Fifteenth Street’s Civil War

Fifteenth Street’s Civil War

By John C. McAuliff

On November 15, 1862, Lieutenant J.O. Withmell of the Confederate Army and five or six of his friends had been drinking late into the night. As they left the bar, they passed Lumpkin’s Jail as they made their way down Fifteenth Street The street was muddy, and the men had to stop each other from falling in puddles, or into Shockoe Creek itself. The smell of sewage raided their nostrils, but the alcohol left Withmell and company in good spirits. They passed Lumpkin’s Jail, the most deadly and largest of all slave jails, owned by Robert Lumpkin, to their left. A friend of Withmell’s, Mr. Tom Hiltzheimer of the Second Militia, suggested a “women’s boarding home” which belonged to a friend of his, Ann Thomas, up the street between Main and Cary Streets, and all the men applauded as they set out in search of a happy ending to their long night. As they neared Franklin Street, which marked the end of Lumpkin’s Alley and the beginning of Wall Street, the spirits of the party increased as they left the muddy cobblestones behind.

As Lieut. Withmell and his band of men turned into an alley as they neared Main Street,the fevered prayers of enslaved mothers to keep their children broke the night silence from the cells deep inside Silas Omohundro’s slave jail. Upon passing the jails, one of the gentlemen in the party appeared worried, and voiced his concern that it was a dark place, and some one might get killed. A Mr. Miller said, “No, there are too many of us.”

            Ann Thomas met the men at the door to her brothel and refused them entry. Downcast, they turned back toward Main Street to head home. A deafening shot disrupted the quiet of the night, striking down Lieut. Withmell, who cried: “Why have they shot me?” The party was in disarray, but one member counted three assailants who ran off toward Main St, where they passed the St. Charles Hotel and R.W. Powers drug store before bumping into slave trader and auctioneer Alexander Nott by way of trespassing on his property. The three assailants escaped down Main Street, never to be captured.

            Lieut. Withmell died within the hour, and an inquest began. A day later, the police raided Ann Thomas’s brothel and arrested nine men and ten women.[1]

The story of J.O. Withmell and Ann Thomas illustrates the danger and lawlessness brought to Richmond by the Civil War.  Even for a group of armed Confederate soldiers, Fifteenth Street was a dangerous place. Two drastically different sections made up the street. Lumpkin’s Alley, which paralleled Shockoe Creek and began at Broad Street, flooded frequently and held most of the slave jails. A block away at Franklin Street, Wall Street began. The latter was where Richmond’s merchants owned auction houses and the city’s grandest hotels stood nearby. On Wall Street, traders mixed with the wealthy elite for dealings of human trafficking from the corner of Franklin and Fifteenth, to the corner of Cary and Fifteenth with Main Street in between. These three blocks constituted the capital of the American slave trade. By April 1861, millions of dollars exchanged hands each year along the avenue.[2]

The economic forces which govern the economy of twenty-first century would be hard pressed to make a street like Fifteenth into a producer of huge wealth, but in 1861, when the trading of enslaved people—a dirty, unseemly trade—made up a massive portion of Richmond’s economy, few places in Richmond were better equipped than Fifteenth.

Men who visited Fifteenth Street to purchase enslaved people would find a cast of characters both prominent in social society in Richmond and unsavory. Besides Robert Lumpkin, both Silas Omohundro and Bacon Tait owned slave jails and traded their human wares. Tait was a prominent city councilman through the Civil War[3], while Omohundro was a leader on the business council. These traders of enslaved people worked closely with the auctioneers, but it was the latter group of merchants who dealt directly with the purchasing public.

In preparation for buying enslaved people from the auctioneers, a purchaser would stay at any of the nearby hotels: The St. Charles, The Exchange, The Ballard, or The Bell Tavern. He might go out the next morning for breakfast with friends, but when he saw a red flag come up over the hotel in which he was staying, he would know it was time for business. He would view the wares of auctioneers R.H. Dickenson of Dickenson, Hill and Company who owned one of the city’s largest enslaved persons trading operations, reporting over $2 million in sales in 1857.[4] If he found nothing to his liking, he could visit Hector Davis, the primary auctioneer for Peter and David Pulliam. Davis also may have had relatives with businesses nearby: Solomon and Benjamin. The slave trade was indeed a family business for its operators, though it tore more families apart among the enslaved than it built. Davis was the top advertiser of slave auctions in 1861 and 1862, though he dealt mostly with runaways along with the rest of auctioneers and traders in 1862 and 1863.[5] If a gentleman could not find the right man or woman to buy from Dickenson or Davis, Alexander Nott was also known to deal in enslaved people.

