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Richmond – Civil War

Richmond, Va. Custom House (left) and Capitol (center); rubble in street

No one was shocked when the nascent Confederate States of America made the decision to locate their capitol in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia’s storied history gave her an importance both to the Union and to the Confederacy; as far as the South was concerned, Virginia was the figurehead of the South, and thusly it was only natural that the capitol would belong there – despite the fact that Virginia was one of the final states to secede.

Not only was Virginia’s reputation as the natural capital of the South important to the decision to locate the capitol of the Confederacy in Richmond, but there were other strategic reasons, as well. For one, Richmond’s close proximity to Washington, D.C. made the city appealing, for intelligence reasons, if nothing else. For another, the cultured and educated nature of the city elevated it in status over many other Southern cities.

The illustriousness of Virginia aside, there were also other compelling reasons to locate the Confederate capitol in the capitol of Virginia; the Tredegar Iron Works, which were located in Richmond, were identified early on as essential to the Confederate war effort.

The Confederacy made itself at home in Richmond; Confederate president Jefferson Davis relocated to the city in 1861, settling into the Confederate White House. The Virginia State Capitol housed both the Confederate Congress and the Virginia General Assembly.

Union forces tried twice to take Richmond from the Confederacy. The first attempt, the Seven Days Battles of June and early July of 1862, were unsuccessful, as Confederates were able to keep the city despite heavy losses. However, in April 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his forces were able to capture the Confederate capitol, precipitating the end of the war.

Moving their capitol to Danville, Virginia, the retreating Confederates decided to make the city of Richmond as inhospitable as possible for the invading Union Army. They set fire to as much as 25% of the city, a fire that Union troops were compelled to put out upon arriving in the city. The demoralization of being forced to flee their city was the final straw for the dwindling Confederate war effort; just days after the Union capture of Richmond, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Interestingly, unlike Atlanta and Columbia, the capitol of the Confederacy was spared by the Union Army who occupied Richmond. No major destruction of the city was ordered by the Federal government, sparing the citizens of Richmond the horrors that their more southern brethren had faced. As a result, many of the landmarks of the Civil War are still standing in Richmond today, including the Confederate White House, which now houses the Museum of the Confederacy.

Even defeat did not dampen the Confederate spirit in the former capitol of the Confederacy. Monument Avenue, constructed at the height of Reconstruction, in 1887, features monuments that honor the heroes of the Confederacy, including monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew F. Maury.

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