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Travelers to Wartime Richmond - Sept. '96 America's Civil War Feature

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1996 
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Travelers to wartime Richmond had a wide choice
of luxurious hotels, inns and taverns.

By John K. Trammell

The outbreak of the Civil War ushered in an era of radical change in Virginia. Starting with fanatical John Brown's failed revolution at Harpers Ferry, and ending with a devastating defeat and painful reconstruction six years later, citizens of the Old Dominion experienced a decade of upheaval that would forever change the fabric of their social and domestic life.

Nowhere was this change more evident than in the new Confederate capital of Richmond. What had been a quiet, conservative Virginia city of 38,000 people was transformed overnight into the political and industrial center of a nation at war, the defiant guardian of an imperiled culture.

Much of Civil War­era Richmond has passed away in a physical sense, due in part to the 1865 evacuation fire (started by Confederates and put out by Federals), but mainly due to the irresistible drive of modern progress. A sense of place still remains, however, and the modern tourist, with a little detective work, can gain a feel for what life must have been like in such a unique and stirring time.

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The James River, as always, is a central geographic landmark, winding through the very heart of the city with sometimes breathtaking beauty. During the Civil War, almost every structure or place of importance was within sight of the river, and a hotel room facing south on an upper floor would often have a view of the river.

In the summer of 1861, newcomers had a significant number of hostelries, taverns or boardinghouses to choose from, ranging from such upscale hotels as the Exchange or Spotswood to the cramped confines of a dozen or more second-rate boardinghouses. As more and more people entered the city on military and political business, the population of the city swelled, eventually doubling prewar totals, and a social caste within, and sometimes competing with, pre-existing society began to emerge.

Because of the need for rooms and living quarters, hotels and taverns became natural gathering places for the newly formed Confederate government. For the price of a drink or a meal, boarders could hear political debates, haggling over government contracts, and news of the war.

Perhaps foremost among the Richmond hotels was the Spotswood. Completed shortly before the war (1859-60), and located at the southeast corner of 8th Street and Tan Road (now called Main Street), the Spotswood became the place to see and be seen. An impressive five-story brick structure with an ornate iron facade, the Spotswood was similar in many ways to Willard's Hotel in Washington, D. C. Few people of importance to the South failed to visit its rooms or parlors at some time during the war. It became a vital nerve center within the capital; its basement even served as the Confederate post office.

For even casual students of the Confederate cause, the names of two men head the list of numerous wartime guests at the Spotswood. Robert E. Lee, then a colonel, rode through Richmond for the first time during the war, taking up lodgings at the Spotswood until a permanent residence could be arranged. The day before his arrival, Richmond had suffered the first of what would become many wartime scares, when word came that the Federal warship Pawnee was steaming upriver to attack the city. Though the alarm proved to be false, the arrival of Lee signaled an exciting time for the city, as well as foreshadowing an ominous end that was not yet in sight. Four years later, Lee would travel the same Richmond streets to his home at 707 East Franklin Street–a defeated general of a lost cause.

The other most important Spotswood guest was Jefferson Davis. The president of the Confederacy arrived in Richmond on May 29 to a booming salute of guns, and, after an enthusiastic greeting from Governor John Letcher, Mayor Joseph Mayo and others, he proceeded through the crowded streets to the Spotswood. Davis stayed in room 83, which the proprietor had decorated specially to serve as his parlor. The business of the new nation demanded Davis' attention immediately, and the new chief executive worked out of his Spotswood lodgings until a home was furnished for his family.

The Spotswood remained busy throughout the war. During the Battle of First Manassas, anxious wives and relatives crowded into the lobby and parlors to await news from the front and to read printed casualty lists. Ironically, the Spotswood bar became a favorite meeting place for enemy spies. Even the infamous Belle Boyd stayed at the Spotswood.

After the war, the Spotswood hosted Union Generals William Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant and Phil Sheridan, and even U.S. President Andrew Johnson. Although a breeze fortunately spared the hotel from the evacuation fire in 1865, flames eventually claimed the dignified structure in 1870, after barely 11 years of service.

