Leigh Street: An Area in Crisis

Perry L. (pl4ut)

Assignment #2


Leigh Street: An Area in Crisis

In times of war, those closest to the battlefields feel a myriad of emotions.  First and foremost among those emotions is fear.  In the American Civil War, people in both the Union and the Confederacy had “devil-theories,” through which they believed that the enemy was carrying out the desires of Satan.[i] For either side, the fear that evil forces might prevail created a palpable tension in America’s towns and cities.  Between 1861 and 1865, the panic and fear caused by the Civil War led to differing, even opposite, reactions.  On Richmond’s wealthy Leigh Street, the residents resorted to crime or increased church involvement in order to reconcile that fear.

How did the people of Richmond see Leigh Street during the Civil War?  A man walking down Leigh Street in the early to middle 1860s would see signs of a busy community.  Although Leigh was composed of two main sections—one uptown, crossing over streets in the single digits, and the other farther downtown, intersecting with streets numbered in the twenties—the street possessed a similar atmosphere in both sections.  During the week, he would see the various groceries, shops, and stores full of life as locals made their business transactions for the day.  Walking farther, he would come across homes and businesses owned by immigrants, giving the atmosphere an international flair.  He could also watch the enslaved servants of Leigh’s homeowners as they completed their masters’ errands or performed outdoor chores.  Children played outside, sometimes getting in the way of workers who traveled up and down the street for business purposes.  In the evenings, some of Richmond’s elite could be seen taking a stroll or walking to the theater.  Although the street was an area of great wealth, it was home to a large variety of people from differing classes: dance instructors, piano tuners, tax assessors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and seamstresses among others.  Some people who used Leigh Street were not residents, like the military who conducted parades occasionally, or the middle class workers of the street’s businesses.  On Sundays, the dynamic of the street changed, as residents stopped their weekday routines and walked to one of the many nearby churches.  Even the enslaved had their own places of worship on Leigh, and for a little while every Sunday morning, the enslaved population did not live under the watchful eyes of its many masters.

An examination of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, the main city newspaper during the war, provides evidence of Leigh Street’s social makeup, which sheds light on inhabitants’ reactions to the war.  The Dispatch shows that the primary demographic of the street’s residents was the middle- to upper-class—from businessmen to military leaders and others in between—who occupied medium to large homes with outhouses and/or stables.  The Dispatch provides further evidence of the apparent wealth on the street through numerous advertisements from residents desiring white servants or enslaved persons, or hiring out those in their possession.  The Dispatch also contains a large number of advertisements of home sales and auctions.  The most notable sale occurred on October 30, 1862, when a deceased man’s property, encompassing land and buildings on the entire block of Leigh between 7th and 8th Streets, was sold at auction for a total of $135,430.90.[ii]

The wealthy elite on Leigh Street had helping hands in their daily lives who had a lot at stake based on the outcome of the war: enslaved persons and servants.  Throughout the entirety of the Civil War, residents of Leigh posted wanted advertisements for “boys” and “girls” to work in kitchens, wash clothing, and clean their homes, or ads to hire out people for such services.  The Dispatch rarely referred to enslaved persons as “slaves,” choosing identifiers like “negro servant” or “servant boy.”  On certain occasions, enslaved persons would run away, and their masters ran ads in the papers offering rewards between $10 and $500. Some of the enslaved stayed with their masters until emancipation, but many fled as the Union Army closed in on Richmond.  During the years of the war, the Dispatch did not indicate whether any of the runaways were caught or returned to Leigh Street.

