As Richmond Girded for War in Spring of 1861
by William J. Kimball
Civil War Times Illustrated, November 1963.
ON THE afternoon of April 22, 1861, Robert E. Lee, dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a silk hat, stepped off a Virginia Central train at Seventeenth and Broad Streets in Richmond, Virginia. The city, destined soon to become the Capital of the Confederacy, had literally changed overnight. The people were still talking about yesterday’s abortive raid of the Federal warship, Pawnee, which it had been rumored was ascending the James to destroy the cannon foundry. The city, to a man, had risen to meet the challenge, the first of many war scares it would endure. Lee had missed that event and the other excitement which had occurred since the arrival of the news of Fort Sumter, but the show was far from over. During the next four years he would not visit the city often, but he would come to know, sometimes too painfully well, the grief and deprivation it was to suffer.
Earlier that day Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States, had arrived in the city and he was wasting no time. His reasoning was simple: Virginia had seceded, and the sooner she became a part of the Confederacy the better. He had no trouble in carrying out his authorization to "negotiate of and concerning all matters and subjects interesting to both Republics." Within three days Virginia became the eighth state to join the Confederacy.
EVERY railroad train that arrived in Richmond during the spring days and nights of 1861 bore its freight of soldiers. Even the boys in the schools and colleges enlisted; in many cases schools were forced to suspend instruction for lack of students. As rapidly as they could be accommodated, volunteers from every part of the state were ordered into camps of instruction at Richmond and Ashland. As soon as a company was considered fit for service, it was assigned to a regiment at the "front."
The task of turning this frolicsome, diversified group into reasonably disciplined soldiers fell principally upon the cadets who had come up from the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington. From under the brim of his old blue forage cap their officer, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, watched his boys molding the crude material. Although the troops were quick to take on the appearance of soldiers and drill as a unified group, command was at best a tenuous quality. Often a man wealthy enough to organize and equip a company led it, or perhaps the officer in charge was chosen by the men. When men addressed their leaders as "Sam" or "Joe" it was evident that they were going to do for them only what they "had a notion to." Even a colonel who had been called a "poo-poo" by one of his men knew better than to say anything, for as an observer of the event declared, "Tom would ‘a’ split him."
Richmond military organizations with long traditions, however, were quick to take on a renewed military air. The 1st Virginia Regiment’s history began in early colonial days, with George Washington and Patrick Henry among its early commanders. It had served gallantly in the Revolutionary War. The Richmond Light Infantry Blues, which in these crucial times was under the command of Captain 0. Jennings Wise, an associate editor of the Richmond Enquirer, was founded in 1789 and served in the War of 1812. Company F and the Richmond Grays had their ranks filled with young men generally of wealth, education, and refinement.
Into the camps set up at the Fair Grounds, Howard’s Grove, Holly Springs, and even the Richmond College grounds, came not only Virginia’s troops but units from other Southern states as well.
AT THIS TIME the streets of Richmond were crowded by a motley crew: among others could be seen the longhaired Texan "sitting his horse like a centaur"; the western mountaineer, with bearskin shirt, fringed leggings, and long, deadly rifle; the muddy-complexioned Carolinian in dirty gray and tarnished silver; the lank, muscular Georgian in his green-trimmed, full-skirted butternut; the Alabamian in his relatively neat, clean blue; and the dashing Maryland Zouave clad in blue and orange, who, when his state declared for non-secession, threw in his lot with the South.
Although the uniforms of those who passed through the heart of the Confederacy were variegated, there was reasonable uniformity in the soldiers’ headgear. Most wore the soft slouch of gray or tan as it offered more protection from the elements than did the regulation kepi.
But arms comprised the greatest variations. Some carried the Belgian or Springfield musket; some, the Mississippi rifle; others, shotguns. Mounted on horses of all sizes and kinds and colors "cavalrymen" carried every known kind of game-killer, from rifle to duck gun. Often the officers’ sabers were the only ones in a company. Except for those in some crack corps every man carried a double-edged bowie knife which could serve in a multitude of ways—culinary as well as warlike.
THE CITIZENS probably did not object to being awakened by the reveille of the drum and reminded by a plaintive call on a fife, of the hour for sleep, or hearing all day long the sound of martial music and the tramp of soldiers through the streets. Nevertheless there were certain aspects of their newly acquired military life to which they apparently could not adapt themselves. They were, for one thing, shocked at the familiarity of the soldiers and as one indignant young lady put it, "Why, indeed! any man that wears a stripe on his pantaloons thinks he can speak to a lady!" Many a soldier who thought he would take a pretty Virginia girl as his bride soon got his comeuppance. The Richmonder’s jealous pride and peculiar devotion to his state would not allow the soldiers from other states to claim that they had come "to fight the battles of Virginia." This remark always provoked a ready and often bitter retort.
