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Richmond History

Richmond, center of controversy and commerce, capital of Virginia and of the Confederate States of America, has a rich and vivid history. Its strategic location, both militarily and commercially, brought two major wars – the American Revolution and the Civil War – to its doorstep. Both left their mark on the city but through all it has endured, Richmond has retained the trademarks of a classic southern city – hospitality, charm and fortitude.

The Beginnings
Just ten days after the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, Captain John Smith traveled up the James River looking for a connecting route to the East Indies. The region was inhabited by the Powhatan tribe, and ruled by Chief Powhatan, father of John Rolfe’s future bride, Pocahontas. Settlements were established along the river as early as 1611 in and around what is present-day Richmond. The communities thrived on the export of tobacco, coal and timber; the river providing easy access to the ocean. In 1737, William Byrd laid plans for the city of Richmond and named it after Richmond-on-the-Thames, in England.

Revolutionary Times
Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” rang out from St. John’s Church in 1775 during a meeting of the Second Continental Congress. Patrick Henry’s cry for freedom from Great Britain fell on the ears of his fellow patriots, among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Thirty days later the “shot heard round the world” was fired from Concord, Massachusetts and the American Revolution began. In the early years of the war, most of the fighting took place in the north. However, Richmond first played a major role by supplying American troops with tobacco – used for cash – and cannons, guns and powder. By 1779, Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia, was a target for British naval attack because of its proximity to the ocean. Important documents were transported to Richmond for safekeeping and the capital was officially established here in 1780.

In January of 1781, the British army marched into Richmond led by former Continental army general, Benedict Arnold. Arnold turned treason against the United States with the promise from Britain of a high military rank and a large sum of money. He received neither at the end of the war.

The British troops, led by Lord Cornwallis, burned much of Richmond and nearby Petersburg before heading down the James River towards Williamsburg. They were defeated at Yorktown by combined French and American armies led by the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington and surrendered in October, 1781.

A Thriving Economy
After independence, Richmond was immediately caught up in the westward expansion of the new country. A canal was built along the James River to facilitate trade with communities farther west and Richmond, as a result, became an important commercial center. The city was enjoying its own economic boom with tobacco production, iron works and many other manufacturers opening up. Along with the canal route, a railroad was built through Richmond in 1834, further enhancing its already flourishing economy.

The Civil War
Although initially reluctant to secede from the Union, Virginia was nevertheless forced to make that decision after Lincoln called upon the state to take up arms against its southern neighbors. Richmond quickly readied itself for war, becoming the main source of armaments and munitions to the southern states as well as the capital city of the Confederacy. Soldiers from all over came to Richmond to train under Robert E. Lee, a Virginia native who was first asked to lead the Union army, but felt he could not turn against his home state. With its strategic location and importance, it is not surprising that a familiar war cry of the Union troops was “On to Richmond”.

One quarter of the battles fought in the Civil War were fought within a 75-mile radius of the city and sixty percent of the casualties happened at them. Seven attempts were made to capture the city; two came close enough to see the Capitol building before they were thwarted by the Confederate army. Many of the captured Union men were incarcerated at the infamous Libby Prison – notorious for its deplorable conditions.

Richmond was finally overcome by Union troops after the Siege of Petersburg which caused Lee’s army to retreat and eventually surrender at Appomattox in April, 1865.

Reconstruction and the Twentieth Century
After five years of reconstruction following the war, Virginia was readmitted into the United States. Just as it did after the Revolution, Richmond rebounded into a strong manufacturing center. Businesses sprang up and by the turn of the century, the city was a major producer of large commodities including iron, tobacco and flour. The city became a principal banking center as well, being named the headquarters of the Fifth Federal Reserve district in 1914.

Richmond continued to thrive throughout the twentieth century, surviving the Great Depression better than most cities due to its tobacco-based economy. Since the 1980s, the city has welcomed several large corporations who have made Richmond their home because of its proximity to the Washington-Baltimore area and the major shipping ports of the Hampton Roads, and because of its extreme livability.


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