Virginia Civil War History

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Virginia Civil War History


Virginia was one of the Thirteen Colonies that participated in the American Revolution and it became the tenth U.S. state on June 25, 1788.

Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a U.S. state located in the South Atlantic region of the United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there.

When the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, Algonquian tribes controlled most of the eastern region of present-day Virginia. Virginia was initially settled by eastern woodland Native Americans of the Algonquin language including the Powhatan and Rappahannock. By the end of the 16th century, Native Americans living in what is now Virginia were part of three major groups, based chiefly on language families. The largest group, known as the Algonquian, numbered more than 10,000 and occupied most of the coastal area. To the interior were the Iroquoian (numbering 2,500) and the Siouan. Tribes included the Algonquian Chesepian, Chickahominy, Doeg, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Pohick, Powhatan, and Rappahannock; the Siouan Monacan and Saponi; and the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee, Meherrin, Nottoway, and Tuscarora.

Virginia Civil War History
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Colony of Virginia Map

The Colony of Virginia (also known frequently as the Virginia Colony, the Province of Virginia, and occasionally as the Dominion and Colony of Virginia) was the English colony in Virginia that existed from 1607 until the American Revolution. After independence from Great Britain in 1776, the Virginia Colony became the Commonwealth of Virginia. After the United States was formed, the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, and portions of Ohio were all later created from the territory encompassed earlier by the Colony of Virginia.

The colony nearly failed until tobacco emerged as a profitable export, grown primarily by indentured servants. Then following 1662, the colony hardened slavery into a racial caste by partus law. By 1750, the primary cultivators of the cash crop were West African descendants in hereditary slavery worked in the plantation agricultural system. Virginia and other Southern colonies had become slave societies, with economies dependent on slavery and slaveholders forming the ruling class.

The Virginia Colony became the wealthiest and most populated British colony in North America. The colony was dominated by elite planters who were also in control of the established Anglican Church. Baptist and Methodist preachers brought the Great Awakening, welcoming black members and leading to many evangelical and racially integrated churches. Virginia planters had a major role in gaining independence and the development of democratic-republican ideals of the United States. They were important in the Declaration of Independence, writing the Constitutional Convention (and preserving protection for the slave trade), and establishing the Bill of Rights. The state of Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792. Four of the first five presidents were Virginians: George Washington, the “Father of his country”; and after 1800, “The Virginia Dynasty” of presidents for 24 years: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

During the first half of the 19th century, tobacco declined as a commodity crop and planters adopted mixed farming, which required less labor. They sold surplus slaves "downriver" to the Deep South. The Constitutions of 1830 and 1850 expanded suffrage but did not equalize white male apportionment statewide. While population declined as people migrated west and south, Virginia was still the largest state joining the Confederate States of America in 1861. It became the major theater during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Unionists in western Virginia emerged as the separate state of West Virginia in 1863. Virginia was administered during early Reconstruction as Military District Number One, and the state’s economy was devastated in war and disrupted in Reconstruction.

Civil War and Virginia Slavery Map
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Map of Free and Slave States


Slavery in Virginia can be traced to its founding as an English colony. The colony tried to solve the labor shortage by providing colonists with land for each indentured servant they transported to Virginia. African workers were first imported in 1619, and their slavery was codified after a 1654 lawsuit.

Increasingly toward the end of the 17th century, large numbers of slaves from Africa were brought by Dutch and English ships to the Virginia Colony, as well as Maryland and other Southern colonies. On the large tobacco plantations, as chattel (owned property), they replaced indentured servants (who were only obligated to work for an agreed period of time) as field labor, as well as serving as household and skilled workers. The practice of slavery became an economic factor for the labor-intensive tobacco and cotton plantations of the South. Even the offspring of slaves also were born into a lifetime of slavery, as in 1661, Virginia passed a law that made the status of the mother determine slave or free status of the child.

Almost as soon as the practice of slavery was established in Virginia, some slaves began obtaining their freedom. This was usually accomplished by escape or through benevolence of their "owners." Many escaped slaves lived freely as part of the community of Great Dismal Swamp maroons. Other escaped slaves traveled to non-slave Colonies (and later states) to the North, often via the Underground Railroad. However, many of the black men and women who had legally gained their freedom chose to stay in the South. Known as freedmen, they lived at various locations throughout the area.

