The Fall of Richmond

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Appomattox Campaign

The Burning of RichmondThe American Civil War ended in stages as various Confederate armies and the members of the government surrendered across the South.

By early spring 1865 the citizens of Richmond had become used to the threat of capture by the Federal army whose soldiers the Richmond newspapers described with great imagination as the vilest of humanity. Its inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire from just ten miles outside the city. Their faith in Robert E. Lee was so complete that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would never allow Richmond to be taken.


But General Lee knew that there would come a time that his army would have to leave the Confederate capital or be crushed by the superior Union armies. His army had put on a heroic defense but in the process they had been worn to the nub.

The catastrophic Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1st convinced Lee that it was time for his troops to leave Petersburg and Richmond, moving west. He hoped to join up with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina to continue the fight. At this point Lee had between 43,000 and 46,000 men.

As soon as the civilian populations of the cities discovered the imminent departure of their protectors panic ensued. Frank Lawley, the correspondent for London newspaper, The Times, observed:

“The scene that followed baffles description. During the long afternoon and throughout the feverish night, on horseback, in every description of cart, carriage, and vehicle, in every hurried train that left the city, on canal barges, skiffs, and boats, the exodus of officials and prominent citizens was unintermitted.”

President Davis’ train was set to depart on April 2 at 8:30 Sunday night. He kept hoping that somehow Lee would send news of a reversal of fortunes and that the government would not have to abandon the city. Finally, at 11 o’clock, he boarded the train and began the sad trip to Danville.

Richmond’s officials ordered all of the liquor to be destroyed. In the need for haste, however, those men charged with going through the stocks of every saloon and warehouse found the most expedient way was to smash the bottles and pour the kegs into the gutters and down the street drains. The stench attracted crowds. They gulped the whisky from the curbstones, picked it up in their hats and boots, and guzzled it before stooping for more. So the action taken to prevent a Union army rampage started a rampage by the city’s own people.

Meanwhile back in the city Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, Richmond’s military commander, was under orders to destroy the city’s tobacco, cotton, and foodstuffs before the Yankees got to them. To destroy the tobacco, Ewell had it moved to buildings that he believed could burn without setting the rest of the city on fire and asked the fire department to stand by to keep the fire from spreading.

In a city that had been suffering from scarcity, where high officials held “Starvation Balls,” no one believed there could be much food left to destroy. But they were wrong. The crowd, seeing the commissaries filled with smoked meats, flour, sugar, and coffee, became ugly. LaSalle Pickett wrote

“The most revolting revelation was the amount of provisions, shoes and clothing which had been accumulated by the speculators who hovered like vultures over the scene of death and desolation. Taking advantage of their possession of money and lack of both patriotism and humanity, they had, by an early corner in the market and by successful blockade running, brought up all the available supplies with an eye to future gain, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and starving.”

Enraged, they snatched the food and clothing and turned to the nearby shops to loot whatever else they found. They were impossible to stop. Ewell tried, but he had only convalescent soldiers and a few army staff officers under his command at this point. Not nearly enough men to bring order back to the streets. The fires, though, grew out of control, burning the center of the city and driving the looters away.

Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. Worse, as Admiral Raphael Semmes wrote,

“The Tredegar Iron Works were on fire, and continual explosions of loaded shell stored there were taking place….The population was in a great state of alarm.”

Frank Lawley reported that as he walked toward the railroad station he saw a column of dense black smoke. Semmes had set his ironclads on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Moments later, the warships’ arsenals exploded blowing the windows out for two miles around, overturning tombstones, and tearing doors from their hinges.

The Union cavalry entered town. By 7:15 Monday morning, April 3, two guidons of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry flew over the capitol building. Not long after, two officers of the 13th New York Artillery took down the little triangular flags and ran up the great United States flag. Union General Godfrey Weitzel sent a telegram to General Grant: “We took Richmond at 8:15 this morning. I captured many guns. The enemy left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. Am making every effort to put it out. The people received us with enthusiastic expressions of joy.”