When the troops were ready, and often before because of the constant need for room, they were sent off to one of the three "theaters of war": the Peninsula, Norfolk, or the open country from around and about Orange Court House to the Potomac. It was through these leave-takings especially that the people were beginning to realize what war actually meant. To insure that their soldiers were provided with the proper habiliments, the women of Richmond, many of whom had formerly devoted themselves to gaiety and fashionable amusement, now found their only pleasure in obedience to the demands made upon their time and talents, usually with the sewing machine. Sewing circles were multiplied and the basements of many churches were the scenes of activity for long hours of each day. The presence of sick soldiers, for whom the city’s hospital facilities were barely adequate, foretold to the thinking women their place in this great catastrophe which was upon them.
In an editorial in the Richmond Enquirer for May 8, 1861, John Moncure Daniel, whose vitriolic pen was ever ready to lash out at procrastination wherever he sensed it, stated that "no power in Executive hands can be too great, no discretion too absolute, at such moments as these. We need a Dictator . . . If Mr. Davis is the man for the times he will come at once to the front." On May 29 Mr. Davis came to the Capital of the Confederacy and as he and his wife emerged from the train, bells rang, artillery fired a Presidential salute, and the bands blared welcome. Between ranks of presented arms the party waved its way to the carriages which were waiting to take them triumphantly to the Spottswood Hotel, where the President and his family would reside until the Brockenbrough mansion at the corner of Clay and Twelfth Streets was ready for occupancy later in the summer. Even John Moncure Daniel would have been shocked on that day to realize that before long he, for one, would gladly trade Jefferson Davis for the 50,000 troops he thought him worth on May 8.
VARINA Howell Davis faced the formidable task of being "accepted" by Richmond society which, as one person described it, was "dessicated Virginia selectness." It was tacitly recognized that family first, with the concomitants of polish, education, and manner, was the sole open sesame" to which the doors of the good old city would swing wide. The abandonment of inland Montgomery for border Richmond was received much as the Roman patricians might have felt at the impending advent of leading families of the Goths. A common cause, common ambition, and common sorrow were in time to draw all classes into closer sympathy and contact, but at the first news of this new invasion older Richmond was ready to bolt the front door and lock the shutters.
Younger Richmond, it was said, was curious enough to peek between them. The First Lady was blessed with sound good sense and, after all, she had long experience in Washington society behind her. Putting her native wit and fund of diplomatic resources to work she soon raised the temperature of the social cold storage she encountered. She moved steadily in social matters from coolness to warm friendships of the best women of conservative Richmond and to the respect and admiration of all.
Following the arrival of the Davises, the other members of the Confederate Government began to arrive in Richmond. Immediately there arose the problem of where to set up the government offices. General Lee, who had originally established his headquarters in a room in the
Post Office without an officer or clerk to help him in his gigantic task, was now situated on the top floor of the War Department building, formerly the Mechanics Institute, which fronted on Ninth Street. The offices of the War Department, Adjutant-General, Ordnance Department, Surgeon-General, Secretary of the Navy, and the Attorney-General were also located in this building. The offices of the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and the Cabinet Room were in the Treasury Building, a granite structure which had been known formerly as the Custom House, fronting on Main and Bank Streets midway between Tenth and Eleventh Streets. The Confederate Congress took over the Capitol Building at the request of the Virginia legislature, and the former Goddin’s Building, a stuccoed edifice at the corner of Bank and Eleventh Streets, became the General Post Office.
RICHMOND was soon to feel the adverse effects of the pernicious characters who began to arrive in increasing numbers. Pickpockets had thrived whenever large crowds came to the city but they were nothing compared to the lawless troops and the usual "followers" of soldiers, many of whom were naive and were letting their naivete show. Gambling houses and other places of a demoralizing character sprang up readily and throve. Some of these resorts were considered respectable and numerous influential military and political figures were known to frequent them.
On rare occasions the local police descended upon such resorts and the dens were broken up, temporarily at least. According to the newspapers the vigorous measures were undertaken by the mayor and the police only at the urgent insistence of the authorities of the Government. Whatever the motivation, on a day that the drinking shops were closed the Examiner could report that the city was comparatively quiet but felt duty-bound to remind the citizens that it would be well to keep their front doors locked at night, as there was no knowing what might happen. No wonder a proper lady from the deep South felt that the license tolerated in fashionable society elsewhere grew to be tolerated somewhat in Richmond, and in the course of time prim Richmond was acknowledged as being fast enough for the sportiest.