In direct competition with the Spotswood were the Exchange Hotel and the Ballard House, which were connected by an iron bridge above Franklin Street. The Exchange was the older of the two structures, having been erected in 1841, while the Ballard House was constructed in 1854 to service overflow. The Exchange was a stately five-story building, completed in royal fashion with spacious rooms and liberal use of marble. During the war, the Exchange Hotel and the Ballard House were popular venues for gatherings of Confederate senators and congressmen. After the war, Lee stayed at the Exchange when he traveled to Richmond from Lexington, Va., where he served as president of Washington College.

Other hotels that were popular during the war included the Arlington House (1837, at 6th and Main), originally called the Edgemont, which hosted at least eight Confederate senators and congressmen; the American Hotel (1840, at 12th and Main); and the Powhatan House (an enlargement of a smaller building built in 1830, at 11th and Broad), which, though losing popularity as the war started, served as a breeding ground for the separatist movement growing in western Virginia.

Other hotels were not so popular, and in some cases were considered out of style by both Confederate socialites and local Richmonders. A list of these includes such hotels as the Saint Charles (1846, at 15th and Main), which was also known as the City Hotel. This four-story stucco building was converted into Hospital Number Eight in the summer of 1861. Another was the Monumental (1850, at 9th and Grace), which was taken over for use by the Confederate Second Auditor's Office. The Columbian and the Richmond House were other hotels that were not popular during the war.

Richmond was also home to a variety of taverns–some dating back to the Revolutionary War–which ranged from rowdy watering holes to upscale restaurants. Some were also known as houses of ill repute. The Old Tavern (1801, on Manchester) had been a popular wayside stop on the way into Richmond from the south, but had fallen into disrepair by the time of the war. The business conducted there was of a dubious nature, attracting gamblers, speculators and heavy drinkers, and no one of social standing would have wanted to be known as a patron.

The Bird In Hand Tavern (dating from the 18th century, on Main Street)–so named because of an early proprietor who proclaimed that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush–was a popular wartime gathering place. The Bird in Hand still serves Main Street customers in present-day Richmond, though the original structure has been lost to renovations.

The Union Tavern (pre-1825, at 19th and Main) had been a popular inn before the war; a well-known song sung there boasted, "I dined at the Union. I got drunk at the Bell, and lost all of my money at the Eagle Hotel." (The Eagle Hotel became the American Hotel in 1840.) The Union Tavern served as a military barracks during the war, and was also the starting point for many military processions, reviews and parades held in the city. It remained a popular meeting place until near the beginning of the 20th century when, after becoming something of a home for the destitute, it finally was torn down to make way for a row of commercial buildings.

The Swan Tavern (1771, at 8th and 9th), which was also known as the Broad Street Hotel, once housed the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe, but was quite run down by 1861. Although it served as a hospital on several occasions, it passed the war mainly as a second-rate boardinghouse, where a drink and a room could be had cheaply and without questions.

Numerous smaller taverns and restaurants passed into obscurity, and only veiled references to them remain. Many perished in the flames of the evacuation fire. One such almost-forgotten place was Old Tom Griffin's Restaurant, where the recently wounded Joseph E. Johnston offered a polite toast to his successor, Robert E. Lee, and magnanimously placed the confidence of the nation in him.

For those seeking cultured entertainment, there was the Richmond Theater (1863, at 7th and Broad), which housed several ornate galleries and an orchestra. On one occasion, General J. E. B. Stuart was forced to send armed patrols to the theater to retrieve some of his men who had "accidentally" left camp and found themselves there. Stuart's patrol aroused the ire of the city provost marshal, who felt his territory had been infringed upon, but Stuart responded in typically flamboyant fashion by sending more armed patrols into the city.

The provost marshal, Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, was not popular among the citizens, and his company was always vigorously avoided. Nor was a trip to his headquarters (at 10th and Broad) a pleasant prospect, as the odor from the uniforms and clothes taken off of dead soldiers had a tendency to drift upward from the basement, where thousands of uniforms were stored, to create a positively putrid environment in the already filthy office.

Another important social gathering place was the Confederate White House (1818, at 12th and Clay), to which Jefferson Davis and his family moved on August 1, 1861. "Levees," a regular Washington tradition where anyone could pay an unannounced call on the first family, were held every fortnight at the Davises.

