Life on the Virginia Home Front > Confederate Interior
Though largely shielded from the upheaval of Union invasion—because of the strategic importance of both the Confederate capital and the railroads that linked it to the west and south—residents of Virginia's Confederate interior were nonetheless confronted with hardships that profoundly altered their lives. Like other Virginians, they experienced despair and deprivation. They suffered the loss of family and friends on the battlefront, faced a shift of responsibilities following the conscription of white men and the impressment of blacks, and were forced to endure the increasing unavailability of commodities of all types and subsequent skyrocketing inflation. Unlike other Virginians, those in the larger towns were overwhelmed by an influx of refugees. Richmond and Petersburg suffered as well the more intrusive crowding of profiteers, troop buildups, prisons for the captured enemy, and hospitals for the wounded and sick from the battlefront. Lynchburg and Danville shared some of the latter burdens.
Those opposed to secession were largely silenced. Many free African Americans felt compelled to contribute to the war effort. Both slaves and free blacks were impressed to serve labor needs of the Confederacy. In the countryside, food was confiscated to feed the army. In remote areas to the southwest, support for the Confederate cause diminished and army deserters found refuge there.
As the largest community in the state and the major manufacturing and transportation center, Richmond inevitably became a military center. As capital of the Confederacy, the city suffered from an influx of citizens and soldiers. Its population tripled in little more than a year. Although Richmond escaped invasion by federal forces until the very end of the war, repeated attempts by Union generals to capture the city brought it some of the anxiety experienced on the frontier.
Job-seekers and profiteers were the first to arrive, followed by soldiers from every state of the Confederacy, resulting in a dramatic rise in drunkenness, prostitution, rape, and assault. After New Orleans fell to Union occupation, Richmond became by far the most expensive, corrupt, overcrowded, and crime-ridden city in the Confederacy. Refugees fled there when territory was lost to federal military control and as the Confederate frontier was threatened. Casualties from the battlefront, horrendous in their numbers, soon overflowed Richmond's hospitals, warehouses, and abandoned homes. As the sick and wounded died, the endless procession of military funerals underscored the grief endured in the city. Warehouses and factories were filled with Union prisoners of war, some of whom were sent there even from faraway campaigns. Unionists in the Confederate capital were compelled to keep their silence or be imprisoned.
Richmonders additionally endured martial law, conscription, impressments of servants and property, and a disruption of the local economy. The overcrowding and the effectiveness of the Union blockade brought a shortage of goods and skyrocketing inflation. The shortage of food caused near starvation. In April 1863, several hundred near-starving residents assembled in Capitol Square to stage a bread riot, but looted instead.
At the war's end, a large portion of Richmond was physically destroyed. As in much of the Confederate territory, the rich and the poor were left destitute, with no way to flee, no place of refuge, and no means of support.
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Pictured: Richmond, Virginia. View (Library of Congress)
The second largest city in the state, a major industrial center (notable for tobacco, cotton, flour, and iron production), and a major transportation center (an international port and a railroad link south), Petersburg quickly became a military center as well. Residents were quickly overwhelmed by an influx of Confederate troops from the South. A year later, they were overcrowded with battlefront casualties (from First Manassas and the Seven Days battles) and with refugees (many from Norfolk). The local economy suffered significant disruption. The Union blockade ended the importation of goods, causing shortages and skyrocketing inflation. By 1863, prices had increased nearly eightfold and the scarcity of food brought near starvation. Like Richmond, Petersburg also endured martial law, conscription, and impressments of servants and property. Given the difficult conditions, many free blacks in the city felt compelled to contribute to the Confederate defense effort.
Beginning at least by early 1862 when the Union army moved up the James River, residents of Petersburg feared invasion. Later in the war, the city actually became a strategic target. Citizens experienced extreme anxiety—more usually associated with the uncertainty of life in no-man's-land and the hectic pace of life on the Confederate frontier. During the siege of 1864–65, when the frontier actually collapsed to Petersburg, Union artillery obliterated portions of the city and terrorized the civilian population. But as fear mounted, so did resolve. As in much of Virginia, the rich and the poor were left destitute, with no means of escape. Petersburg was in part destroyed by the war: the shelling damaged or leveled 625 buildings. The city never regained its former prosperity and status.
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Pictured: Petersburg, Virginia. Effects of shot & shell on Dunlop house on Bollingbrook Street, 1865 (Library of Congress)
Counties along the James River were raided on occasion by Union cavalry, but most of rural southwest Virginia saw neither army. The landscape there survived the destructiveness experienced in so many other parts of the state. Slaves and free blacks of the region, however, were impressed to labor for the Confederacy, over the objections of white residents.
Lynchburg became a major transportation, supply, and hospital center for the Confederacy. Its access to the James River and Kanawha Canal and to three railroads linked it to Richmond and to other cities, and it was far enough removed from the Confederate frontier to be relatively safe from federal attack. Five hundred prominent women in Lynchburg established the Ladies' Relief Society and the Ladies' Relief Hospital, which grew to become the South's largest outpost hospital center, with a staff of fifty surgeons drawn from all parts of the Confederacy. Warehouses were converted into hospitals. Railroads brought the wounded, including 10,000 casualties from the battle of the Wilderness—more than the population of the town.
To disrupt the transportation and supply operations in Lynchburg, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Gen. David Hunter there in June 1864. Hunter approached from the Shenandoah Valley to within a mile of the city, but withdrew, fearful of its defenses. Enthusiasm for the war withered in Lynchburg following the repeated impressment of its men and resources. Some white residents joined African Americans there in welcoming the defeat of the Confederacy.
The largest city between Richmond and Atlanta, and a railroad center that connected the two, Danville also was made into an important supply depot and hospital center for the Confederacy. The Confederate Subsistence Department operated Danville Depot, a converted tobacco warehouse where supplies traveling north were stored. Thousands of sick and wounded soldiers were housed first in warehouses, until a large hospital complex was built conveniently near the train depot. An arsenal and prisons were also established in Danville. In 1862, the Danville Arsenal began manufacturing new arms and armaments, and repairing weapons. In 1863, on Gen. Robert E. Lee's recommendation, six tobacco warehouses were converted into prisons that soon housed some 5,000 Union soldiers. Danville's textile mills produced uniform fabric for the Confederacy.
Union cavalry in the Valley threatened Danville in June 1864, but withdrew in face of a Home Guard unit and an extensive network of earthworks—completed only days earlier.
Residents in the southwestern counties close to the North Carolina border, where support for slavery and for the Confederacy was weak from the start, increasingly grew weary of the war and many there rejected the war effort.
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Pictured: View of Danville, Va. (Library of Congress)