Main Street: Reconstruction from the Ground Up

By: Peter CampoBasso

Rebuilding of Main Street:

            Main Street in antebellum Richmond was the retail center of the city. Two to three story buildings with steep roofs lined the street, which functioned both as shops as well as private residences.[1] The stores on Main Street “would have given Richmonders and visitors access to almost any good from around the world”.[2] For example, some shops sold fine bed sheets, men and women’s clothing, and Union and Confederate badges. In addition, Main Street was home to butcher shops and other markets to buy food.[3] Not only did the Confederate army parade up and down Main Street, there were also meeting points for the military and militia in times of crisis. [4] Slave masters could also bring hurt or sick enslaved people to the slave hospital conveniently located on Main Street, or even post wanted notices along the street when a slave ran away.[5] Up until the start of the Civil War, Main Street bustled with activity, and by the war’s end, it was burned to the ground.

The Confederate military set fire to the old state armory, their main supply center, in order to keep their supplies out of Union hands. This one fire caused a chain reaction of fires that burned down a large portion of the city. The entire area of the Burnt District ran from the old state armory up to Bank Street, and spanned from Fifth Street to Fifteenth Street.[6] Specifically on Main Street, the area ranging from Ninth Street to Fifteenth Street on the south side of the street was destroyed, and from Ninth Street to Thirteenth Street on the north side of the street crumbled to the ground.[7] The fire, which began on the bank of the James River by Fifth Street in total destroyed nine-tenths of the city’s business district.[8] Such destruction meant such a massive reconstruction task. The Richmond economy was essentially destroyed in the absence of capital from the large Confederate debt, no business activity, and the massive societal change that was emancipation. Richmond needed to find a way to rebuild under these circumstances. With rationed food, few employment opportunities, and rampant crime, Richmond would struggle for years. The underpinning consequences of the burning of Main Street highlight how crucial the street was to life in the city, and also go to demonstrate how without this key center to city life, chaos can break loose.

The loss of Main Street not only dealt a physical loss of buildings to the city, but also created serious economic problems for the city. Richmond lost to the fire its central hub of commercial activity. Destroyed shops and stores meant no jobs or employment for former store owners. The city thus faced the task of rebuilding a large section of the city, but at the same time “the means from taxation [were] severely diminished.”[9] But Richmonders did not delay in their reconstruction efforts. They cleared Main Street to traffic by the afternoon on April 3.[10] However, it would be a long time before Main Street returned to its glory days. Richmond needed some central location for economic activity, and it relocated to Broad Street for a time. Northern “sutlers” swarmed the city, and “were the only source for most goods in the early days of military reconstruction,” while Northern money funded the new retail activity.[11] Eventually, new banks opened in Richmond, and the people were able to acquire loans to restart their businesses. Native Richmonders felt more comfortable dealing with people from the city. The sutlers left, and business moved once again to its rightful place on Main Street.[12]

By December 9, 1865, Main Street already looked noticeably different than before the fire. Work progressed fairly quickly in the rebuilding efforts. The Daily Dispatch reported “that in nine months after the occurrence of this terrible fire Richmond has sprung up to new life, and renewed her energies with all the vigor of youth.”[13] Individuals were primarily responsible for the return of shops and businesses. On December 22, 1865, the Dispatch advertised twelve stores selling goods and presents for Christmas on Main Street alone, with products ranging from whiskeys, wines, ladies’ furs, chessboards, overcoats, children’s carriages, and all kinds of deserts.[14] In addition, by December 29, the paper reported that “Messers Putney and Watts, the well-known shoe dealer, and the First National Bank” were returning to Main Street, and that “It gives us joy to see our old firms being restored to former prosperous positions in our business circles.”[15] The return of such famous and important buildings indicates that Main Street had some life back by December of 1865, only nine months following the fire. It is a great feat for the city, considering it had no monetary resources and that the main retail district was literally destroyed by the fire.

Not only did Main Street change from a pile of rubble in a matter of months to a small conglomeration of new buildings, but its architecture also changed. The Dispatch noted that “a noticeable difference [exists] between the houses being erected and the old ones, that while the latter, in most instances, were so constructed as to be used for private residences, the new ones are to be used for business purposes exclusively.”[16] The new buildings on Main Street were taller, most being four or five stories, rather than two or three stories. In addition, the roofs were steeper on the buildings, and the city council prohibited wooden buildings in any blocks adjacent to the capital; most were now made of brick with a metal exterior in front.[17]

It appeared on the surface that reconstruction was going very smoothly for the city. However, the day to day challenges that individuals faced suggested the total opposite was taking place. People primarily struggled to find food. The Union Army took on the task of distributing rations to Richmonders. Whites, after taking an oath of loyalty to the Union, could get food and sometimes clothing from the military. Blacks, however, had to work for their rations and still received far fewer rations. Although the Union Army estimated that the white and black population was relatively equal, whites received 8,498 rations while blacks only received 942 in the month of June.[18] Despite the fact that whites could get food so much easier than blacks, Northerners still described white southerners as being like animals. George Templeton Strong, a New York minister who visited Richmond at the end of April said that the southerners acted “much as a hungry, sulky, ill-conditioned hound accepts a bone – uncertain whether to gnaw the donation or to bite the fingers of the donor.”[19] Others also saw white southerners as “melancholy, lazy men, both white and black [that] lounge about the streets.”[20] There is much validity to these statements, since Richmonders had no employment opportunities and had no choice but to accept Northern charity. In many cases Richmonders could only gain money by searching for bricks and chipped mortar all day in the rubble of places like Main Street, and then by selling their finds to contractors.[21]