At the time of the American Revolutionary War, slavery was an unresolved issue between the Thirteen Colonies. Although slavery was condoned, promoted and protected in the U.S Constitution and by Federal laws, such as the Fugitive Slave Law, the fundamental basis for its demise was also established by the nation’s founding fathers in both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Known as sectionalism, slavery was embraced by one region and gradually abolished in the other region. In 1863, during the middle of the American Civil War (1861-1865), President Lincoln wielded presidential wartime powers and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation was initially symbolic, because it permitted slavery in the states that were not in rebellion, such as the Border States, and only later freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states that came under Union control. With the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 6, 1865, slavery was outlawed.


On October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in a raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee, responded and quelled the raid. Subsequently, John Brown was tried and executed by hanging in Charles Town on December 2, 1859.

In 1860 the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern factions over the issue of slavery in the territories and Stephen Douglas’ support for popular sovereignty: after failing in both Charleston and Baltimore to nominate a single candidate acceptable to the South, Southern Democrats held their convention in Richmond, Virginia on June 26, 1860, and nominated John C. Breckinridge as their party candidate for President.

When Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected as president, Virginians were concerned about the implications for their state. While a majority of the state would look for compromises to the sectional differences, most people also opposed any restrictions on slaveholders’ rights. As the state watched to see what South Carolina would do, many Unionists felt that the greatest danger to the state came not from the North but from "rash secession" by the lower South.

Within Virginia, strong sectional differences were exacerbated during the Civil War, and the western Virginia area, seceding (or breaking away) from Virginia, was admitted to the Union as the state of West Virginia on June 20, 1863. Two states were formed during the conflict,

Virginia Secession Map
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Virginia and Secession of Southern States Map


By popular vote, Virginians ratified the articles of secession on May 23, 1861, with a vote of 132,201 to 37,451 in favor of, and ratifying the secession proposal.

On November 15, 1860, Virginia Governor John Letcher called for a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to consider, among other issues, the creation of a secession convention. The legislature convened on January 7 and approved the convention on January 14. On January 19, the General Assembly called for a national Peace Conference, led by Virginia's former President of the United States, John Tyler, to be held in Washington on February 4, the same date that elections were scheduled for delegates to the secession convention.

The election of convention delegates drew 145,700 voters who elected, by county, 152 representatives. Thirty of these delegates were secessionists, thirty were unionists, and ninety-two were moderates who were not clearly identified with either of the first two groups. Nevertheless, advocates of immediate secession were clearly outnumbered. Simultaneous to this election, six Southern states formed the Confederate States of America on February 4.

The convention met on February 13 at the Richmond Mechanics Institute located at Ninth and Main Street in Richmond. One of the convention's first actions was to create a 21 member Federal Relations Committee charged with reaching a compromise to the sectional differences as they affected Virginia. The committee was made up of 4 secessionists, 10 moderates and 7 unionists. At first there was no urgency to the convention’s deliberations as all sides felt that time only aided their cause. In addition, there were hopes that the Peace Conference of 1861 on January 19, led by Virginia's former President of the United States, John Tyler, might resolve the crisis by “guaranteeing the safety of slavery forever and the right to expand slavery in the territories below the Missouri Compromise line.” With the failure of the Peace Conference at the end of February, moderates in the convention began to waver in their support for unionism. Unionist support by many was further eroded for many Virginians by Lincoln’s March 4 First Inaugural Address which they felt was “argumentative, if not defiant. Throughout the state there was evidence that support for secession was growing.

The Federal Relations Committee made its report to the convention on March 9. The fourteen proposals defended both slavery and states’ rights while calling for a meeting of the eight slave states still in the Union to present a united front for compromise. From March 15 through April 14 the convention debated these proposals one by one. During the debate on the resolutions, the sixth resolution calling for a peaceful solution and maintenance of the Union came up for discussion on April 4. Lewis Edwin Harvie of Amelia County offered a substitute resolution calling for immediate secession. This was voted down by 88 to 45 and the next day the convention continued its debate. Approval of the last proposal came on April 12. The goal of the unionist faction after this approval was to adjourn the convention until October, allowing time for both the convention of the slave states and Virginia’s congressional elections in May which, they hoped, would produce a stronger mandate for compromise.