Weitzel ordered his troops to put out the fire. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control. All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed, according to Furgurson. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” And the city rested.





Attacks against Richmond

This entry is part 17 of 21 in the series Petersburg Campaign

As the year turned to October, Robert E. Lee planned to respond to the capture of Chaffin’s Heights and Fort Harrison by the Federals. He planned an offensive against their right flank in the area of Darbytown and New Market Roads.

The Federal lines were held by David Birney’s Corps and August Kautz’s Cavalry Division positioned along New Market Road. Additional cavalry was stationed along Darbytown Road.

Richmond-Petersburg Map, Fall 1864Lee assigned the divisions of Maj. Gens. Charles Field and Robert Hoke to the attack. Their initial assault was against the cavalry that was stationed along the Darbytown. These overmatched forces routed and the attack continued to the next Union defensive positions along New Market Road. In the fighting the commander of the Texas Brigade, Brig. Gen. John Gregg was struck in the neck and killed along the Charles City Road. The Confederate force was repulsed and retreated back into Richmond. The Federals suffered 458 total casualties and the Confederates 700 in what was a Union victory.

On October 13th a Union brigade under Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry advanced against the Confederate fortifications to feel out their strength and exact positions. They were repulsed with heavy casualties and retired to their original positions along New Market Road. The total combined casualties for this engagement were 950 men.

Two weeks later on October 27th General Ben Butler’s forces executed a two-pronged assaulted along Darbytown Road and in the Fair Oaks area. The Federal X Corps attacked the Richmond defensive line along Darbytown Road. The XVIII Corps marched to the north and was soundly repulsed by the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Charles Field. Field’s forces counterattacked and captured 600 men. The Union forces retired to their original positions on the following day having sustained 1,603 casualties while the Confederate losses were less than 100.

The only purpose that these various assaults accomplished was to take Lee’s attention away from Federal plans on the Southside. The Federal army executed an assault against Boydton Plank Road at the same time as Butler’s attack against the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks.


The American Cannon King: Joseph R. Anderson

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

Joseph Reid AndersonBefore there was a German Cannon King, Alfred Krupp, there was an American Cannon King, Joseph R. Anderson. At the onset of the Civil War, Anderson had been the sole owner of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia for 13 years.

His Early Career


Joseph Anderson was a Virginia native, born in Botetourt County in 1813. He was the son of Colonel William Anderson who fought in the American Revolution and also the War of 1812. The younger Anderson was a West Pointer, graduating 4th in a the class of 1836. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and by the middle of 1837 he was transferred to the Corps of Engineers. His primary duty with the Corps of Engineers was in the construction of Fort Pulaski to guard the Port of Savannah, Georgia.

After his marriage to Sarah Eliza Archer, daughter of the post surgeon at Fort Monroe, he resigned his commission and joined Virginia State Engineer Claudius Crozet, who had earlier been a professor of engineering at West Point. He was involved in a number of engineering project and rose to the position of Assistant State Engineer.

Tredegar Iron Works

In 1841, he joined the company that he would associated with until his death, the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond, as its chief manager. By 1848 he was the owner and by 1860 was considered the leading industrialist in the South. His foundry on the James River was one of the largest in the United States, producing steam locomotives, boilers, cables, naval hardware, and cannon.

By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, half of the 900 workers were slaves, including many in skilled positions. The Tredegar Iron Works became a leading iron producer in the country by 1860. Between 1850 and 1860, the company produced about 70 steam locomotives. Tredegar also produced the steam propulsion plants for the USS Roanoke (1855) and the USS Colorado (1856).

The Civil War Years

At the start of the war, Anderson was commissioned a major in the artillery and by September of 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general. He was initially assigned to command all Confederate forces around the key port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. In April 1862 he was moved to Fredericksburg opposite the forces of Union General Irvin McDowell.

Anderson was then assigned to command the 3rd Brigade of General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” during the Peninsula Campaign and into the Seven Days Battles where he saw action at MechanicsvilleGaines’ Mill, and was wounded at Frayser’s Farm on June 30, 1862. On July 19, 1862, General Anderson resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Ordinance Department.