African Americans faced even more hardships than whites did during the period of reconstruction. Freedmen in Richmond faced essentially the same hostilities as they did when they were slaves. For a time, blacks were forced to carry around passes to travel around the city.[22] During the months of May and June, “thousands of unemployed blacks . . . were rounded up by the mounted provost guard, herded to the old slave pens, and shipped off to work on plantations.”[23] Thus, the marches of blacks up and down Main Street of antebellum Richmond had not changed after emancipation. Eventually, some black leaders wrote a letter to the New York Times describing their situation, and stated, “all that is needed to restore slavery in full, is the auction block as it used to be.”[24] African Americans in Richmond eventually gained equal treatment by the Union Army after they protested to President Johnson himself, and the military invalidated its discriminatory laws and vowed to treat all inhabitants as equals before the law.[25]

Crime also became a serious problem in the months following the evacuation fire. Hundreds of Virginians from rural areas flocked into the city in search of work and basic necessities. The increased population of idle men thus meant an increase in crime, despite the military occupation and large number of soldiers filling the city.[26] The Daily Dispatch reported five crimes on Main Street alone in a fourteen day period between December 16 and the 30. Three of the crimes were robbery, while two were assaults.[27] The assault on December 30 was a highway robbery, where the two attackers were able to hide behind a brick wall and hold up a carriage carrying a party of five people. They stole two gold watches and a considerable amount of money.[28] Main Street was not a safe place to travel not only because of crime, but also because of the terrible conditions in which the street still remained. By December 27, sections of the sidewalk, especially around 13th street were dangerous to travel on, where this location in particular was described as being a “man trap” by the Daily Dispatch due to the large-sized hole in the middle of it.[29] The street was also susceptible to the weather, as on December 28 it was described as being a “vast pool of mud” that created harsh passage.[30] It would take a long time before Main Street could return to its former standing and prominence in the city.

Main Street in Richmond was once the “one business thoroughfare,” where “most of the [city’s] hotels, banks, newspaper offices, and stores are located.”[31] It was the central spot of Richmond’s economy, where free individuals could exercise their own rights to own and run a business, sell what they wanted, buy what they wanted, and live how they wanted. This all changed after the great evacuation fire when most of Main Street burned to the ground.

Trends of the larger Reconstruction are apparent in the rebuilding of Main Street. Richmond did not have any financial resources due to the invalidation of Confederacy money, and so it had to rely on the North for capital to rebuild. Both the Federal Government and Northern businessmen and bankers played an enormous role in the Reconstruction of the rest of the South. The largest challenge that the South faced was reorganizing their society after emancipation. Richmond maintained as much as it could of the slavery system in how it moved freedmen back to plantations and kept them working under the policy of “free labor,” while the rest of the South maintained a semblance of the slave system in its practice of share cropping.[32] The trends seen just on Main Street might oddly mirror the rest of the South in how to rebuild a society literally from the ground up. Perhaps this suggests that this small microcosm of Richmond, an “American City in a Southern Place,” could hold the answers to the questions surrounding the failures of Reconstruction, and the problems associated with trying to rebuild an entire society with pre-existing social standards, ties, and connections literally from the ground up.


[1] Michael B. Chesson, Richmond After the War. (Richmond, Virginia State Library: 1981) 65.

[2] McInnis, Maury. Visualizing the Southern Slave Trade. (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press: 2011) Chapter 3 page 13.

[3] “Second supply of splendid Silks, Dress Goods, &c. Watkins & Ficklen, Wholesale and Retail Dealers in Dry Goods. 159 Main street, Richmond” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 1, 1860.

[4] “The Parade,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, January 9, 1861.

[5] “Main Street Hospital for Slaves,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, January 9, 1861.

[6] Nelson Lankford, Richmond Burning. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002) Map of Richmond’s Burnt Districts.

[7] “The Burnt District,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 9, 1861.

[8] Nelson Lankford, Richmond Burning. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002) Map of Richmond’s Burnt Districts.

[9] “The Task of Reconstruction,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 11, 1865.

[10] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 61.

[11] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 61.

[12] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 61.

[13] “The Burnt District,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 9, 1865.

[14] “Christmas and Christmas Presents,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 22, 1865.

[15] “We Understand,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 29, 1865.

[16] “The Burnt District,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 9, 1865.

[17] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 65.

[18] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 74.

[19] Lankford, Richmond Burning, 226-227.

[20] Lankford, Richmond Burning, 227.

[21] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 66.

[22] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, (New York: First Perennial Classics, 1984), 155.

[23] Chesson, Richmond After the War, 90.

[24] Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 155.

[25] Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 155.

[26] Lankford, Richmond Burning, 239.

[27] “Robbing a Woman,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 16, 1865; “Burglary,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 18, 1865; “Stealing Jewelry,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 22, 1865; “Assault Upon a Citizen,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 23, 1865; “Bold Highway Robbery,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 30, 1865.

[28]  “Bold Highway Robbery,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 30, 1865.

[29] “Man-Trap,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 27, 1865.

[30] “Mud,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 28, 1865.

[31] “Suburbs,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 18, 1861.

[32] Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 155.

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