Richmond's Civil War History

Richmond's Civil War History, Richmond, Virginia (A)

As Capital of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, Richmond saw much political action. The city was a center of slave trade, and produced and stored munitions, weapons, and supplies for the Confederate Army. It escaped direct conflict till the last month of the war. Union forces closed in on Richmond in 1865, so Confederates set fire to bridges, armory, and warehouses. The fire raged out of control, and large parts of the city were destroyed.
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Sights Featured in This Article

Guide Name: Richmond's Civil War History
Guide Location: USA » Richmond
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 5.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 6.1 Km or 3.8 Miles
Author: Annie Tobey
Author Bio: Annie Tobey is the Active Woman Traveler who makes her home in Richmond, Virginia and enjoys exploring beyond the boundaries. She has been a professional writer and editor for over twenty years, with a special passion for travel writing and a thirst for knowledge.
Author Website:
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Museum and White House of the Confederacy
  • Capitol Square
  • Shockoe Slip
  • Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar & American Civil War Center
  • Belle Isle & the Confederate Military Prison
  • The Civil War Walkway, Three Days in April
  • Canal Walk
  • Shockoe Bottom
  • Reconciliation Statue
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
Museum and White House of the Confederacy

1) Museum and White House of the Confederacy

Richmond served as capital of the Confederate States of America. This site honors that heritage with a modern museum and the restored mansion that was the White House of the Confederacy from 1861-1865, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the war. The elegant 19th century mansion, a National Historic Landmark, features Davis family effects and other period décor in 11 well-appointed rooms.

The modern museum building offers three floors of exhibits, with the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Confederate artifacts, manuscripts and photographs, approximately 15,000 rotating items. Visitors see the belongings of Civil War generals such as Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Robert E. Lee, as well as of Confederate soldiers. There are edged weapons like swords and sabers, U.S. and European firearms, uniforms and headwear and personal gear, buttons, saddles, and flags. In addition to military artifacts, the museum includes period art and domestic objects and clothing, personal papers and diaries.

The museum is handicap accessible. Plan 1+ hour.

Guided tours of the White House last 40 minutes.

Hours: Monday-Saturday from 10am-5pm; Sunday from noon-5pm; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The White House is closed in January for cleaning and restoration.

Call 804-649-1861 or visit

The Museum of the Confederacy web site provides calendar and program information, store, high-res digital photographs, and much more, as well as the information found in this description.
Capitol Square

2) Capitol Square

Capitol Square, with the Virginia Capitol, Executive Mansion, statues, memorials, and Bell Tower, was essential to the Confederate States of America (CSA). The Capitol building was featured on CSA currency and the statue of George Washington was the inspiration for the seal.

At the Capitol building on April 17, 1861, the Virginia Convention voted to secede from the Union. Richmond soon became the Capital of the Confederacy, and the building became the crowded home to both the Virginia and the Confederate houses and senates. Enterprising women set up food stands inside the Rotunda, selling chicken, peanuts, and hard-boiled eggs.

As the center of political power during the war, Capitol Square was the scene of ceremonies, speeches, band concerts, drills, and public gatherings. President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated here in February 1862. Crowds celebrated Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas.

The Executive Mansion, the oldest governor’s mansion in the U.S. and a Virginia and National Historic Landmark, hosted offices for the CSA.

In 1865, the Bell Tower sounded as Union troops approached the city.

During the great conflagration of 1865, Capitol Square was a refuge from the flames, then a headquarters for occupying Union authorities, who quickly replaced the Confederate and Virginia flags with U.S. flags. President Abraham Lincoln came here during his visit to Richmond, about a week before his assassination.

The Capitol building is open to visitors Monday – Saturday, 8am-5pm, and Sundays from 1-5pm. Optional guided tours are available Monday – Saturday, 9am-4pm, and Sunday 1-4pm.
Shockoe Slip

3) Shockoe Slip

Richmond was founded at the falls of the James River, the farthest upriver from the Atlantic Ocean that a boat could travel. In the late 18th century, the Kanawha Canal was built to bypass the falls, planned in part by George Washington. The canal boats or “bateaux” unloaded their cargoes in the “slips” here in Shockoe Slip, a center of commercial activity during the Civil War.

At the time of the Civil War, Shockoe Slip was populated by tobacco warehouses, mills, and wholesalers. The neighborhood was decimated by the great evacuation fire, but was rebuilt quickly after the war. The cobblestones on the streets are from the Slip’s early days.

