a highly political and irregular trial, Burr was pronounced not guilty, but he lived under suspicion for the rest of his life.

The capital city also enjoyed a reputation as a leading cultural and theatrical center during the early nineteenth century. One of its favorite young actresses, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was playing at the Richmond Theatre in 1811 when she fell ill and died, leaving three young children. After she was buried in St. John’s churchyard, Edgar, her two-year-old son, was taken into the John Allan household. The childless Allans, who were associated with Richmond’s mercantile firm of Ellis and Allan, gave Edgar the middle name of Allan, and thus he became Edgar Allan Poe. Poe became a familiar figure in Richmond during the 1830’s, working for the Southern Literary Messenger magazine, writing book reviews, critical articles, poems, and short stories, all of which gave both him and the publication national acclaim. He resigned his position with the Southern Literary Messenger in 1837 and moved to New York, returning to Richmond for brief visits until his death in 1849.

The Civil War

The 1850’s brought increasing debate over slavery in Virginia and the state’s role in the South. In 1860 and 1861, the secession of several neighboring states and the formation of a provisional government of the Confederate States of America, led by Jefferson Davis as president, raised many questions and fueled debates in the pubs and press of Richmond. Richmond mirrored the state in its opposition to secession, although an increasing number of people were in favor of it. Most of Richmond was politically conservative, and when Virginia called a convention at Richmond to debate the issue, delegates voted firmly against secession. Sentiments changed when southern forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April, 1861, and U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers, including eight thousand from Virginia, to fight against the Southern rebels. Richmonders had to face the choice of fighting fellow Southerners or breaking from the Union, and the tide turned strongly in favor of secession. Convention delegates, reluctant to break all ties with the Union but equally reluctant to turn against their Southern neighbors and still firmly committed to slavery, voted to secede two days after Lincoln’s call for volunteers.

The celebration in Richmond was wildly jubilant. Then, the realization sunk in that Virginia had much preparation ahead before it could fight a battle. Governor John Letcher invited Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had just declined an offer to command the Northern armies, to accept the post of major general in charge of Virginia’s forces, and Lee arrived in Richmond on April 22, 1861. Eager recruits from throughout the South poured into Richmond, where Lee supervised their training and organization. In late April, Virginia invited President Davis to move the Confederate capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, citing various reasons, the most compelling of which were the ready supply of food and the existence of the Tredegar Ironworks, the South’s largest manufacturing concern, maker of guns, ammunition, and rails. (Tredegar would go on to produce the armor for the ironclad ship CSS Virginia.)

Because Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, many Northerners expected that the rebellion would be over once the city, only about one hundred miles from Washington, D.C., was taken. The principal Union rallying cry at the beginning of the war was “On to Richmond!” The Union’s first drive toward Richmond ended in July, 1861, at the battle of first Bull Run near Manassas, in northern Virginia. Although it was a Southern victory, Richmond’s jubilation was short-lived, as its hospitals were quickly filled with the wounded from both sides. The next Union invasion of Virginia occurred eight months later, in the spring of 1862. Union general George McClellan, a thorough planner but an overly cautious field commander, moved on Richmond from the southeast, via the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. In March, 1862, seventy thousand Union men from the Army of the Potomac landed at Fort Monroe on the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Initially, they were opposed by only three thousand Confederate soldiers stationed near Yorktown. McClellan, however, was convinced during every phase of this operation, now called the Peninsula Campaign, that he faced a numerically superior enemy. He wasted valuable time, giving the Confederates a chance to organize themselves and to build fortifications.

By late May, 1862, a 60,000-man Southern force had been pushed to the eastern outskirts of Richmond by about 110,000 Northerners. At one point, Union lines were within five miles of Richmond, and gunfire could be heard in the city. With their backs literally against the wall, the Confederate troops under General Joseph E. Johnston counterattacked on May 31 at the Battle of Fair Oaks, also known as Seven Pines. The most significant outcome of the battle was that Johnston was wounded and replaced by General Robert E. Lee, who intensified the offensive. Lee called in Stonewall Jackson and his army from the successful Shenandoah Valley campaign.

The Seven Days Battle

Leaving only twenty-five thousand men in Richmond’s defense lines, the Confederate army counterattacked with fifty thousand troops and fought a week of nearly continuous battle now known as the Seven Days. First, the Confederates attacked at Mechanicsville, about five miles northeast of Richmond, but lack of tight coordination gave the Union army an edge, and the Northerners held the field. McClellan was rattled by the aggressiveness of the Confederates, however, so he pulled back to Gaines’s Mill, farther east of Richmond. The next day, Jackson’s and General James Longstreet’s Southerners attacked the Northerners at Gaines’s Mill and achieved a victory despite heavy losses, driving the Union forces south across the Chickahominy River. These two great battles in two days convinced McClellan to abandon his drive on Richmond and to shift his operations farther south, toward the James River. Over the ensuing five days, battles were fought at Savage Station, Frayser’s Farm, and Malvern Hill (all in the vicinity of Richmond), and the Union Army of the Potomac was driven down to Harrison’s Landing, farther south along the James River. Richmond would not experience a direct threat of attack for another two years.