RICHMOND, although bewildered and amazed by internal problems, could not devote all of its attention to them, for now that it was the Capital of the Confederate States there was all the more reason to look to its defense. The surrounding hills formed natural sites for fortifications, but the city was extremely vulnerable to attack from the water. Apparently this fact had not yet been driven home, for the majority of the residents gave little response to the Mayor’s pleas for any of their Negroes who were out of work, or their digging implements, or wheelbarrows for use on the fortifications. And the fortunes of war thus far had not given them cause for increased worry. The Pawnee, they heard, had not been able to get to the city because of blocked channels and strategically sited gun emplacements farther down the river.
When the news arrived in Richmond that Confederate troops under D. H. Hill and "Prince John" Magruder and, more especially, the Richmond Howitzers under Maj. John W. Randolph, had repulsed Federal troops at Bethel, the people claimed it as a personal victory. Confidence was high, and most residents considered the fight to be further proof that one Southerner could lick 12 Yankees. The South’s one victim, Henry L. Wyatt, was buried in Hollywood Cemetery with all the dignitaries in Richmond in attendance. Enlistments increased, for if it was going to be that easy many wanted to get a lick in before the war was over. The hum of the sewing machines and the click of the needles increased as the women told and retold the story. The men in the lines could hardly be held in check and it was difficult to restrain them from advancing on their own.
The clear-headed leaders, however, were not misled by this early fortuitous success; rather, they looked beyond to the real warfare which would come. They trained and drilled their raw troops harder, for like Jefferson Davis they knew that only fools doubted the courage of the Yankees or their willingness to fight.
TO BE the capital city in wartime was still very exciting to Richmond. The tempo of life both during the day and at night had increased and there was a kind of audible heartbeat that inspired all. To contribute to the unceasing round of dinners and entertainments, even strawberries were more plentiful than they had been for several seasons, owing, no doubt, to the blockaded fleet in the James River which prevented this luxury from finding its way to northern ports. The rumor that the water in the reservoir on Shockoe Hill had been poisoned was discredited. Dogs, however, were becoming quite too numerous in and around the city. The dog catchers were otherwise employed and until they could again go their rounds the complaints of citizens who were annoyed by the yelping and baying of the curs would be unceasing. If the people had known that life, even in a capital city, does not remain excitingly different and ennobling during four years of warfare, they would have paid more attention perhaps to the fact that shortly before First Manassas the Richmond Daily Whig stated that the stock of provisions was so nearly exhausted that it was unnecessary to give quotations. Further, they would have been concerned that a war clerk felt that he would have to find more lucrative employment, as the mere boarding of his family cost more than the salary he was making.
But the majority were not particularly concerned. They gave General Beauregard a thunderous ovation when the conqueror of "the toad-spotted traitor to his section," Major Anderson, arrived in the city to transact business with the President before leaving for the front near Manassas. Even the ladies of the Spottswood clique, composed mostly of wives of officers who did not share the optimism of the relatively uninformed citizen, did not think the situation serious enough to keep them from going on a jaunt to the White Sulphur Springs in Fauquier County early in July.
WITHIN a short period of time, however, the women at the Springs became increasingly fearful, for now they could hear cannon occasionally and when it was reported that the vastly superior forces of the enemy might make a flank movement and cut them off, they left without even waiting for clothes which were at the washerwoman’s. They returned to a city which was aghast at the news of the defeats at Rich Mountain and Garrick’s Ford. The people of Richmond knew little of the detailed disposition of their soldiers; they were influenced greatly by rumors, were expectant of victories and, as a consequence, in the early days of the war they were bewildered by news of defeat.
Their bewilderment at the news from the western part of the state was soon superseded by a steadily rising excitement. Fresh troops coming into the city daily could see steady work being done on the defenses but the talk was about an impending clash. President Davis, Generals Lee and Cooper, and other dignitaries were closeted all the afternoon of July 14. Rumors flourished.
When the news of First Manassas broke, the people received it with a deep, grave joy and braced themselves for what was to come. They had sent up with their men the bandages, lint, cots, mattresses, and pillows they had been collecting for the event. The surgeons and volunteer doctors departed and Richmond, having done all it could, began the first of its heart-rending periods of waiting.
William J. Kimball will be remembered for his articles, "Ransom’s North Carolina Brigade" and "A Confederate View of Burnside’s Attack at Fredericksburg," both in Volume I of CWTI. Dr. Kimball is dean of Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina. This article is based on a book-length manuscript about wartime Richmond.
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