He served in that department until the night of April 2-3, 1865 when Richmond fell. Anderson reportedly paid over fifty armed guards to protect the Tredegar facility from Confederate arsonists who were determined not to allow anything to fall into Union hands. As a result, the Tredegar Iron Works is one of few Civil War era buildings in the warehouse district that survived the burning of Richmond.

It has been said that Anderson’s manufacturing facility produced about one-half of the cannons that the Confederacy made during the war. However,  Tredegar experienced a lack of skilled laborers as the war progressed. Scarce supplies of metal also hurt the company’s manufacturing abilities during the war and as the conflict progressed it was noticed that Tredegar’s products were beginning to lose quality as well as quantity.

Postwar Years

Joseph Anderson regained control of the Tredegar Iron Works from Federal authorities in 1867. He would remain involved in the business until his death in 1892. His son, Archer Anderson, became involved in the business, and became president of the Tredegar Iron Works after his father’s death. Another son Joseph Reid Anderson, went to the Virginia Military Institute after the Civil War and later taught there.

After his wife Sara died in 1881, Anderson remarried. His second wife was Mary Evans Pegram, making him a brother-in-law to Confederate General John Pegram and Colonel William Ransom Johnson Pegram, both of whom had been killed during the war.

Joseph Reid Anderson died while on a vacation at the Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire. It was widely reported that 30,000 citizens came to his funeral when he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.




George McClellan and the Plan for the 1862 Richmond Offensive

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

General George McClellanMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan was greeted as the savior of the Union when he was promoted to General-in-chief on November 1, 1861. He replaced Winfield Scott who was 75 to McClellan’s almost 35. When Lincoln expressed his concern about the “vast labor” involved in the dual role of army commander and general-in-chief, but McClellan responded, “I can do it all.”

His life up to now was an unbroken success. McClellan was a brilliant engineer who had graduated second in his class from West Point. He served bravely in the Mexican War, receiving two brevet promotions to captain. During the war he learned the value of flanking operations and how to conduct siege warfare.

After the excitement of the war McClellan returned to the more sedate life of a peacetime military officer. In his case he served on an expedition to discover the source of the Red River. He was on a survey team that explored for passages through the Rocky Mountains. Returning to the East he courted and married Mary Ellen Marcy. McClellan’s was one of nine proposals that she received.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent McClellan on a secret mission to scout the Dominican Republic. After that assignment he was dispatched to the Crimea as an official observer of the Crimean War. He observed the Siege of Sevastopol in 1856. Returning to the United States, McClellan wrote a lengthy report on the war but like most of the observers failed to highlight the importance of the new rifled musket.

He also wrote a manual on cavalry tactics based on his observations. He also proposed the adoption of a new saddle design that came to be know as the McClellan saddle. It is still in use today.

McClellan resigned his commission January 16, 1857, and, capitalizing on his experience with railroad assessment, became chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and also president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860. He performed well in both jobs, expanding the Illinois Central toward New Orleans and helping the Ohio and Mississippi recover from the Panic of 1857.

At the start of the war the governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the three largest states of the Union, actively pursued him to command their states’ militia. The Governor of Ohio, William Dennison, was the most persistent and McClellan accepted a commission as major general of volunteers on April 23, 1861.

On May 3rd he re-entered federal service as the commander of the Department of Ohio, responsible for Union forces in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Later, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia and Missouri were added to the department. On May 14th, he was commissioned a major general of the Regular Army. McClellan now outranked everyone except Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.

McClellan began the war with two objectives. The first was to build and train an army. The volunteers needed to clothed, fed, equipped and trained. His second objective was the occupation of western Virginia, an area that wanted to remain in the Union. After two minor victories, the Northern newspapers, hungry for a hero, christened him “Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War.”

After the Union defeat at First Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington to be the commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.”