Richmond was changed drastically by the Civil War. Almost overnight, the city was transformed from a graceful provincial capital into the seat of government for the Confederate States of America and the principal target for invading Union armies. Richmond became crowded, dangerous, and expensive, as everything worth having was in short supply. People suffered in the cold months from lack of warm clothing, food, and fuel. The city, which had a population of only about forty thousand before the war, was filled with wounded troops, prisoners, deserters, and refugees. Nearly everyone was involved in some manner in caring for the sick and wounded. Horses and vehicles were commandeered for use as ambulances, and housewives were urged to supply food and medicine to the many hospitals. During the war, Chimborazo Hospital, with two hundred fifty buildings and tents, was the largest hospital in the world and tended some seventy-six thousand men. Several of the Civil War’s most notorious military prisons were located in and around the city: Belle Isle housed approximately ten thousand enlisted men on an island in the James River; Libby Prison, an old tobacco warehouse, confined one thousand Union officers under squalid conditions; and Castle Thunder incarcerated political prisoners. The Richmond Arsenal, of which Tredegar Ironworks was the most important component, accounted for half of the cannon, rifles, pistols, and ammunition manufactured by the South during the war.

By 1864, the Confederates had strengthened Richmond’s defenses by building many fortifications on all sides of the city. Although city alarms were raised several times during the spring of 1864, Richmond was no longer the main Union objective. Under General Ulysses S. Grant, the Army of the Potomac’s purpose was to destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; the fall of Richmond would occur naturally once Lee was defeated. Grant and Lee fought battles to the north (Wilderness Campaign), the east (Cold Harbor), and the south (Siege of Petersburg) of the city. When Lee was finally flanked and forced out of his defensive positions around Petersburg, only twenty-five miles to the south, on April 1, 1865, Richmond’s fate was sealed. Roads and bridges out of the city were clogged with refugees. The evacuating Confederate soldiers and government officials set fire to arsenals and military stores to prevent their falling into Union hands. In the chaos, the fires raged out of control, and eventually an estimated seven hundred buildings in the city were consumed by flames.

Union Occupation

Union troops entered Richmond early on the morning of April 3, 1865, and played a major role in putting out the fires and restoring order. President Abraham Lincoln, who had been visiting nearby Union forces, entered the smoldering city on the afternoon of the following day. With a small escort of only ten sailors, he visited Jefferson Davis’s office and Libby Prison, and was enthusiastically greeted by hundreds of newly freed slaves. Along on the visit was Union Admiral David Porter, who later recalled: “I don’t think I ever looked upon a scene where there were so many passionately happy faces.”

The people of Richmond struggled to slowly rebuild their city, and whites and blacks had to learn to coexist. Many Richmonders could not bring themselves to celebrate the Fourth of July until 1871, so bitter were they about the course of history and the Union’s triumph. The city’s renewal was slowed in the 1870’s by deep financial and business panics that affected the entire nation. The city persevered, however, and continued to grow. Today its skyline is dominated by skyscrapers, and it is home to several large corporations, Philip Morris, Universal Corporation, CSX, and Reynolds Metals among them. Many agree, however, that modern Richmond’s character and special mystique derive from the tempering influence that its rich history–in particular, the Civil War–left for later generations.

Modern Preservation Efforts

That history is illustrated by a multitude of sites within the city and on its outskirts. The White House of the Confederacy, at Twelfth and Clay Streets, has been restored to its appearance during the Civil War and is furnished with many of the Davis family’s belongings. Adjacent to it is the Museum of the Confederacy, housing the world’s largest collection of Confederate artifacts, including Robert E. Lee’s tent, field glasses, and writing desk; Stonewall Jackson’s musket; and Jeb Stuart’s trademark plumed hat.

Richmond National Battlefield Park covers major Civil War battle sites to the north, east, and south of Richmond; the park is headquartered at 3215 East Broad Street, the site of Chimborazo Hospital. Monument Avenue, in the west end of Richmond, features statues of Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Davis, and scientist-oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury. Hollywood Cemetery, in the south end of Richmond near the James River, is the site of the graves of Stuart, Davis, and Maury, along with U.S. presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, novelist Ellen Glasgow, historian Douglas Southall Freeman, and more than eighteen thousand Confederate soldiers, including the first one to die in the Civil War.

Sites commemorating Richmond’s colonial and revolutionary history include St. John’s Church. During the summer at the church, actors re-create the events of the Virginia Convention, including Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech. The Thomas Jefferson-designed Virginia State Capitol in downtown Richmond is still in use and offers tours. Also open for tours is the Virginia Executive Mansion, the oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in the United States. Jackson Ward, a neighborhood northeast of downtown, is rich in African American history; the area became home to a thriving black community shortly after the Civil War. Sites there include the home of entrepreneur and bank president Maggie Lena Walker, a monument to dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Another aspect of Richmond’s history is showcased in the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, southeast of downtown.

Southeast of Richmond along the James River lie numerous historic plantations, including William Byrd II’s Westover Plantation; Berkeley Plantation, the birthplace of U.S. president William Henry Harrison; and Sherwood Forest Plantation, the home of John Tyler, who became president upon Harrison’s death. West of Richmond is Tuckahoe Plantation, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson.

For Further Information
  • Dabney, Virginius. Richmond: The Story of a City. Rev. ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Dabney, a native Richmonder and past editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, provides a colorful narrative of the history of Virginia’s capital. From his enthusiastically Southern viewpoint, he recounts many details of the sites and personalities of the city, beginning with early colonial times.
  • Hoehling, A. A., and Mary Hoehling. The Day Richmond Died. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1981. An interesting, entertaining perspective on Richmond during the Civil War. Offers many details of daily life in the city and important characters of Richmond society during the four years of war; it lends a realistic flavor to events by relying for quotations on numerous entries from journals that have survived.
  • Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992. A well-written, in-depth account of the events and tactics of the Peninsula Campaign at the outset of the Civil War.
  • Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Examines slavery in the urban setting of Richmond from the early United States to the end of the Civil War.
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