After the Virginia Convention rejected the session by a two-to-one margin on the 4th of April, the tensions increased and war enthusiasm continued to grow. A showdown mounted at Charleston, S.C., between the Confederate forces and the Federal garrison inside Fort Sumter. The day of April 12, 1861; with a Northern relief expedition coming close to the harbor, the Southern batteries began to open fire. Fort Sumter was forced to surrender after a thirty-six hour invasion.

Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map in 1861
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Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1861

At the same time, unionists were concerned about the continued presence of Federal forces at Fort Sumter despite assurances communicated informally to them by Secretary of State William Seward that it would be abandoned. Lincoln and Seward were also concerned that the Virginia convention was still in session as of the first of April while secession sentiment was growing. At Lincoln’s invitation, unionist John B. Baldwin, of Augusta County, met with Lincoln on April 4. Baldwin explained that the unionists needed the evacuation of Fort Sumter, a national convention to debate the sectional differences, and a commitment by Lincoln to support constitutional protections for Southern rights. Over Lincoln’s skepticism, Baldwin argued that Virginia would be out of the Union within forty-eight hours if either side fired a shot at the fort. By some accounts, Lincoln offered to evacuate Fort Sumter if the Virginia convention would adjourn.

On April 6, amid rumors that the North was preparing for war, the convention voted by a narrow 63-57 to send a three man delegation to Washington to determine from Lincoln what his intentions were. However due to bad weather the delegation did not arrive in Washington until April 12. They learned of the attack on Fort Sumter from Lincoln, and the President advised them of his intent to hold the fort and respond to force with force. Reading from a prepared text to prevent any misinterpretations of his intent, Lincoln told them that he had made it clear in his inaugural address that the forts and arsenals in the South were government property and “if ... an unprovoked assault has been made upon Fort Sumter, I shall hold myself at liberty to re-possess, if I can, like places which have been seized before the Government was devolved upon me.”

The pro-Union sentiment in Virginia was further weakened after the April 12 Confederate attack upon Fort Sumter. Richmond reacted with large public demonstrations in support of the Confederacy on April 13 when it first received the news of the attack. A Richmond newspaper described the scene in Richmond on the 13th:

"Saturday night the offices of the Dispatch, Enquirer and Examiner, the banking house of Enders, Sutton & Co., the Edgemont House, and sundry other public and private places, testified to the general joy by brilliant illuminations. Hardly less than ten thousand persons were on Main street, between 8th and 14th, at one time. Speeches were delivered at the Spottswood House, at the Dispatch corner, in front of the Enquirer office, at the Exchange Hotel, and other places. Bonfires were lighted at nearly every corner of every principal street in the city, and the light of beacon fires could be seen burning on Union and Church Hills. The effect of the illumination was grand and imposing. The triumph of truth and justice over wrong and attempted insult was never more heartily appreciated by a spontaneous uprising of the people. Soon the Southern wind will sweep away with the resistless force of a tornado, all vestige of sympathy or desire of co-operation with a tyrant who, under false pretences, in the name of a once glorious, but now broken and destroyed Union, attempts to rivet on us the chains of a despicable and ignoble vassalage. Virginia is moving."

Given the outbreak of hostilities, the convention reconvened on April 13 to reconsider Virginia's position. Virginia’s sentiment favoring secession was elevated on April 15, following President Abraham Lincoln's call for the states to provide troops, including Virginia, to assist in suppressing the Southern rebellion. Governor Letcher had received the following request:

War Department, Washington, April 15, 1861.

"To His Excellency the Governor of Virginia: Sir: Under the act of Congress for calling forth "militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, repel invasions, etc.," approved February 28, 1795, I have the honor to request your Excellency to cause to be immediately detached from the militia of your State the quota designated in the table below, to serve as infantry or rifleman for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged. Your Excellency will please communicate to me the time, at or about, which your quota will be expected at its rendezvous, as it will be met as soon as practicable by an officer to muster it into the service and pay of the United States." — Simon Cameron, Secretary of War.

Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map in 1862
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Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1862

Governor Letcher and the recently reconvened Virginia Secession Convention considered this request from Lincoln "for troops to invade and coerce" lacking in constitutional authority, and out of scope of the Act of 1795. Letcher issued an immediate reply:

Executive Department, Richmond, Va., April 15, 1861.

“Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War: Sir: I have received your telegram of the 15th, the genuineness of which I doubted. Since that time I have received your communications mailed the same day, in which I am requested to detach from the militia of the State of Virginia "the quota assigned in a table," which you append, "to serve as infantry or rifleman for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged." In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object - an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 - will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South.” — Respectfully, John Letcher

Letcher's "reply to that call wrought an immediate change in the current of public opinion in Virginia." Consequently, the secession convention voted on April 17, provisionally, to secede, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum.

The Governor of Virginia immediately began mobilizing the Virginia State Militia to strategic points around the state. Former Governor Henry Wise had arranged with militia officers on April 16, before the final vote, to seize the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. On April 17, in the debate over secession, Wise announced to the convention that these events were already in motion. On April 18 the arsenal was captured and most of the machinery was moved to Richmond. At Gosport, the Union Navy, believing that several thousand militia were headed their way, evacuated and abandoned Norfolk, Virginia and the navy yard, burning and torching as many of the ships and facilities as possible. Virginia seceded on May 23, 1861, and immediately began mobilizing for war.


Virginia, a coastal state, was a major port for exchanging goods with Europe, and the state produced an estimated two-thirds of all the salt required by the Confederacy.  Negligible textile manufacturing was present in the state prior to 1861. The Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond, sprawling along the James River, supplied high-quality munitions to the South during the war. The company also manufactured railroad steam locomotives in the same period. Tredegar is also credited with the production of approximately 10,000 artillery pieces during the war which was about half of the South's total domestic production of artillery between the war years of 1861–1865. Richmond, Virginia, was the capitol of the Confederacy for most of the conflict.

In the 1830s, railroads began to be built in Virginia. In 1831, the Chesterfield Railroad began hauling coal from the mines in Midlothian to docks at Manchester (near Richmond), powered by gravity and draft animals. The first railroad in Virginia to be powered by locomotives was the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, chartered in 1834, with the intent to connect with steamboat lines at Aquia Landing running to Washington, D.C. Soon after, others (with equally descriptive names) followed: the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and Louisa Railroad in 1836, the Richmond and Danville Railroad in 1847, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in 1848, and the Richmond and York River Railroad. In 1849, the Virginia Board of Public Works established the Blue Ridge Railroad.

Virginia's mineral contributions to the Southern war effort are numerous. By the 1860s, Virginia was the main mineral-producing state in the South. Among the principal mined resources, in addition to salt, were lead, iron, niter (saltpeter), and coal. Except for the coal which came primarily from the Richmond Basin, nearly all of the production of these resources was located west of the Blue Ridge with the main operations centered in southwestern Virginia. Even southwestern Virginia coal played an important role during the Civil War. Coal from mines in Montgomery County fired the engines of the Southern ironclad Virginia (more commonly referred to as the Merrimack) during its battle with the Monitor. Furthermore, the Virginia's armor came from Oriskany iron ore produced at the Grace Furnace Mines in Botetourt County.

Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map in 1863
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Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1863

But of all Virginia's mineral contributions, perhaps none was more crucial to both the civilian population, as well as the military forces of the Confederacy, than salt. Salt is essential in the human diet and during the Civil War, every soldier's ration included it. Salt is also necessary for livestock; a hoof and tongue disease that appeared among the cavalry horses of Lee's army in 1862 was attributed possibly to a lack of salt. During the war, salt was by far the primary means of preserving meat. Additional uses included packing certain foodstuffs (particularly eggs and cheese) and preserving hides during leather making, as well as being employed in numerous chemical processes and various medications.

Men from all economic and social levels, both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, as well as former Unionists, enlisted in the Confederate military in great numbers. Notable Civil War generals from Virginia included: Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Joseph E. Johnston, A. P. Hill, Richard S. Ewell, Jubal A. Early, George Pickett, Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee, and Lewis A. Armistead.

Colonel General Robert E. Lee, a native Virginian, Mexican-American War veteran, and former Superintendent of United States Military Academy, rejected a promotion to major general in the US Army and resigned his present commission prior to the American Civil War. Lee soon commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, and on January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of Confederate forces.