On August 20th he formed the Army of the Potomac and began to train troops and integrate units into it. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. The Army of the Potomac grew in number from 50,000 in July to 168,000 in November and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.

He proposed that his army should be expanded to 273,000 men and 600 guns and “crush the rebels in one campaign.” He favored a war that would impose little impact on civilian populations and require no emancipation of slaves.

It was during this time that two overriding issues began to impact his conduct of the war. The first was his conflict with the Radical Republicans. McClellan was not an abolitionist. He believed that slavery was embedded in the Constitution and that the war was not being fought to free the slaves.

The second issue was his constant fear that the Confederate Army was far larger than it actually was. In August, he believed that they had 100,000 troops facing him despite their having only 35,000 at Manassas several weeks before. McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

After his appointment as General-in-Chief, McClellan and Lincoln began to be at odds with each other. McClellan treated the President with little deference. He privately referred to Lincoln, whom he had known before the war as a lawyer for the Illinois Central, as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon”, a “gorilla”, and “ever unworthy of … his high position.” On November 13, he snubbed the president, visiting at McClellan’s house, by making him wait for 30 minutes, only to be told that the general had gone to bed and could not see him.

By January, Lincoln and his Cabinet were losing patience with the general. Lincoln expressed his exasperation with McClellan and was reputed to have said, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”

On January 12th 1862, McClellan was summoned to the White House and revealed his strategy to Lincoln and his cabinet. He revealed his intentions to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to UrbannaVirginia, on the Rappahannock River, outflanking the Confederate forces near Washington, and proceeding 50 miles overland to capture Richmond. This would have left Washington without a proper defensive force and Lincoln would have none of it.

On January 27th, Lincoln ordered the Army of the Potomac to begin offensive operations by February 22nd. On January 31, he issued a supplementary order for the Army of the Potomac to move overland to attack the Confederates at Manassas Junction and Centreville. McClellan immediately replied with a 22-page letter objecting in detail to the president’s plan and advocating instead his Urbanna plan, which was the first written instance of the plan’s details being presented to the president.

Lincoln continued to interfere in McClellan’s planning and operation of the army. He reluctantly agreed to McClellan’s plan but on March 8th called McClellan’s subordinates to the White House where he questioned them on their confidence in the plan. They expressed their confidence to varying degrees.

After the meeting, Lincoln issued another order, naming specific officers as corps commanders to report to McClellan. He had been reluctant to do so prior to assessing his division commanders’ effectiveness in combat, even though this would have meant his direct supervision of twelve divisions in the field.

Then Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston withdrew from positions in front of Washington and moved south of the Rappahannock River, nullifying the Urbanna strategy. McClellan came under extreme criticism from the press and the Congress when it was found that Johnston’s forces had not only slipped away unnoticed, but had for months fooled the Union Army through the use of logs painted black to appear as cannons, nicknamed Quaker Guns.

The Radical Republicans were outraged and demanded McClellan’s dismissal but a vote in Congress was defeated by a parliamentary maneuver. Meanwhile, McClellan had adjusted his strategy. He proposed moving his troops by water to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. From there they would move up the narrow peninsula and take Richmond from the east.

On March 11, 1862 McClellan was relieved as general-in-chief, ostensibly to devote his entire energies to commanding the Army of the Potomac. However, he was not replaced and the civilian leadership of Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a group of officers called the “War Board” directed the strategic actions of the Union armies that spring. In time McClellan saw the change of command very differently, describing it as a part of an intrigue “to secure the failure of the approaching campaign.”



The Importance of Richmond

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Antebellum RichmondPeople who have little knowledge of antebellum America are always surprised at the close proximity of the Confederate capital of Richmond to the national capital of Washington, a mere 100 miles apart. The uninformed posit that perhaps the Southerners made Richmond their capital to spite the Northerners.

Once they begin to understand the pre-war economy of the South, it all becomes clearer. Many believe that the American Civil War was black and white. The see all Southerners as slaveowners and supporters of secession and all Northerners as abolitionists who support the Union unconditionally. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The American South was made up of three distinct regions: the Deep South, the Middle South and the Upper South. Richmond was the leading city of the Upper South. This region had evolved from a tobacco growing area into one with a diverse industrial economy.

