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Begin 2  More about the Canal and the Evacuation Fire

A little of the canal remains in three locations: See an outline of the James River and Kanawha Canal etched on the floor of the James Center building on Cary Street between 13th and 14th streets. The rough-hewn stones lining the small park at 12th and Cary streets were once part of the canal walls. Locks on the old canal are preserved along Richmond’s Canal Walk under the Downtown Expressway off 12th Street.

The Evacuation Fire
When Confederate authorities left town in the late evening and early morning April 2–3, 1865, mob rule took hold downtown.

“The story of that night can never be told. Possibly I come nearest to a picture of it in declaring that it was a night in which there was absolutely no law,” remembered one Richmond resident years later. “The old authority was gone and the new one had not come. It was a time when only passion and fury uttered their voices and when liberty met riot and violence. The very streets roared with shriek and curse, with howl and menace and with the insanity of countless crowds."

An estimated 800–1,000 buildings were burned in 20 square blocks during the Evacuation Fire, leaving smoking ruins, blackened walls and rubble cascading onto the streets. Local ministers wryly noted that all the banks burned, but only one church.


3  More about Brown’s Island

Girls and young women at the Confederate Laboratory filled cartridges and boxed percussion caps and friction primers. An investigation of the March 13, 1863, explosion showed that Mary Ryan, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant, was filling a friction primer when it stuck to a board and she struck the board repeatedly to free the primer — the result being the sky-high explosion. Mary died the Monday after the incident. Funerals went on for days and weeks after.

Since the war continued unabated following the explosion, the laboratory was back in full operation by late May 1863, with the destroyed buildings replaced and new safeguards in place.

Confederate Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas was appalled since he emphasized safety — inspections and oversight were constant. He wrote, “It is terrible to think of — that so much suffering should arise from causes possibly within our control.”


4  More about the Tredegar

Because of the access to water and the advent of the James River and Kanawha Canal, this area has been one of the preferred locations for Richmond’s industry since the early 1800s. The Tredegar Iron Works (named for a similar Welsh company) was established here in 1837.

Prior to the war, the Tredegar turned out heavy artillery, shot and shell for the U.S. military and supplied all sorts of fabricated goods for railroads and other clients across the country.

At its peak early in the war, the Tredegar employed 2,500 people, including slaves and free blacks. The operation is sometimes compared to a plantation with the company supplying shelter and food for its employees, slave and free. Later in the war, with labor shortages becoming severe, an estimated half of the Tredegar workers were black.

Labor shortages and the gradual disappearance of raw materials was a problem that became more acute as the war progressed. By late 1862, the plant was running at only one-third capacity.

Tredegar employees protected the facility from mobs aiming to destroy it as Richmond fell in April 1865. The place was back up and running within a few months.

The Tredegar Iron Works continued as a Richmond business into the 1950s. The abandoned buildings here were restored in the 1980s.


5  More about Belle Isle

Long before the Civil War, famous architect and artist Benjamin Latrobe described Belle Isle as “a beautiful, fertile and romantic spot,” and hoped one day to live out his life there. But soon after Latrobe wrote those words the character of the island began to change.

Quarry operations and light manufacturing took hold in the 19th century and, by the time of the Civil War, the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works was one of the largest producers of nails in the country.

Confederate authorities never expected men to stay on Belle Isle for long. The camp was too close to the front, and feeding the prisoners (always badly and never enough) strained Richmond’s already diminished resources.

But the prisoner exchange system eventually broke down and overworked Confederate transportation systems proved unable to move all the men to camps farther south. So prisoners stacked up at the Belle Isle camp.

Many of the dead from the Belle Isle prison are buried in the National Cemetery on Williamsburg Road east of the city.