The Powhatan House Hotel, Broad Street

By Tabitha Yewer

Since Broad Street’s creation, it has been a revered center of shops and commerce. With close proximity to the Second Street market and the many churches located on the street, not only frequented on Sundays, but during the rest of the week as well as for ceremonies and various meetings, Broad Street frequently had visitors. Broad Street also housed City Hall where councils met to discuss the city and its goings on.  Once the war started, captains and colonels called the citizens of Richmond to meet various places along Broad Street for demonstrations and for gatherings.   Broad Street served as a prime location for meetings and assemblies because of the width of the street, creating room for such congregations.  The public nature of the road created an appealing place for gatherings.  Its popularity and constant appearance in a civilian’s life meant the citizens of Richmond knew exactly where meetings would be held.  This would not have been the case if an unfamiliar side street had been assigned instead.  Broad Street served as the center for the railways as well because of its commonality.  The rail line coming in and out of the city ran along Broad Street and the city built two of its depots: Virginia Central and Richmond, Fredericksburg on the street because of this.

People visiting Richmond would stay at one of the many hotels in the city as so as to be in the middle of city life.  It was society’s wealthiest who traveled and occupied Richmond’s luxury hotels, as they had the money to allow them this privilege.  The locomotive was a fairly new means of travel, which meant even short trips such as the one from Washington, D.C. were expensive (the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad connected the two cities).  Because of the entertainment that Broad Street could provide and the ease of arrival and departure due to the close proximity of the railroad, many people chose to stay in the hotels that populated the road.  Those who visited Richmond “viewed a suitably impressive hotel as the hallmark of a cultivated and prosperous community in urban America,” and they considered some of Richmond’s finest hotels first rate.[i] One of these hotels was the Powhatan House.  One woman exclaimed, “what a splendid building it is & the Powhatan House.”[ii]

There is an account of a man staying at the hotel who left the North and Lincoln because he was a “true Southern States-Rights man.”[iii]  This article is from early May in 1861, directly after the Civil War started.  The author calls Lincoln a “baboon” and says that “perhaps the powers above that think him too mean to die” and that he is making the southern and northern men “fight their own brothers for [his] own amusement.”[iv]  The man, Captain Schwazmann, left his job and brought his family to the hotel, and planned to stay until his troubles were over.[v]  The fact that a man who felt betrayed by the North and its leader sought comfort in Richmond, and specifically in the Powhatan House demonstrates the loyalty to the South that the place and its inhabitants had.  The Powhatan Hotel was a well-known landmark on Broad Street as evidenced by the fact that many prominent people stayed there.  The hotel’s imposing structure and presence on the street heightened its visibility.

Before the war, the most exciting articles that reference the hotel describe a lost pocket watch and an interview conducted there.  As time went on, the hotel was mentioned more frequently in the Dispatch as it became a more integral part of the community.  The Powhatan became a place of business for officers and other commanders in the army and those being drafted.  Men would hold interviews there for substitutes and officers would hold meetings for instruction right outside its doors.  Because it was both well known and a luxury hotel, the Powhatan seemed to be a place where men would carry out business and interviews.  The business of the Powhatan became more and more related to the.

In a way, the hotel became an unofficial center for the Civil War’s business.  Many influential people in the war, specifically captains and colonels, stayed and conducted business at the Powhatan House Hotel during the Civil War.  For several days in the Daily Dispatch a Captain B. B. Douglas advertised the formation of a Cavalry Corps in need of members.[vi]  There was a call for twenty “men of exceptional character and habits” who could be counted on to spend hours off in “agreeable companionship.”[vii]   The notice promises a strong bond between the men who join.  As well as asking men to enlist in the army, the Powhatan House served as a center for the draft, which began in 1862.  All men between the ages of 16 and 18 living in Richmond or inside the corporate limits not already a member of a company were told to report to a Colonel Danforth outside of the hotel.[viii]

The type of men who could afford to stay at the Powhatan House Hotel, could also afford to hire substitutes to take their place to fight in the war.  Thus, the hotel became a convenient place for interviewing and hiring these substitutes.  The notices advertised for men “of good character, a citizen of the Confederate States” and for certain ages ranging from over 15 to over 45 years of age.[ix] [x]  The ads ask for qualities such as being “able bodied” and “reliable” as well, for which a “liberal price [would] be paid.”[xi]  Several notices for substitutes ask for eligible men who are willing to meet them in various rooms in the Powhatan House.  Advertising for a substitute was, no doubt, frowned upon as not everyone could afford the luxury and because was considered an honor.  Those who lived in the South, especially in the capital of the Confederacy probably felt that fighting was not something to try and avoid, it also “irked” men that could not afford to do so.[xii]  Perhaps the Powhatan offered privacy for meetings such as these where people knew they would not be abused and harassed.

Several burglaries occurred at the Powhatan House during the Civil War.  During these robberies, money was taken, as well as a barrel of whiskey that was worth $2,000,[xiii] showing how inflation defined the Confederacy’s market.  Another time even bed sheets and other covers were stolen, indicating, perhaps, that people were suffering financially.[xiv]  The Powhatan House was afflicted with a few robberies, possibly signifying that the hotel had items in abundance that wouldn’t be missed, or perhaps because people recognized the ease with which items could be stolen.

The Powhatan House was a popular hotel on busy Broad Street.  Its guests seem to be of financial and public worth.  It was a place where meetings were held as well as where people would stay to relax when they visited the city of Richmond.  Although some businesses changed direction, lost business, or went out of business altogether during the Civil War, the war seems to have had no ill affect on the well being of the Powhatan House of Broad Street.  Despite the fact that crimes occurred while many were focusing on the war, there was no affect on the hotel or the caliber of those who stayed at this vital and prominent landmark.  The Powhatan became a well-regarded center for commerce through out the Civil War.

[i] Kimball, Gregg D. American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. P 43.

[ii] American City, p 43.

[iii] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond). “Lincoln’s Idea of Equal Rights.” Editorial. May 2, 1861.

[iv] “Lincoln’s Idea.” May 2, 1861.

[v] “Lincoln’s Idea.” May 2, 1861.

[vi] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond). “Virginia Rangers.” Notice. March 8, 1862.

[vii] “Virginia Rangers.” March 8, 1862.

[viii] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Headq’rs 1st Reg’t Res’d Forces of Va, Richmond, April 25th, 1864.”  Notice.  April 27, 1864.

[ix] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Substitute Wanted.”  Notice.  August 20, 1862.

[x] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Substitute Wanted.”  Notice.  March 14, 1863.

[xi] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Substitute Wanted.”  Notice.  January 27 1863

[xii] American City, p 185.

[xiii] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Burglary.”  Local Matters.  November 26 1863

[xiv] Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond).  “Removing the Deposits.”  Local Matters.  January 2 1864

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