Richmond was a transportation hub, as it is today, with major north-south and east-west roads bisecting the city. The city was also a major rail hub with rail lines radiating from the city in all directions. Richmond was the home of major industrial enterprises. Tobacco manufacturing and flour milling had dominated Richmond’s antebellum economy, but Confederate authorities were most interested in Tredegar Iron Works.

The city’s Tredegar Iron Works, the 3rd largest foundry in the United States at the start of the war, produced most of the Confederate artillery, including a number of giant rail-mounted siege cannons. The company also manufactured railroad locomotives, boxcars and rails, as well as steam propulsion plants and iron plating for warships. By the end of the war, it has been estimated that the Tredegar Iron Works made about 50% of the cannon used by the Confederacy.

Richmond had shipyards too, although they were smaller than the shipyards controlled by the Union in Norfolk, Virginia. Richmond’s factories also produced guns, bullets, tents, uniforms, harnesses, leather goods, swords, bayonets, and other war materiel. A number of textile plants, floor mills, brick factories, newspapers and book publishers were located in Richmond too. The city’s warehouses were the supply and logistical center for Confederate forces.

In 1864, Ordnance Bureau chief Josiah Gorgas noted that the Confederacy had become self-sufficient in the production of war matériel. This was remarkable considering that in 1860, the future states of the Confederacy had accounted for only 16 percent of the nation’s capital invested in manufacturing. Such an economic turnaround was largely due to the output of Richmond’s manufactories and especially the Tredegar Iron Works.

Richmond with its close proximity to the front defended by the Army of Northern Virginia became the main logistics and supply center for the Confederacy in the Eastern Theater. Lose Richmond and the Confederates would have lost the war. A capital can be moved but Richmond’s vital location and industrial muscle could not be relocated.

The goal of the Union government throughout the war was to capture Richmond and neutralize it as a Confederate military asset. From the first Tredegar Iron Worksdays of the war, the Northern newspaper proclaimed , “On to Richmond.” 

The Union Army of the Potomac attempted to capture the city in 1862. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan led his massive army up the Virginia Peninsula from Fortress Monroe to withing 6 miles of the city. Union soldiers later said that they could see the church steeples and hear the bells ringing.

From late 1862 until the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg in mid-1864 Richmond was always the goal of the Union Army. All of the Union offensives were targeted for Richmond while all of the maneuvers of Robert E. Lee were his attempts to defend the city.

The Siege of Petersburg should be rightly called the Siege of Richmond and Petersburg. The almost 10-month siege was not really a siege in the classic sense where all of the roads and rail lines are cut off. The trench lines that eventually extended over 30 miles (48 km) from the eastern outskirts of Richmond to around the eastern and southern outskirts of Petersburg.

Many of the berms and earthwork fortifications remain today, nearly 150 years later. Richmond–Petersburg was a costly campaign for both sides. The initial assaults on Petersburg in June 1864 cost the Union 11,386 casualties, to approximately 4,000 for the Confederate defenders. The casualties for the siege warfare that concluded with the assault on Fort Stedman are estimated to be 42,000 for the Union, and 28,000 for the Confederates.

Finally, after four years of deadly combat, General Lee ordered his army to withdraw from both cities and retreated to the west where after losing more men at Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek he surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.

In leaving the city, the Confederate government ordered the destruction of all remaining military supplies. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Richmond’s military commander, was under orders to destroy the city’s tobacco, cotton, and foodstuffs before the Union Army arrived. In order to destroy the tobacco, Ewell had it moved to buildings that he believed could burn without setting the rest of the city on fire and asked the fire department to stand by to keep the fire from spreading.

He was wrong and the fires grew out of control, burning the center of the city. Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. Worse, as Admiral Raphael The Burning of RichmondSemmes wrote, “The Tredegar Iron Works were on fire, and continual explosions of loaded shell stored there were taking place….The population was in a great state of alarm.”