Civil War

According to the 1860 U.S. census, Virginia had a free population of 1,105,453 and an additional slave population of 490,865.

Approximately 155,000 Virginia men served in Confederate forces during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Additionally, approximately 30,000, most from present-day West Virginia, served primarily in Union regiments in neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, an equal number of troops, 30,000, from present-day West Virginia served in the Confederate Army. During the conflict, Virginia suffered from 20,000 to 30,000 killed and several thousands more in wounded. A compilation made from the official rosters of the Confederate Armies as they stood at various battles, and at various dates covering the entire period of the war, shows that Virginia kept the following number of organizations in almost continuous service in the field: 65 regiments, and 10 battalions of infantry; 22 regiments, and 11 battalions of cavalry; 1 regiment of partisan rangers; 1 regiment of artillery; and 53 batteries of light artillery.

During the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Virginia suffered more battles on its soil than any other state. The Confederate capitol of Richmond was only one hundred miles from Washington, D.C., making the region the most contested of the war.  Numerable major Civil War battles and campaigns were fought in Virginia. For example, the combined battles of Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Fredericksburg, and Second Bull Run produced more than 120,000 casualties in the state. But there were more than 200 battles and skirmishes fought in Virginia.

Principal campaigns in Virginia, many consisting of numerous major battles, included: Manassas Campaign, 1861; McClellan's Operations in Northern Virginia, 1861; Jackson's Valley Campaign, 1862; Peninsula Campaign, 1862; Northern Virginia Campaign, 1862; Fredericksburg Campaign, 1862; Chancellorsville Campaign, 1863; Bristoe Campaign, 1863; Bermuda Hundred Campaign, 1864; Grant's Overland Campaign, 1864; Shenandoah Valley Campaign, 1864; Saltworks Campaign, 1864; Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, 1864; and Appomattox Campaign in 1865.

Most of the battles in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War took place in Virginia because the Confederacy had to defend its national capital at Richmond, and public opinion in the North demanded that the Union move "On to Richmond!" For the next four years a succession of Northern commanders struggled desperately to do just that -- get to Richmond. The remarkable success of Robert E. Lee in defending Richmond is a central theme in the history of the war.

Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map in 1864
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Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1864

The first major battle of the Civil War occurred on July 21, 1861. Union forces attempted to possess and control the railroad junction at Manassas for use as a supply line, but the Confederate Army had moved its forces by train to meet its foe. The Confederates won the First Battle of Manassas (known as "Bull Run" in the North) and the year concluded without a major fight. The first and last significant battles were held in Virginia, the first being the Battle of Manassas and the last being Battle of Appomattox Courthouse.

In the spring of 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan moved his army to the York Peninsula and began to push toward Richmond. Meanwhile, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was creating his mythic status by defeating Union forces more than twice his number repeatedly in the Shenandoah Valley. In May, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, facing McClellan’s advancing army, was wounded at Seven Pines and replaced by Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee, joined by Jackson’s army, counterattacked McClellan’s forces and was able to force McClellan’s withdrawal and bid for the Confederate capital. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as it came to be known, moved north. On August 29th, 1862, Union Gen. John Pope threatened Lee’s army. The following day, Lee delivered a decisive defeat to Pope’s forces at Manassas Junction.

Empowered by his success, Lee marched his army north into Maryland, while McClellan’s troops pursued him. Weeks later, Lee reluctantly crossed back into Virginia following the inconclusive and costly struggle at Antietam. McClellan was slow to pursue Lee, which prompted Abraham Lincoln to relieve him of command. Gen. Ambrose Burnside assumed command, and with winter approaching, he planned to move his army toward Richmond. On December 13, 1862, however, Lee’s forces were able to mount a defense at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and delivered a demoralizing defeat to Burnside’s forces. Following the lopsided Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union General Hooker was defeated at Chancellorsville by Lee's army.