The Governor's Mansion (1814, on Capitol Square) was also the location of many social and official activities during the war, but is perhaps best remembered for the night it held the mortal remains of Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson as he passed through Richmond for the last time. The mansion was not officially opened to the public, but Constance Cary, a prominent young Richmond girl, and a handful of other women did manage to gain entrance and catch a final glimpse of the fallen hero. Cary described the unearthly scene this way: "Two sentries paced to and fro in the moonlight streaming through the windows. A lamp burned dimly at the end of the hall, but we saw distinctly the regular white outline of the quiet face in its dreamless slumber."

There were a number of places that citizens of good standing attempted to avoid in wartime Richmond. Even in the capital city of a cause that embraced and defended slavery, slave auctions were not popular places to frequent. They were located in an older, run-down neighborhood to begin with, and were usually held in dirty, ill-repaired structures that earned the gloomy scorn of Charles Dickens during his prewar visit to the city. No one of social standing–including most Confederate officers–had any reason or desire to travel through such an area of town.

The prisons for Union soldiers were also avoided, authorities having generally placed them out of the way to begin with. The most famous was Libby Prison (1845), a converted warehouse commandeered by the Confederate government in 1862. Although conditions in Libby Prison were better than in many other prisons, they were no better than the conditions faced by most Confederate troops, which were substandard by any measure the last half of the war. In 1864, roughly 100 Union prisoners dug their way out and attempted to escape with the aid of a local pro-Northern citizen, Elizabeth Van Lew.

John Van Lew was a prosperous Richmond merchant and owned what was perhaps the most impressive home in wartime Richmond, located on Grace Street and occupying a full city block. The activities of his abolitionist daughter, however, were destined to bring the wrath of the local population down upon the family name. At first, Elizabeth Van Lew was regarded as merely an eccentric, since the South was not devoid of abolitionists, though they were a small minority. Local citizens even laughed when it was reported that she was preparing a room for Union General George McClellan during the Peninsula campaign. While she cultivated her reputation for eccentricity, she engaged in activities (like harboring escaped prisoners) that could only be deemed treasonous to the Confederate cause. Her importance as an enemy spy was highlighted by the fact that General Grant sent an armed patrol to see after her safety upon entering the city in 1864. The citizens of Richmond–justly or not–were finally able to extract a measure of revenge in 1911 when Van Lew passed away, an ostracized, lonely old woman. The city permitted the historic Grace Street home to be razed to make way for a public shelter.

Sadly, hardly any of the buildings mentioned have survived into modern times. Those that have are primarily the ones closest to Capitol Square. Still, as one drives around the streets today and tries to imagine the lively activity and bustle of the struggling capital of a lost cause, one cannot escape the feeling that something significant happened here, and that the modern high-rises and commercial buildings cannot erase the mark the war left on Richmond. A visitor today can still find a hotel room with a view of the river, and step out into a modern city of monuments, statues and remembrances.

Where to stay in the Richmond area:

The Jefferson Hotel (804) 788-8000, Franklin and Adams streets. Built in 1895, this magnificent structure contains many marble floors and columns, plush furnishings, and a large statue of Thomas Jefferson in a domed hall. Four-star rated, and close to all downtown attractions.

Linden Row Inn (804) 783-7000, 100 East Franklin St. Constructed within a series of row homes, this inn provides a charming environment of ironwork, fireplaces and antique furniture, while also providing modern guest facilities, including a nightly cheese and wine reception.

The Berkeley Hotel (804) 780-1300, 1200 East Cary St. Located in historic Shockoe Slip, the Berkeley is dedicated to preserving the art of innkeeping. Four-star rated, this hotel is close to all the downtown attractions and historical areas.

The Henry Clay Inn (804) 798-3100, 114 North Railroad Ave., Ashland, Va. Patterned after an earlier predecessor, this hotel provides small-town hospitality with easy access to downtown Richmond (20 minutes), and is also located near several sites of importance outside of Richmond, such as the J.E.B. Stuart Monument and Patrick Henry's Scotchtown home.

For further information about historic Richmond and environs, write the Metro Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, 550 East Marshall St., Box C-250, Richmond, VA 23219, or call either of the following numbers: (800) 365-7272 or (804) 782-2777 to request a free travel information packet.



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