Semmes had set his ironclads on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Moments later, the warships’ arsenals exploded blowing the windows out for two miles around, overturning tombstones, and tearing doors from their hinges.

Fortunately for the city, Union cavalry arrived on the morning of April 3rd. The Union commander, General Godfrey Weitzel, ordered his men to try to save the city and put out the fires. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control.

All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” For Richmond the war was finally over.


Union Spies: Elizabeth Van Lew

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Elizabeth Van LewIn the shadowy intelligence war within the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew may have been the most effective spy that the Union had inside the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The Richmond resident built and operated a large and effective spy ring.

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in 1818 in in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew and Eliza Baker, whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth’s father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.

Elizabeth and her brother were dedicated abolitionists and practicing Quakers. They spent large sums of money buying and manumitting slaves. Her brother would go to the Richmond slave market and buy entire families who were in danger of being split up. He would then bring them to his home and issue their papers of manumission.

At the start of the war Elizabeth began working on behalf of the Union. Richmond was the site of the notorious Libbey Prison and Elizabeth began a regular regimen of visits there. She would  bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Prisoners would pass her military intelligence on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.

Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has been widely suggested that Van Lew convinced Varina Davis to hire Mary Bowser as a household servant, enabling Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy

Van Lew’s spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.

Van Lew’s work was highly valued by the United States. George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with “the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65.” On Grant’s first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew. Grant said of her, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

When Richmond fell to the Union Army, Elizabeth was the first person to raise the American flag. Appointed by President Grant as postmaster, served from 1869 until 1877. However, many Richmond residents considered her a traitor and she eventually asked the War Department for all of her records in order to conceal the true extent of her espionage.

She petitioned the Federal government for reimbursement but was turned down. Desperately in need of money, she turned to a group of wealthy Bostonians who gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war donated a tombstone. She is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


Confederate Ordinance Factory Explosion in Richmond

Confederate Ordinance FactoryOn March 13, 1863 a massive explosion rocked the Richmond Confederate Ordinance Factory on Brown’s Island in the James River. More than 40 workers were killed and many others were burned. Some reports place the casualties at 60 killed.

This type of disaster is usually lost in the overwhelming numbers of killed and wounded of America’s most deadly war but the 150th anniversary was a time to commemorate this tragedy.

The Ordinance Laboratory was opposite the Tredegar Iron Works, the largest cannon factory in the Confederacy which made about half of the cannon used by the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. The factory manufactured ammunition and primers for cannon ammunition.

Up the hill from the cannon works was the Confederate States Armory where small arms were manufactured. By placing it on the island, Confederate authorities kept the dangerous manufacturing at a safe distance from the capital of the Confederacy.

Most of the workers were Irish immigrants. They were among 2,200 Irish-born residents of the city of 37,000 in 1860. The victims were young, some pre-teen, others in their 20s. “They were like 11, 12, 13, 15. They wanted them to work at Brown’s Island because they had small fingers and they could do the work and they were immigrants and having a job in America as opposed to subsistence living in Ireland seemed to be a good deal,” said Dan Begley of the Irish American Society.

The explosion was precipitated by a worker named Mary Ryan accidently ignited a friction primer. An account in the Richmond Examiner reported that “a dull, prolonged roar” echoed from Brown’s Island, attracting “frantic mothers and kindred of the employees of in the laboratory” to the banks of the James. The building was “blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out…” the newspaper reported.
Those responding to the explosion were met with the horror of what had just happened: the dead being carried from the smoldering remains and the near-dead “suffering the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds…”

Despite the horrific explosion and fire production at the factory was only halted for a brief period of time. After repairs were made, production in ammunition resumed.





The Confederate’s Libbey Prison

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Prisoner of War Camps

Libbey Prison in 1865, front viewLibbey Prison in Richmond, Virginia was one of the most notorious military prisons of the war. It was located in the Tobacco Row area of the city, along the James River. Prior to its use as a jail, the warehouse had been leased by Capt. Luther Libby and his son George W. Libby. They operated a ship’s chandlery and grocery business from the three story brick building.