After nearly two years, the war had not only taken its toll upon Lee’s veterans, but more importantly on the citizens of Virginia themselves. In April 1863, women and children in Richmond rioted over the price and scarcity of staple items such as bread. This proved to be the first of many displays of civil unrest, as corruption, and lawlessness infected the state. At Chancellorsville, in early May, Lee’s forces decisively defeated a much larger Union army now under the command Gen. Joseph Hooker. Inspired by his success on Virginia battlefields, Lee once again moved his army north; this time into Pennsylvania. Lee also hoped that moving North would provide some much needed rest to war-weary Virginians. The Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863 was an agonizing defeat for the Confederacy. Lee’s army returned to Virginia to fight for nearly two more years.

In March 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of Union forces, accompanied Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s army as it prepared to face Confederate forces in Virginia. In May 1864, Union forces began an unrelenting campaign against Lee’s beleaguered army. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor, the two sides fought a series of battles that left tens of thousands of casualties in their wake. Despite the heavy losses, Lee was initially successful in checking Grant’s advance toward Richmond from the north. His defense prompted Grant to shift his forces south where he laid siege to Petersburg for the next nine months.

While Grant and Lee were stalemated near Petersburg, Union Gen. David Hunter began a campaign to cripple the “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the Shenandoah Valley. Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, along with a portion of Lee’s army was sent from the siege lines at Petersburg to stop Hunter. After Early achieved success against Hunter, he unsuccessfully attempted to threaten Washington D.C. By August, Union forces, now under Gen. Philip Sheridan, delivered a series of defeats to Early’s forces while laying waste to a large portion of the fertile valley.

During March 1865, Gen. Early's army was captured by Gen. Sheridan at Waynesboro, thus eliminating the remaining threat in the valley. After nearly ten months of exhaustive siege warfare, during the Richmond-Petersburg Siege, Lee's army was weakened by desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies, and, while Grant commanded an army of 125,000 men, the Confederate general was in command of 50,000 troops. Lee, moreover, knew that an additional 50,000 men under Sheridan would be returning soon from the Shenandoah Valley and that Sherman, as of April 1, 1865, commanded a massive army of 88,948 troops and too was rapidly approaching Richmond. On April 2nd, 1865, Union forces broke through the defenses at Petersburg in the pursuit of Lee’s army, then in retreat. Lee, now pressed on every front, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and ended the bloodiest conflict in the history of the nation.

When the Civil War concluded, the devastation that it wrought could hardly be measured. More than 200 battles and skirmishes had been fought on Virginia’s soil. Millions of dollars and thousands of lives were lost, and much of the state was now in ruins. Although the war devastated the lives of many, it also brought the restoration of the Union and an end to slavery. The state’s economy suffered considerable losses as it attempted to restructure from a slave to a free labor system. While Virginia survived the war, the conflict left its permanent mark on both the physical landscape and the collective memory of its citizens to a greater extent than nearly any other state during the war.

Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map in 1865
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Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1865

Prisoner-of-War Camps

Belle Isle

Belle Isle, aka Belle Isle Prison Camp, was originally known as Broad Rock Island. It was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. In the 18th century the island was occupied by a fishery. In 1814, the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company completed a nail factory. During the 1860s, the island was inhabited by a village complete with a school, church, and general store. The island served as a prison for Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Between 1862 and 1865, the island detained approximately 30,000 Union POW's and as many as 1,000 died. Mortality accounts vary with the South claiming the death rate was low, while the North claimed that the mortality rate was higher.

Castle Thunder

Castle Thunder, aka Castle Thunder Prison or Castle Prison, located in Richmond, Virginia, was a former tobacco warehouse located on Tobacco Row, converted into a prison used by the Confederacy to house civilian prisoners, including captured Union spies, political prisoners and those charged with treason during the American Civil War. A number of its inmates were sentenced to death. The unsavory reputation of the prison obliged the Confederate House of Representatives in 1863 to order an investigation of the commandant, Capt. George W. Alexander, who had been accused of "harshness, inhumanity, tyranny, and dishonesty". Alexander was eventually cleared of the charges, partially by citing the hard-bitten character of the inmates as justification for his behavior. Detained at the prison was Union spy Dr. Mary E. Walker, the only female to receive the Medal of Honor.

After the Union forces captured Richmond, they used the prison for similar purposes. Among those known to have been incarcerated there in this later period was Mollie Bean, a woman who had served for two years in the 47th North Carolina and was twice wounded in action. She had pretended to be a man simply in order to join the Confederate Army, but her Union captors suspected her of being a spy.

