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.

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