The Confederate government began to use the building as a hospital and a prison in 1861. By 1862, they limited to officers only due to  overcrowding. In 1864, all prisoners were moved to Macon, Georgia and

Libbey Prison was used only for military criminals. The building had 9 low-ceilinged rooms, 103 by 42 feet each. The top two floors were used to house prisoners. The windows were barred and open to the elements which increased the prisoner’s discomfort.

Disease was prevalent due to the overcrowding and lack of sanitation. In 1862, the prison held 700 prisoners which increased to 1,000 the following year. The mortality rates were high in 1863 and 1864, in part due to shortages of food and other supplies.

A group of Union surgeons upon their release from Libby publishedan account in 1863 of their experiences in treating Libby inmates in the attached hospital:

“Thus we have over ten per cent of the whole number of prisoners held classed as sick men, who need the most assiduous and skilful attention; yet, in the essential matter of rations, they are receiving nothing but corn bread and sweet potatoes. Meat is no longer furnished to any class of our prisoners except to the few officers in Libby hospital, and all sick or well officers or privates are now furnished with a very poor article of corn bread in place of wheat bread, unsuitable diet for hospital patients prostrated with diarrhea, dysentery and fever, to say nothing of the balance of startling instances of individual suffering and horrid pictures of death from protracted sickness and semi-starvation we have had thrust upon our observation.”

During the summer of 1863, several prisoners wrote a newsletter named The Libbey Chronicle that they read aloud to the other prisoners. The LIbby Prison by David Gilmour Blythe, 1863contents included poetry and stories about the dreadful conditions inside the prison.

“We have eighteen kinds of food, though ‘twill stagger your belief,Because we have bread, beef and soup, then bread, soup and beef;Then we sep’rate around with’bout twenty in a group,And thus we get beef, soup and bread, and beef, bread and soup;For dessert we obtain, though it costs us nary red,Soup, bread and beef, (count it well) and beef and soup and bread.”

In February of 1864 more than 100 prisoners took part in the Libby Prison Escape. Of the 109 escapees, 59 succeeded in reaching Union lines, 48 were recaptured, and 2 drowned in the nearby James River.

A few weeks later, Union cavalry general H. Judson Kilpatrick and his one-legged protégé Colonel Ulric Dahlgren mounted an ambitious but disastrous rescue attempt, prompting Libby officials to dig a mine, fill it with explosives, and threaten to destroy the facility if any prisoners attempted to escape.

The Confederates began to move the prisoners to Georgia shortly after Dahlgren’s Raid. After Richmond fell on April 2, 1865, former Confederate officials became Libby’s newest inmates.


The Tredegar Iron Works

The Tredegar Iron Works

Tredegar Iron Works after the fall of Richmond

The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia was the Southern Confederacy’s major iron foundry for the making of artillery pieces, steam railroad locomotives and the iron plate that was used on the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia.

The construction of the foundry was started in 1833 under the supervision of Rhys Davies, a Welshman from Tredegar in Wales. A group of Richmond businessmen financed the construction in order to further industrialization in the South. The facility opened for business in 1937. Unfortunately, Davies was stabbed to death in 1938 by a workman. He was buried on Belle Isle, adjacent to the Tredegar Iron Works.

Joseph Reid AndersonIn 1841 Joseph Reid Anderson, a young civil engineer, was given the management of Tredegar. Anderson had graduated from West Point in 1836 but resigned his commission in 1837 to pursue a career in civil engineering. By 1848 he had acquired ownership of the facility. Anderson moved Tredegar into manufacturing for the United States government.

He also introduced the use of slave labor in order to cut costs. By 1861 at least half of the 900-man workforce were slaves, including many in skilled jobs.In 1860 Anderson’s father-in-law, Dr. Robert Archer, joined the business as a partner. At about the same time Tredegar had become a leading iron producer in the United States.