The stories of the people like Dickenson, Davis, and Nott who populated Fifteenth Street tell a tale of lavish success put which only increased at the war went on. How much a man would pay to own another would vary greatly depending on the year. Emancipation started as soon as the war began as enslaved people escaped, causing prices to change dramatically, and the options of a buyer to decrease. In 1862, the price to catch a runaway person was $10-25. In 1863 most bounty hunters would need at least $100, and by 1864 that number would climb to $500 per person.[6] Given that enslaved people at this time could cost more than $2000, the cost of catching one was a small price to pay.[7] The reasons for fluctuations in the cost of enslaved people are not known for sure. A number of options are possible. The Confederate dollar steadily lost value as the war continued and as enslaved people freed themselves, fewer were available, and so the price went up. Moreover, enslaved people needed only to get behind the often nearby Union lines to achieve freedom, which made it much more difficult for bounty hunters to make it worth their time. The trade of enslaved people in Richmond would continue getting more expensive and more difficult until the city fell to General Ulysses Grant in 1865.

Once Virginia rejoined the Union and the fires on Fifteenth Street had cooled, the center of Richmond’s economy became entirely obsolete. Since the end of the Civil War, Fifteenth Street has been a street in search of a purpose. Once covered by the trickling waters of Shockoe Creek, Fifteenth has since become a railroad line and eventually an Interstate. The Creek was paved over. The Main Street Train Station was built in 1901. The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, also known as I-95, was built in 1958. Most people who drive over Fifteenth Street today are passing through to destinations south or north on the eastern coast via the Interstate or the railroad. Only a few of them will realize they are passing over a once extremely profitable and immoral center of commerce, and fewer still will see the string of empty parking lots which once housed offices, auction houses, and hotels as anything other than parking lots. Only the very diligent will find a grass and cobblestone half-acre, where enslaved people once languished with little hope in “the Devil’s half-acre,” Lumpkin’s Jail.

Lumpkin’s jail is an archeological site now, but until recently was an interstate retaining wall and parking lot. A large plaque marks the spot, but very few people ever see it nestled in the far end of a usually empty parking lot. At the edge of the lot, a burial ground for enslaved people is marked behind a fence. Down the street, the St. Charles Hotel is marked by a plaque describing the trade. Where the hotel once stood is a parking lot for a strip club, formally known as Club Velvet, but renamed Club Rouge. Further down toward Cary Street, old brick buildings are more numerous, and the sounds of construction can be heard as the Shockoe Bottom area is revitalized. On the corner of Fifteenth and Cary, the auction house which belonged to traders Davenport and Allen still stands. As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, it is prudent to recall that about 11,500 slaves—30.8 percent of the population—made Richmond their home in 1860, either permanent or transient, and many of them were separated from loved ones, jailed, tortured, whipped, or sold south on Fifteenth Street. All that remains to recall their suffering and commemorate their emancipation are signs, a parking lot, a strip club, and a construction site.

The juxtaposition of the dirty, smelly, Shockoe Creek experienced by Lieutenant Withmell, Ann Thomas, and Robert Lumpkin shows a Fifteenth Street drastically different from the cleaner Wall Street area populated by Bacon Tait, Alexander Nott, and Hector Davis. The slave jails stood in the nastiest part of the city. Yet up the nearest hill, the profitable Main Street stood on high ground and the Capitol sat just five blocks away. The juxtaposition of immense wealth and social power shown by Tait, Nott, and Davis and the crime and poverty witnessed by Withmell, Thomas, and Lumpkin within just one block of each other could not have set a better scene for America’s cruelest economic practice. In that sense, Fifteenth was destined to serve the role as home to the trade of enslaved people in America. For those same reasons, it was just as destined to become a seedy set of blocks shrouded in shadow every hour of every day by the I-95 overpass.

[1] Details of the story are taken from articles in the Archives from Nov 17th to Nov. 22nd.

Richmond Daily Dispatch. “Murder of a Confederate Officer–cold Blooded Assassination.” November 17, 1862. Accessed February 10, 2011. University of Richmond Daily Dispatch Archives.

[2] Kimball, Gregg D. “Liberty and Slavery.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 156. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[3] Kimball, Gregg D. “The World of Goods.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 112. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[4] Kimball, Gregg D. “Liberty and Slavery.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 156. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[5] From many articles, One example: Richmond Daily Dispatch. “Business Notices.” December 4, 1860. Accessed February 10, 2011. U. Richmond Daily Dispatch.

[6] Many articles, One example: Lumpkin, Robert. “Five Hundred Dollars Reward.” Richmond Daily Dispatch. February 18, 1865. Accessed February 10, 2011. U. Richmond Daily Dispatch.

[7] Kimball, Gregg D. “American City in a Southern Place.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 76. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

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