Danville Prison

Danville Prison, aka Danville Prison Camp, was located in Pittsylvania County, VA., about 144 miles southwest of Richmond. During the Civil War, Danville was an important railroad center. A great number of recruits, supplies and war materiel were transported to Danville to provision the Army of Northern Virginia. As an important transportation hub, Danville was also the logical site for a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Once hostilities commenced, the Confederates found themselves with large numbers of Union prisoners captured in the First Battle of Manassas. These POWs were then transported to Richmond, where they were initially housed in facilities such as Ligon's Warehouse and Tobacco Factory. However, to reduce the high prison population in the Confederate capital, hundreds of Union POWs were relocated to six tobacco warehouses in downtown Danville. The Danville Prison, constructed of six converted tobacco warehouses, detained more than 7,000 Union officers and enlisted men. Each converted warehouse was designated or numbered from Prison Number 1 through Prison Number 6, respectfully. By 1864, the South’s resources were disastrously depleted due to General William T. Sherman's successful destruction of the railroads. With no access to supplies of food, clothing and munitions, the civilian population of Richmond could no longer feed and clothe themselves, let alone their soldiers. To eliminate the drain on these limited resources, thousands of Union prisoners—mostly officers—were sent to the Danville prison. In winter 1864-65, there were 2,400 prisoners of all ranks living in overcrowded conditions. During the prison’s existence, 1,400 Union prisoners died of such scourges as smallpox and dysentery brought on by starvation. 

The Danville National Cemetery was established in December 1866 on 2.63 acres, about a mile from the railroad station. With the exception of the remains of four soldiers from the Sixth Army Corps, all original interments in the cemetery were Union POWs who died in the prison. The principal cause of death was disease. Many of the bodies of Union Soldiers who died in Danville’s prisons were buried in mass graves. These graves were later exhumed and the bodies buried beneath individual markers. The prison Today, at 300 Lynn Street, Civil War Prison No. 6 still stands. It is a brick structure, originally built for Major William T. Sutherlin in 1855. Danville National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Libby Prison

Libby Prison, aka Libby Prison Camp, was a Confederate prison at Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War. The prison was opened in April 1861 and was closed in April 1865. The total number of Union prisoners held during its existence was approximately 25,000. This was primarily an officers' prison. The prisoners cooked their own rations with inadequate fuel, the rations furnished were inadequate, and there was a shortage of clothing and blankets. Rations consisted of beef, bacon, flour, beans, rice and vinegar. Of those who died at Libby, 6,276 are buried in a cemetery in Henrico County southeast of Richmond, two miles from the city and one and a half miles from the James River. There are 817 known graves and 5,459 unknown. Some of the bodies came from Belle Isle, Hollywood, Oakwood and the poorhouse cemeteries in Richmond.

Virginia Reconstruction Map
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Civil War, Military Districts, and Reconstruction Map


Richmond, the capital city of the Confederacy and an important port city, languished after the war, unable to compete with new railroads. Covered with battle sites, Virginia was one of the states most damaged by war; farm values plummeted from the fifth-highest in the nation to the 10th. The state attempted to attract capital with low taxes and subsidies.

Virginia was administered as the "First Military District" during the Reconstruction Era under General John Schofield. Local rule was reestablished on October 5, 1869. On January 26, 1870, when the U.S. Congress approved a new Virginia constitution, Virginia’s representatives to the Congress were restored and the Commonwealth of Virginia was officially readmitted to the United States.

Virginia had been devastated by the war, with the infrastructure (such as railroads) in ruins; many plantations burned out; and large numbers of refugees without jobs, food or supplies beyond rations provided by the Union Army, especially its Freedman's Bureau. White landowners complained to the Bureau about unwillingness of freedwomen to work in the fields as evidence of their laziness, and asked the Bureau to force them to sign labor contracts. In response, many Bureau officials "readily condemned the withdrawal of freedwomen from the work force as well as the 'hen pecked' husbands who allowed it." While the Bureau did not force freedwomen to work, it did force freedmen to work or be arrested as vagrants. Furthermore, agents urged poor unmarried mothers to give their older children up as apprentices to work for white masters. Farmer-Kaiser concludes that "Freedwomen found both an ally and an enemy in the bureau."