In 1846 the Virginia Board of Public Works commissioned the laying of 900 miles of railroad tracks in the state. Steam locomotives were needed to run  on those tracks. The Tredegar Locomotive Works manufactured 70 steam locomotives from 1850 to 1860.

The site of the Tredegar Iron Works became a center for diversified industrialization. In the years before the Civil War, a flour mill was built on the Tredegar land. It was leased to Lewis D. Crenshaw. It was damaged by a fire in 1863, was never rebuilt and the land reverted to Tredegar. A stove works was built on the Tredegar site at about the same time. It was leased to A.J. Bowers and Asa Snyder.

Joseph Anderson was a strong supporter of secession and when Virginia seceded he joined the Confederate army and was commissioned a brigadier general in September 1861. Initially, he commanded Confederate forces in the important port of Wilmington, North Carolina. In April 1862 he was reassigned to Fredericksburg. By June 1862 he was appointed to command the 3rd Brigade of General A.P. Hill’s “Light” Division. He saw action during the the Seven Days Battles of Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines Mill and Frayser’s Farm, where he was wounded on June 30, 1862.

Anderson resigned his commission on July 19, 1862 and joined the Confederate Ordinance Department where he served until the evacuation ofThe Burning of Richmond Richmond on April 2-3, 1865. The story is that Anderson hired 50 armed guards to protect the Tredegar Iron Works from arsonists. They did their job and the facility was one of the few industrial sites in the warehouse district to survive the burning of Richmond.

During the war the Tredegar Iron Works cast about 1,100 artillery pieces, over half of the total production in the South. However, as more men were drafted into the army skilled laborers became scarce. Scarcity of metals also impacted the production at Tredegar. With these scarcities came the inevitable degradation in the quality of Tredegar’s products.

At the beginning of the war Anderson had secured Tredegar’s financial assets overseas. Therefore, he was not seriously hurt when the Confederate currency collapsed. He secured a pardon from President Andrew Johnson by the end of 1865 and regained full ownership in 1867.

By 1873 the Tredegar Iron Works employed some 1,200 workers. Anderson continued to manage the business until his death in 1892. His son, Colonel Archer Anderson, took over the management of the company. The Tredegar Iron Works continued government production through the Second World War. The facility experienced a fire in 1852 and closed after 115 years of continuous business.

Today, what is left of the Tredegar Iron Works is preserved by the National Park Service. It has been the main visitor center of the Richmond National Battlefield Park since June 2000. The National Park Service visitor center/museum is located in the restored pattern building and offers three floors of exhibits, an interactive map table, a film about the Civil War battles around Richmond, a bookstore, and interpretive NPS rangers on site daily to provide programs and to aid visitors.

If you happen to be in the Richmond area, the Tredegar Iron Works is well worth the time to visit where the guns of the South were made.

Tredegar Iron Works Today

If you want to learn more about the Tredegar Iron Works, here is a reference work: Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works [Hardcover] by Charles B. Dew



Here’s a reference about some of the Civil War and other attractions in Richmond: Museums In Richmond, Virginia, including: Maymont Park, Tredegar Iron Works, Museum Of The Confederacy, Virginia State Capitol, Virginia Historical … Virginia, Richmond National Battlefield Park[Paperback]


‘Brothers’ Statue Unveiled

‘Brothers’ Statue Unveiled

The American Civil War had many instances of brother fighting against brother, fathers against sons and cousins against each other. On July 11, 2011 a poignant bronze statue was installed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

The life-size sculpture privately commissioned by an anonymous private collector in Fredericksburg, Va., and executed in 2010 by nationally recognized sculptor Gary Casteel is now on public display in the Capitol’s new visitor extension.

The memorial, a two-figure, life-size tableau in bronze, recalls a harsh reality of the American Civil War. The figures, brother against brother, represent the real possibility of familial recognition by opposing soldiers, one Union, one Confederate, but brothers nonetheless, after the horrific battle that engulfed the countryside near Fredericksburg.

Brothers Statue