The Connection between the Home Front and the Battlefront

Khanh (Miki) Doan

Although Thomas Jefferson moved Virginia’s capital to Bank Street in 1792, this street was not a hub for the government agencies until the Civil War. The Confederacy established more than twelve offices of war on 0.3-mile Bank Street to establish a military network around the Capitol. In American City, Southern Place, Gregg Kimball argues, “Richmond was a point of connection for a myriad of far-flung cultural, economic, and social relationships.”[1] Bank Street, which linked the society and the local government during peacetime, served an even larger responsibility linking the battlefront to the home front during the Civil War.

As the war started, Confederate authorities gradually prepared for the new government in Richmond. Before secession, when one turned left from Ninth Street to Bank Street, he would see on his right Mechanics Hall, which provided the entertainment from musical performances to lectures for Richmonders. On February 12, 1861, the Confederacy held the first Virginia Convention in Mechanics Hall, but the caucus did not decide to break away from the Union until April 17. Consequently, the slow transformation allowed the building to continue with its usual activities; shows such as the “Broken Sword” or Sanderson’s panorama of the Russian War and Crimean scenery still took place there.[2] After secession was made official, the Confederacy used the building for only military purposes. In less than six months, the building where a blind Negro pianist had performed his musical talent to the Richmond community became the War Department. In June 1861, President Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Richmond further accelerated the governmental machinery in the new capital. The Mechanics Hall was “cutting up into offices, with deafening clatter, day and night,” getting ready for a new chapter of its city.[3]

At the corner of Eleventh Street and Bank Street, not far away from Mechanics Hall was Goddin’s Hall. This building, which the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) used for their daily union prayer, illustrated the religious aspect of Bank Street before.[4] Yet the change in political conditions led to the adjustment in the city planning. On June 22, 1861, the Confederate Government asked the YMCA for their permission to turn this sacred room into the War Department, which soon became one of the most important buildings in the administrative agency consisting of both the Post Office Department and the Patent Office. After acquiring the building, the government put the building into use and planned the first military operation in Virginia at this hall in June 1861.[5]

From May of 1861, the War Department began to recruit men who would be transferred to the front line to fight against the Union. Recruitment advertisements were common in the Richmond Daily Dispatch:

Recruiting — Sound and able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years, for the Army of the Confederate States.

For further information, inquire at my office, on Bank Street, in the old Madison House, next door to the Custom-House.[6]

According to “Mining the Dispatch Project,” around the same time the Confederacy set up the War Department, military recruitment reached the second highest peak.[7] With the newspaper covering recruitment almost every day, local people started to feel the thrust of the war and the urge to become involved in the war. With a strong economy and strong citizen support for the army, the Richmond government could employ over seventy thousand civilians, a majority of whom worked for government-related jobs.[8]

As recruitment took place in Richmond, the Union and the Confederacy began their attack on each other at the First Battle of the Bull Run at Manassas, a hundred miles away. As analyzed by the Richmond Dispatch, the Confederacy won the battle due to the map “which had been drawn up by order of the War Department from the coast survey records, showing the topography of the country from Washington to Manassas.”[9] Based on the topography, the War Department settled on a strategy which changed the situation of the battlefield and defeated the Union. The battle was a great success because it helped the government form a collaboration with its citizens. The day after the battle, many people responded to the call of the Mayor to gather at the Capitol Square to make arrangements for care of the wounded.[10] Widespread confidence throughout the South led to more volunteers in Richmond, and the need to recruit men was not as crucial as before the battle at Manassas. Therefore, military recruitment advertisements decreased until early 1862.[11]

Optimism did not last long when Southerners began to struggle for food and daily necessities. With men headed to war and the price of slaves rising, most agricultural land was left insufficiently farmed. The South could not manage to feed both the civilian and military populations; hence, food was scarce throughout the war. Government continuously called for support from their fellows to contribute to the war:

Those patriotic citizens who desire to and in the noble work of administering to the wants and relieving the sufferings of the many sick soldiers now collected in and about the city can do so by leaving their contributions by 4 o’clock P. M., at the depot of the Army Committee Y. M. C. A. on Bank street, just above the Treasury Department.

Cooked food is especially needed, though there is nothing in the way of medicines, home-made wines, clothing, provisions, wood, crockery, old linen, &c., &c. that will not be of very great service, and prove most acceptable.[12]

The government failed to address these issues of hunger and entice soldiers to stay. With the high cost for all the necessaries of life, soldiers realized the pay was not sufficient enough to cover their basic needs. When men realized their families were starving to death, they left the army to help them. The hunger and privation that Bank Street experienced signaled the challenges that the Confederacy had to face.