There were three phases in Virginia's Reconstruction era: wartime, presidential, and congressional. Immediately after the war, President Andrew Johnson recognized the Francis Harrison Pierpont government as legitimate and restored local government. The Virginia legislature passed Black Codes that severely restricted Freedmen's mobility and rights; they had only limited rights and were not considered citizens, nor could they vote. The state ratified the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and revoked the 1861 ordnance of secession. Johnson was satisfied that Reconstruction was complete.

Other Republicans in Congress refused to seat the newly elected state delegation. The Radicals wanted additional evidence that slavery and similar methods of serfdom had been abolished, and the freedmen given rights of citizens. They also were concerned that Virginia leaders had not renounced Confederate nationalism. After winning large majorities in the 1866 national election, the Radical Republicans gained power in Congress. They put Virginia (and nine other ex-Confederate states) under military rule. Virginia was administered as the "First Military District" in 1867–69 under General John Schofield. Meanwhile the Freedmen became politically active by forming their own political organizations, holding conventions, and demanding universal male suffrage and equal treatment under the law, as well as demanding disfranchisement of ex-Confederates and the seizure of their plantations. McDonough, finding that Schofield was criticized by conservative whites for supporting the Radical cause on the one hand, and attacked on the other by Radicals for thinking black suffrage was premature on the other, concludes that "he performed admirably' by following a middle course between extremes.

In 1867, James Hunnicutt (1814–1880), a white preacher, editor and Scalawag (white Southerners supporting Reconstruction) mobilized the black Republican vote by calling for the confiscation of all plantations and turning the land over to Freedmen and to some poor whites. The moderate Republicans, led by former Whigs, businessmen and planters, while supportive of black suffrage, drew the line at property confiscation. A compromise was reached calling for confiscation if the planters tried to intimidate black voters. Hunnicutt's coalition took control of the Republican Party, and began to demand the permanent disfranchisement of all whites who had supported the Confederacy. The Virginia Republican party became permanently split, and many moderates switched to the opposition "Conservatives". The Radicals won the 1867 election for delegates to a constitutional convention.

The 1868 constitutional convention included 33 white Conservatives, and 72 Radicals (of whom 24 were Blacks, 23 Scalawag, and 21 Carpetbaggers. Called the "Underwood Constitution" after the presiding officer, the main accomplishment was to reform the tax system, and create a system of free public schools for the first time in Virginia. After heated debates over disfranchising Confederates, the Virginia legislature approved a Constitution that excluded ex-Confederates from holding office, but allowed them to vote in state and Federal elections.

Under pressure from national Republicans to be more moderate, General Schofield continued to administer the state through the Army. He appointed a personal friend, Henry H. Wells as provisional governor. Wells was a Carpetbagger and a former Union general. Schofield and Wells fought and defeated Hunnicutt and the Scalawag Republicans. They took away contracts for state printing orders from Hunnicutt's newspaper. The national government ordered elections in 1869 that included a vote on the new Underwood Constitution, a separate one on its two disfranchisement clauses that would have permanently stripped the vote from most former rebels, and a separate vote for state officials. The Army enrolled the Freedmen (ex-slaves) as voters but would not allow some 20,000 prominent whites to vote or hold office. The Republicans nominated Wells for governor, as Hunnicutt and most Scalawags went over to the opposition.

The leader of the moderate Republicans, calling themselves "True Republicans," was William Mahone (1826–1895), a railroad president and former Confederate general. He formed a coalition of white Scalawag Republicans, some blacks, and ex-Democrats who formed the Conservative Party. Mahone recommended that whites had to accept the results of the war, including civil rights and the vote for Freedmen. Mahone convinced the Conservative Party to drop its own candidate and endorse Gilbert C. Walker, Mahone's candidate for governor. In return, Mahone's people endorsed Conservatives for the legislative races. Mahone's plan worked, as the voters in 1869 elected Walker and defeated the proposed disfranchisement of ex-Confederates.

When the new legislature ratified the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Congress seated its delegation, and Virginia Reconstruction came to an end in January 1870. The Radical Republicans had been ousted in a non-violent election. Virginia was the only Southern state that did not elect a civilian government that represented more Radical Republican principles.

See also

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