The relatively new immigrant population on Leigh Street gave variety to the once singular social demographic comprised of the elite and wealthy, and its presence added another element of anxiety during the Civil War.  According to Gregg Kimball, German immigrants made up roughly a third of all foreign-born residents in Richmond in the middle of the 19th century.[iii] The Dispatch validates Kimball’s claim of German prominence in the city, as evidenced by the presence of German-owned grocery on Leigh and a German Lutheran Church on nearby 5th Avenue.[iv],[v] While the Dispatch offers little information as to the interactions between immigrants and native-born residents, Kimball suggests that the city’s Germans immigrants, although not feeling any allegiance to the United States, still participated in community events.[vi] Historian Susan Schulten points out that “…German emigrants shared an antipathy to slavery and a concurrent loyalty to the Union.”[vii] Although the Dispatch reveals little about any clashes between immigrants and native-born residents, perhaps differences in war sentiments created anxiety for those on Leigh Street who were in close proximity to social groups with rivaling opinions on the war.

Many people who used Leigh Street were not residents, yet they contributed to both the fear of failure as well as the hope of victory in the time of war.  The multitude of businesses scattered across Leigh employed many middle- and lower-class workers, who traveled from Richmond’s less affluent neighborhoods, like Oregon Hill, to work in stores, manufactories, or large businesses.  In addition to the daily presence of non-resident workers, the military also used the space of Leigh Street for drill exercises and parades.  One advertisement for a particular parade beginning at Leigh Street African Church requested that each participant bring a musket rifle, if possible.[viii] People living or working on Leigh might watch a passing military drill, as that particular regiment prepared to travel to the battlefield with the hope of defeating the Union.  These drills may have been the last time in which some of the participants were seen in public before falling in battle, so the drills certainly carried an ominous, yet possibly hopeful feeling for witnesses on Leigh and other city streets.

Due to the presence of at least three major churches on Leigh Street—Leigh Street Baptist, Leigh Street African, and Third African Baptist, also called Ebenezer Church—the clergymen of these congregations served their community together in the face of war anxiety.  Church leaders organized relief efforts for the war while spreading their messages of God’s love and mercy.  The Dispatch highlighted such church activities often, reporting about events, attendance, and community responses.  The community saw quite a lot of the clergy from these churches, from Sunday sermons to funerals and other events in between.  One particular demographic that the clergy worked with was the community’s youngest: the children.  Many of the residents of Leigh had children who attended Sunday School but also got into trouble occasionally, as seen in Dispatch articles about the public nuisance caused by a handful of young boys, or the accounts of young children playing in the busy street who were run over and injured by horses or carts.[ix],[x] Also of note, Richmond’s Female Orphan Asylum stood at the corner of 7th and Leigh, providing a home to roughly 60 residents during the years of the war.[xi],[xii] The asylum gave young girls a home, but its residents also spent time outdoors; they were not secluded from society, and the community had a vested interest in its success.  In January of 1864, a young girl organized a Children’s Fair, though which she raised $500 for the asylum.[xiii] The Dispatch applauded the work of the Fair and encouraged the city’s children to follow the outstanding example of this little girl.[xiv]

The successes and wealth of Leigh Street’s residents attracted much unwanted attention in the years of the war, heightening further the sense of terror amongst its residents.  In 1861, the Dispatch reported fewer than five reports of unlawful behavior.  By 1864, that number skyrocketed to 23 reports of crime.  In January of 1864, the Dispatch openly acknowledged the growth of crime, saying: “Robberies in this city have become so frequent of late that their announcement scarcely excites any surprise in the mind of the reader. Hardly a night passes by but some one or more are committed.”[xv] While the frequency of crime increased, the brutality and severity of such crimes increased as well.  The early 1860s saw thieves stealing a pig or knocking people down.[xvi] The types of crimes committed in 1864 and 1865 involved frequent attempts at arson, stealing chickens from hennery (only to leave the heads behind for the owner), and storerooms robbed of expensive goods and money.  The home belonging to a Major William Allen was allegedly robbed fourteen times, the latest four robberies costing his family approximately $30,000.[xvii],[xviii] Even the Female Orphan Asylum fell victim to crime, burglarized in 1864.[xix]