The War Department soon realized that the Confederacy needed a stronger army in order to defeat the Union and drafted more southern men into the army. In the midst of the crisis, on April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress gave permission for national conscription of men between eighteen and thirty five years of age for three years’ service.[13] Even though recruitment in Richmond hit its highest peak in March of 1862 and rapidly sloped downward, the rate of conscription after the draft increased.[14] To manipulate young men’s decision, the Recruiting Office of the Battalion on Bank Street proclaimed itself able to “give the most positive assurance that no man enlisting in [the] company [remained] liable either to the present call of the Governor, or to any future draft upon the militia.”[15]

The Confederate government did not want the Union to know about their hardship so they hid the event from local news. On April 2, 1863, around 500 women from Richmond marched around the Capitol Square and broke into stores to steal bread.[16] Inflation brought frustration not only to soldiers, but also local people, who depended greatly on the government and war industries for employment. However, the Richmond Daily Dispatch gave a very hopeful take with the current economy on a business article on August 20. Based on the statement of the Secretary of the Treasury, the newspaper believed that with the new taxes, money would be scarcer, prices would go down, and people would be more content because the Confederacy held plenty resources which it could utilize for the expenditure of the war and the relief for the civilians.[17] Amidst continuous Union losses, in September 1863, the Confederate Army had its first victory after five months at Chickamauga Creek at Tennessee. With the manipulation of the press, the Confederacy was able to give confidence to its soldiers as well as giving a false lead for the Union.

Nevertheless, all the efforts were inadequate to help the Confederacy because the crisis at the home front was so critical that it challenged the strength of the battlefront. Without strong finances to back up the expenses of the war, the Confederacy was on the verge of falling apart. Soldiers deserted their posts while civilians committed crimes, such as stealing and homicide. In one case, Cornelius Collins, a soldier from the 20th Virginia Artillery battalion was caught stealing a ham of bacon weighing30 pounds on Bank Street.[18] As the government realized that the Union was going to march to Richmond at any moment, they packed up and abandoned the city. On April 3, in order that their contents might not fall into Union’s hands, General Ewell ordered  soldiers to burn the large tobacco warehouses. The fire engulfed most of the Administrative Offices on Bank Street and destroyed the heart of the Confederacy.

As Emory Thomas notes in his book, “from the time of her selection as the Rebel capital, the city had been metamorphosed by the Confederate experience, and the conditions within Richmond had greatly influenced the Confederacy.” Indeed, within four years of the Civil War, the Confederacy transformed Bank Street into a less local and more cosmopolitan street for the local people. This street acted as the main home front for the Confederacy after secession, connected the city with the war beyond its border, and finally brought the end of the war back to its home front, the Capitol.

[1] Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), xv.

[2]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on April 9th, 1861: Amusement.” Accessed February 14, 2011.

[3] Leon T. C. De, Four Years in Rebel Capitals: an inside View of Life in the Southern Confederacy, from Birth to Death, from Original Notes, Collated in the Years 1861 to 1865 (Spartanburg, SC: Reprint, 1975), 87.

[4]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on November 16, 1860: Religious Notice” Accessed February 13, 2011.

[5] Samuel J. T. Moore, Moore’s Complete Civil War Guide to Richmond  (Richmond: Moore, 1978), 12.

[6]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on May 9, 1861: Ready for Duty.” Accessed April 27, 2011.

[7] Mining the Dispatch. “Military Recruitment” Accessed February 19, 2011.

[8] Paul P. Van Riper and Harry N. Schreiber, “The Confederate Civil Service,” Journal of Southern History 25 (November, 1959): 450-451

[9]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on July 27th, 1861: The Battle of Manassas.” Accessed February 19,2011.

[10] Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate State of Richmond: a Biography of the Capital. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 55.

[11] Mining the Dispatch. “Military Recruitment” Accessed February 19, 2011.

[12]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on May 6, 1862: Business Notices.”Accessed February 20, 2011.

[13]Thomas, The Confederate State of Richmond: a Biography of the Capital, 90.

[14] Mining the Dispatch. “Military Recruitment-Military Conscription.” Accessed February 20, 2011.

[15]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on March 17, 1862: Attention – Bogg’s Battalion Flying Artillery.”Accessed February 20, 2011.

[16]Moore, Moore’s Complete Civil War Guide to Richmond. 90.

[17]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on August 20, 1863: Confederate finances.”Accessed February 20, 2011.

[18]Richmond Daily Dispatch. “The Daily Dispatch on April 19, 1864: Big Ham.”Accessed February 20, 2011.

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