Urban Life in the Confederacy — A Review of Rebel Richmond

Ash, Stephen V. Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Griffin Jones

Protests took hold of Richmond, Virginia, over this summer regarding the place of monuments and statues to Confederate leaders in the city. A storm of national debate around the place of the Confederacy in American historical memory has followed. Stephen V. Ash’s most recent work, Rebel Richmond, meditates on this legacy—alongside Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, “no other Civil War figures are memorialized there, not the working-class women who took to the streets to protest food prices…not the black men and women who dodged night watchmen, detectives, and Rebel pickets to meet in secret fellowship or flee to the Union lines.” Ash’s work aims to tell these stories and many others in Confederate Richmond for their own sake, not simply out of a desire to answer the traditional historiographical questions about the Confederacy’s defeat. In doing so, he offers a rich portrait of life inside the rebel capital and new perspectives on the internal life, loyalties, and death inside the Confederacy.

            The story of Confederate Richmond begins, in Ash’s telling, with its demographic explosion after the relocation of the rebel capital from Montgomery to the city on the James in 1861.  The population effectively doubled, or perhaps tripled, at various points during the war, and this had implications for food supply, housing, and employment in Richmond. Such a population boom, combined with the needs of the military fighting nearby, strained Confederate supply lines to capacity, resulting in frequent shortages of both food and housing for the civilian population (though not for workers in the city hospital) in Richmond. For Ash, what saved the city from starvation during the bleak final winter of 1865 was the amount of employment in city factories, warehouses, transport facilities, and the government infrastructure that provided steady employment and salary for many Richmonders. Even if the wages were not nearly enough to catch up with spiraling food and housing prices during the latter half of the war, the proliferation of jobs tapered the worst effects of the shortages. 

The Washington Monument continues to stand in downtown Richmond, though surrounded by a guard fence, near the since-taken down statue of Robert E. Lee. Morgan Riley, “The Virginia Washington Monument in Capitol Square, Richmond, Virginia; on the National Register of Historic Places” (July 10, 2011), Wikimedia Commons.

The influx of people and jobs, as well as the ensuing shortages of food and housing, all created internal political problems for the seat of the Confederate government. Unionists existed in Richmond and throughout the South from the very beginning of the war, but throughout the conflict even ostensibly loyal Southern patriots created issues for the Davis administration. From soldiers and their wives to nurses, workers, and enslaved people, dissenters in the Confederate capital were a constant threat to the central and local government. Enslaved and free Black people were especially squared for surveillance and often violent discipline. For this significant element of the city’s population, the Union Army’s final deliverance in the spring of 1865 initiated profound changes to Southern society—white and Black. The war transformed white society in Richmond, with the role of poor whites expanding throughout. Even ideas around a ‘good death’ were transformed—nothing was left untouched in wartime Richmond.

The ruins in the aftermath of war can make it seem, in Lost Cause mythology, like an old, glorious order was destroyed unjustly; yet, a ‘new birth of freedom’ came to much of Richmond’s population with emancipation. Alexander Gardner, “Richmond, Va. General View of the Burned District” (April-June 1865), Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

            Ash’s sources range from personal papers to letters to the Confederate Secretary of War, Richmond city minutes, and even government surveys of the city’s working class. Combined with traditional legislative records, the book’s rich source base allows Ash to provide a diverse and fine-grained look at the life and death of Confederate Richmond, even if he is reluctant to make grand claims about the nature of the Confederacy. However, one can read Rebel Richmond, not only for the sake of unique Civil War experiences, but also in conversation with works such as Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning, which demystifies Confederate politics. This work, in turn, lays bare Confederate society as it really existed, and in doing so, forces us to center those voices which are not traditionally featured in the still-circulating Lost Cause narrative.

Griffin Jones is a second-year PhD student at Princeton University. They study the world of American history between 1815 and 1877, with special emphasis on Southern history and issues of labor, work, and society. Currently they are researching the Winter Iron Works of Montgomery, Alabama, as well as Confederate impressment policy. 

Featured Image (at top): Social life continued despite the immediate aftermath of war around the Washington Monument. in Richmond, Virginia. “Richmond, Va. April 1865, Washington Monument,” Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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