The bulk of Shockoe Slip stretches from 12th to 14th streets, from Main to Canal. From 9th to 12th between Cary and Canal are the James Center office towers and plaza. Workers excavating for the building of this complex unearthed the remains of more than 30 canal boats. In celebration of the heritage of its location, art at the James Center depicts the canal and Shockoe Slip’s early commercial life. On the floor inside of the Atrium is a bronze diagram of the canal system, locks, and Turning Basin. A four-story mural behind the elevators depicts the canal and historic architecture, with a portion of the mural representing Richmond after the great fire. The large stones in the plaza are from the Kanawha Canal. Even the clock tower represents life on the canal.
Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar & American Civil War Center

4) Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar & American Civil War Center

Tredegar Iron Works was the leading producer of munitions, cannon, railroad iron, steam engines, and ordnance for the Confederate army and a keystone of the Richmond economy. The foundry was also responsible for the armor plating of the CSS Virginia, which fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, the first battle between ironclads. Slaves and bondsmen were among the foundry’s skilled laborers.

The American Civil War Center museum, located in the 1861 Tredegar gun foundry, is unique in the perspectives it embraces, viewing the War Between the States from the points of view of Confederates, Unionists, and African Americans. As the museum’s web site explains, “The war was a matter of honor and principle for all three as each acted to uphold its own vision of America. Each remembered the war differently as well, and to this day the war means different things to different people.” The exhibit explores the war’s causes, its progress (1861-1865), and its legacies, reaching into how the conflict continues to shape the nation. The lessons are portrayed through changing displays of artifacts, timelines, hands-on activities, films, and more.

Open daily, 9am-5pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day.

Also on site is the National Park Service Civil War Visitor Center, the recommended starting place for a tour of the Richmond NPS Civil War tours. The Center introduces the story of Richmond during the War, the battlefields, and related sites through exhibits and audiovisual programs. Open daily 9am-5pm.
Belle Isle & the Confederate Military Prison

5) Belle Isle & the Confederate Military Prison

Belle Isle, the 54-acre James River island across the footbridge, served as a Confederate military prison for thousands of Union soldiers from June 1862 to October 1864, with horrendous conditions for prisoners. The South claimed a low death rate, but the North claimed that many prisoners died. Because the island was originally intended only as a holding facility, no barracks were built for the prisoners. Instead, they stayed in tents year round, despite summer heat and winter cold. Sanitation and nutrition were very poor, resulting in epidemics of diarrhea, scurvy, frostbite, and in dementia. A Union physician who treated released prisoners reported that they were ill, emaciated, filthy, and “covered in vermin.” Many had even lost their reason and mental faculties.

Belle Isle was reserved for noncommissioned officers and privates, while nearby Libby Prison, near 20th and Cary streets, was used for Union officers. Also on the island were an iron factory and a hospital for prisoners. During the 1860's, the island contained a village with school, church, and general store.

The island is a free Richmond City park, with a paved walking path around the island and bike trails traversing the woods. Remnants of past buildings dot the land and shoreline. It’s accessible by footbridge from both sides of the river and is open dawn to dusk.
The Civil War Walkway, Three Days in April

6) The Civil War Walkway, Three Days in April

At the western edge of Brown’s Island is a walkway on the ruins of an old bridge, displaying an exhibit entitled “Three Days in April.” An archway marks the beginning of the walk: “Some of the most dramatic events in Richmond’s history occurred during Three Days in April 1865 when the city fell to the Union army after four years of Civil War.” Positioned chronologically, metal planks and photographic exhibits tell the story of the Confederate realization that they could no longer hold off Union forces, as the Southern leaders fled, giving orders for the soldiers to burn the city behind them to assure that the Union army would not benefit from the city’s many munitions and supplies. The city was evacuated, fires set, fires raged out of control, the Union army marched in, and slaves were freed.

On the foot planks, the story is told through the words of men and women, soldiers and civilians, who were there to see the fall of the Capital of the Confederacy—for many, their home. The timeline is set on planks along the railing, and photos with descriptions at the end of the walkway tie the history to the view from the bridge.

The exhibit’s location communicates a coexistence of the past and the present, natural environment and manmade achievements. It stretches above the rushing rapids and under a railroad trestle. It provides views of pylons from old bridges below sturdy new spans, and of Richmond’s modern high-rise buildings.
Canal Walk

7) Canal Walk

In the 1850s, the James River and Kanawha Canal system was in its heyday, enhancing transport of goods in young Virginia, with Richmond’s Shockoe Slip as a bustling hub of trade. Teams of horses and mules pulled barges through the canals, as batteaux transported freight and packets carried passengers. Civil War munitions and supplies and raw materials for use at Tredegar Iron Works traveled on the canal boats.

