The Capitol of Virginia was designed by Thomas Jefferson with help from Charles-Louis Clérisseau in 1785 and occupied by the General Assembly in 1788. It is the first American state capitol building designed after the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the first public building in the New World to be constructed in the form of a classical Roman temple. During the Civil War the building did not have the front steps or the legislative wings that exist today. From 1788 until 1904 the House of Delegates met in a large chamber on the second floor in the north end of the building. From 1840 until 1861 the Senate of Virginia met in a smaller chamber on the same floor in the south end of the building, with windows looking onto the portico. A private office for the governor was located on the east side of the third floor. Two new constitutions for Virginia were created by conventions meeting at the Capitol before the Civil War.
Confederate Government Moves In
On June 28 the Virginia Convention, about to adjourn, offered the House chamber for the upcoming meeting of the Confederate Congress at Richmond. From July 20 until August 31 and on September 3, 1861, the Provisional Congress (a unicameral body with 116 members) met in the House chamber. The vacant state Senate chamber was converted into four congressional committee rooms using temporary screen partitions. In October the Virginia Senate chamber was modified and enlarged to become the "Hall of Congress" for Confederate legislators. The displaced Virginia Senate with fifty members was relocated to a chamber in the northeast corner on the third floor, above the Virginia House chamber, for the rest of the war.
In November 1861 Confederate legislators reassembled in the new Hall of Congress and the Virginia Convention of 1861 reassembled for a final session in the Virginia House chamber on opposite ends of the same floor. In the first week of December the Virginia House and Senate also reconvened at the Capitol, which was already crowded with visitors and members of Congress and the Virginia Convention of 1861. More than 450 lawmakers were expected to be in attendance. On December 4 and 5 the Electoral College of Virginia assembled in the Senate chamber on the third floor and cast the state's votes for Jefferson Davis as president and Alexander H. Stephens as vice president. The Richmond Daily Dispatch for December 2 marveled at the "unprecedented spectacle of four deliberative bodies [meeting] at the same time" in the overcrowded Capitol.
Capitol Improvements for a Bicameral Congress
From February 1862 until March 1865 the Confederate House and the Virginia House met on the second floor, while the Confederate Senate and the Senate of Virginia met on the third floor. Sessions of the Confederate Congress and Virginia General Assembly frequently overlapped, especially between the months of December and March. When adjourning, the Virginia House and Senate occasionally offered their larger state chambers to their Confederate counterparts. Twenty-six Virginians, including Speaker Thomas S. Bocock, served in the Confederate House and three Virginians chosen by the General Assembly served in the Confederate Senate. Lawmakers and visitors alike could partake of chicken, peanuts, and hard-boiled eggs offered by enterprising women who set up food stands inside the crowded Rotunda. Tobacco juice and chicken bones frequently decorated the floors, to the annoyance of local newspaper editors.
Despite the best efforts of Virginia authorities to accommodate Confederate lawmakers, questions arose as early as 1862 about the suitability of Richmond as a seat of government. The Confederate House considered two resolutions on February 27 that would have opened the way for moving government departments and archives out of the city, either during emergencies or permanently. There also was growing dissatisfaction among some Confederate lawmakers over the suitability of Virginia's Capitol for their meetings. Late in December 1862 and early in January 1863, the Richmond newspapers confidently predicted that Congress would either rent or purchase the Exchange Hotel in Richmond for legislative sessions, committee meetings, and perhaps lodgings. On January 17, 1863, Representative James Lyons of Virginia offered a resolution that "the Committee on Public Buildings be instructed to purchase the Exchange building and have it prepared for Congress." Representative Henry S. Foote opposed the measure because "it would be an entering wedge for the permanent location of the capital at this place, to which he could never consent." After more debate the resolution was tabled, as well as another resolution to rent the building for one year. Three days later a motion in the House to reconsider the Exchange Hotel option failed by a vote of 30 to 37. Ongoing use of the Capitol for Confederate purposes was evidently driven by regional politics and wartime expediency.
Evacuation and Occupation
On April 4 U.S. president Abraham Lincoln toured Capitol Square by carriage and may have briefly entered the Capitol itself. Union military authorities quickly commandeered various rooms in the Capitol to conduct their business. A guardroom was established in the basement. Military passes for men and women were issued from separate rooms on the second floor. The state Senate chamber on the third floor was used for administering oaths and issuing paroles to Confederate officers and soldiers. Permits for transporting goods were issued from the governor's office. As late as September 1865 a visitor to the halls of the late Congress found them to be "a scene of dust and confusion," while workmen were "sweeping out the last vestiges of Confederate rule." The Virginia General Assembly reconvened in its prewar chambers on December 4, 1865, in the early days of Reconstruction.
The Civil War was the busiest four-year period in the eventful history of a notable building, which has served public purposes from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. On December 19, 1960, the Virginia Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark, in part because of its pivotal role for two governments between 1861 and 1865.
April 1861 - Virginia secedes and Robert E. Lee assumes command of Virginia forces.
May 1861 - Virginia is admitted to the Confederacy and the Confederate Congress resolves to relocate the seat of government to Richmond. Jefferson Davis arrives in Richmond.
July 1861 - The Provisional Confederate Congress (unicameral) begins meeting in Virginia's Capitol.
November 1861 - Confederate national elections are held for a bicameral Congress, Vice President, and President.
December 1861 - Virginia Convention delegates, Confederate lawmakers, and the General Assembly hold overlapping sessions at the State Capitol in Richmond.
January 1862 - The General Assembly elects Virginia's two senators to the Confederate Congress.
February 1862 - The Permanent Confederate Congress, composed of a House and Senate, begins meeting at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. Former president John Tyler lies in state in the Capitol.
February 22, 1862 - Jefferson Davis is inaugurated on Capitol Square as the elected president of the Confederate States of America.
January 1863 - The Confederate States Congress considers but does not act on resolutions to use the Exchange Hotel in Richmond as a national Capitol.
April 2, 1863 - Denied a meeting with Governor John Letcher, a group of Richmond women begin looting shops downtown to protest insufficient food, initiating what came to be known as the Bread Riot. One account claims Letcher calls out the Home Guard and threatens to have the women shot unless they disperse.
May 1863 - Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson lies in repose at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. A state election for governor, lieutenant governor, and Virginia members of the Confederate Congress is held.
January 1864 - William "Extra Billy" Smith is inaugurated as governor of Virginia, replacing John Letcher.
March 1865 - The Confederate Congress adjourns and African Americans recruited for the Confederate army begin drilling on Capitol Square in Richmond.
April 1865 - The Confederate government evacuates Richmond and the Union army enters the city, establishing a military presence at the Capitol.
December 1865 - The General Assembly returns to the Capitol in peacetime.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Greenough, M. K. The Virginia State Capitol during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_State_Capitol_During_the_Civil_War_The.
- MLA Citation:
Greenough, Mark K. "The Virginia State Capitol during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 8, 2011 | Last modified: October 27, 2015