The fascinating aspect about the increased crime on Leigh Street is that in the same period of time, the presence of the church grew as well.  Leigh Street Baptist Church often served as the host of meetings involving city church leaders.  Leigh Street Baptist also held prayer meetings for east Richmond that “excite a lively interest in that part of the city.”[xx] Yet another effort of Leigh Street Baptist was the establishment, along with other area churches, of the Temperance Hall Military Hospital, which was supervised by some of the ladies of the congregation.[xxi] Not only did the church’s work in the community grow, but more people attended church services.  In 1865, Leigh Street Baptist Church had a larger Sunday School attendance than any other church in the city.[xxii]

What explains the apparent correlation between the growth of crime and the enlargement of church-community involvement during the war?  Leigh Street offers a small-scale example of the big picture concerning American reactions to the Civil War.  The trend of these seemingly opposite reactions suggests that the war elicited strong emotions that many Americans had never felt previously, causing them to resort to new methods of coping.  Particularly as the Union approached victory, Southerners feared their future under the rule of “evil forces,” the end of their beloved Southern life.[xxiii] For some, this resulted in what some might call a “slipping of morals,” leading to unlawful activity.  Others, however, turned to God and the church to help them reconcile the stresses of wartime.  Churches, in a reaction to the increase in crime, stepped up their efforts for outreach in the hopes of saving some people from the negative effects of war.  In the time of the Civil War, Leigh Street existed as a microcosm of this battle between good and evil reactions, a fight of contrasting attempts to reconcile the fear of an unforeseeable future.

Advertisement April 8, 1861: Resident of Leigh Street wishes to rent a house elsewhere in the city.


[i]. William A. Clebsch, Christian Interpretations of the Civil War (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 1-2.

[ii]. “Expensive Sale of Real Estate,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Oct. 30, 1862.

[iii]. Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 32.

[iv]. “Selling liquor in violation of law,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Aug. 27, 1863.

[v]. “Died,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 14, 1863.

[vi]. Kimball, American City, Southern Place, 53.

[vii]. Susan Schulten, “The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics,” Civil War History 56, no. 1 (March 2010): 10.

[viii]. “Attention.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 6, 1862.

[ix]. “A Nuisance that ought to be Abated,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 25, 1862.

[x]. “Accident.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Nov. 3, 1864.

[xi]. “Female Humane Association.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Mar. 18, 1861.

[xii]. “Robberies.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 11, 1864.

[xiii]. “Children’s fair.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 7, 1864.

[xiv]. Ibid.,

[xv]. “Successful robbery.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 11, 1864.

[xvi]. “Knocked down.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Sep. 16, 1861.

[xvii]. “Robbed again.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 7, 1864.

[xviii]. “Mayor’s Court.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 13, 1864.

[xix]. “Robberies.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 11, 1864.

[xx]. “Local Matters.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Mar. 29, 1862.

[xxi]. “Temperance Hall military Hospital.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jul. 20, 1861.

[xxii]. “Sunday school Celebration.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Dec. 23, 1865.

[xxiii]. Clebsch, Christian Interpretation, 1.


“Accident.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Nov. 3, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Attention.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 6, 1862. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Children’s fair.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 7, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

Clebsch, William A. Christian Interpretations of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.

“Died,.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 14, 1863. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Expensive Sale of Real Estate.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Oct. 30, 1862. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Female Humane Association.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Mar. 18, 1861. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

Kimball, Gregg D. American City, Southern Place. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

“Knocked down.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Sep. 16, 1861. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Local Matters.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Mar. 29, 1862. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Mayor’s Court.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 13, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“A Nuisance that ought to be Abated.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 25, 1862. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Robbed again.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 7, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Robberies.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 11, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

Schulten, Susan. “The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics.” Civil War History 56, no. 1 (March 2010): 5-32.

“Selling liquor in violation of law.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Aug. 27, 1863. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Successful robbery.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jan. 11, 1864. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Sunday school Celebration.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Dec. 23, 1865. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

“Temperance Hall military Hospital.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jul. 20, 1861. http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

This entry was posted in Assignment #2. Bookmark the permalink.