The original plans, as envisioned by George Washington in 1774, called for canals stretching to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The James River Canal, the first towpath canal system in North America, created a route around the river’s falls. Ultimately, the canals only reached to Lynchburg, Virginia, as railroads became the means of efficient overland travel.

Richmond has restored its canal system and added sidewalks and signage. Walking from Brown’s Island to Shockoe Bottom, one can learn about the canals, locks, and Great Basin; about the Haxall headgates and millrace; and about the bateaux and packets.

One can also read about railroads, tobacco industry, and factories that were essential to Richmond’s growth, as well as the lives of African Americans on the waterfront. A marker on Brown’s Island tells of the Confederate Laboratory, where powder was loaded apart from the city to lessen the damage from potential explosions—a danger that was realized in 1864 and killed 46. Old industrial buildings still stand along the walk, monuments to the past alongside modern residence and offices and restaurants, reminders that life continues.
Shockoe Bottom

8) Shockoe Bottom

In the antebellum years, Shockoe Bottom adjoined the canal-fed Shockoe Slip, but with a darker purpose. While the Slip bustled with value-for-value trade, the Bottom traded in human lives.

Shockoe Bottom was one of the South’s largest slave-trading centers, with as many as 300,000 slaves passing through as someone else’s property. Slave trading began here in the 17th century. Although Virginia banned import trade of humans in 1778, interstate trade continued. Surplus slaves were sold, some from “breeding” programs. Others were “rented,” often to local iron foundries and tobacco production.

Slave trade continued until the end of the Civil War. Although some Confederate soldiers fought to support their home and to stand up for states’ rights, the defeat of the C.S.A. had the benefit of ending human enslavement in the United States.

Shockoe Bottom and surrounding area was the site of several slave auction houses and to holding facilities—like stables for horses—where the enslaved awaited their changes of fate. In this mix of inhumane commerce was Lumpkin’s Jail, also known as the Devil’s Half Acre, a miserable facility serving as a slave jail and meting out harsh punishments for runaway and recalcitrant slaves. Gallows stood nearby, for the final ultimate punishment, as did the Negro Burial Ground, where slaves and poor free blacks were buried.
Reconciliation Statue

9) Reconciliation Statue

This 15-foot, half-ton bronze sculpture, created by artist Stephen Broadbent, is to represent reconciliation after division, as some African Americans were reunited with loved ones after slaves were freed following the Civil War, and as whites and blacks may be united, overcoming the damage of past wrongs.

Identical statues stand in Liverpool, England and Benin, West Africa, memorializing three points on the African slave trade—Europe, Africa, and America—now identified as the Reconciliation Triangle. Africans had been captured, chained, and loaded on crowded ships, forced into unsanitary conditions with little sustenance, and transported across the ocean. Over 100,000 were delivered to Virginia between the 1600s and the American Revolution. Goods were exchanged for the slaves and shipped to Europe, where the triangle began again.

The Richmond statue was unveiled at a ceremony in 2007. Behind the statue, water from a fountain flows over a map of the slave trade triangle.
Valentine Richmond History Center

10) Valentine Richmond History Center

This museum of Richmond history is headquartered in the magnificent 1812 Wickham House, a National Historic Landmark. The house is an example of 19th century Federal architecture, showcasing examples of beautiful interior decorative painting, period furniture, and life of a prominent Richmond family. The house was built by John Wickham, best known as lead defense attorney for Vice President Aaron Burr’s treason trial. It’s located in a neighborhood named “Court End” because of its proximity to the Richmond courts. Also in the neighborhood were Chief Justice John Marshall and bank president John Brockenbrough.

The great evacuation fire of April 1865 did not reach the Court End neighborhood, so the Wickham house still stands as a glimpse into 19th century life.

The Valentine museum covers Richmond history from “Settlement to Streetcar Suburbs,” including information and artifacts from the Civil War. The gift shop offers souvenirs, photographs, and books on a diverse range of local topics.

The Valentine Galleries are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 12-5pm; closed Mondays except for major Monday holidays; closed other major holidays. Call 804-649-0711 or visit

Walking Tours in Richmond, Virginia

Create Your Own Walk in Richmond

Create Your Own Walk in Richmond

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Richmond Introduction Walking Tour

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