Richmond During the War

This is a book by Sallie B. Putnam, a woman who lived in Richmond during the Civil War. You can download and read the book for free here. She published the book in 1867, so the events were still fairly fresh in her mind. Much of the book describes army movements that she had no chance of having observed and no doubt read about in newspapers or in other sources. Those portions of the book, then, can’t be considered primary sources. The book’s strength, though, is in her observations of life in the confederate capital city itself. Unfortunately, I thought these parts made up a disappointingly smaller portion of the book.

She opens by writing about the Virginia secession convention, writing, “the strong party which favored immediate secession, was opposed by another which insisted upon the expediency of a compromise, and there was still another faction which bitterly resented every proposition to sever the relations existing between Virginia and the Federal Government. It was at this period that the women of Virginia, and especially of Richmond, began to play the important part in public affairs, which they sustained with unflinching energy during four years of sanguinary and devastating war. The hall of the Convention became their favorite place of resort and occasionally they engaged in political discussion before the assemblage of the members. Every prominent delegate had his own partisans among the fair sex. Every woman was to some extent a politician. On the afternoon of the 14th of April, the news of the fall of Fort Sumter reached us by telegraph. It was received with the wildest demonstrations of delight. A hundred guns were fired, and as the reverberations were heard for miles around, the people of Richmond knew that there was some wonderful cause for joy, and those not of the city wondered whether they commemorated the victory of the Confederates at Sumter, or whether the Convention had at last passed the ordinance of secession.” [pp. 17-18] She tells us, “There was little room to doubt the spirit of the people of Richmond at that time. Denunciations were heaped upon the Convention, because of its tardiness, and attempts were made to run up the Stars and Bars on the dome of the Capitol.” [p. 18]

No doubt reflecting either gossip she had heard or speculation she had read in the newspaper, she writes, “Through the management of Mr. Floyd, the South was not entirely unprepared for the emergency she was required to meet. He had succeeded in getting an order for the transfer of certain arms of an improved and valuable kind from the armories of Springfield and Watervliet to the different arsenals of the South; and with these, together with arms distributed by the Federal Government to the different States, prior to this period, and those purchased by the States and citizens, the South was not wholly wanting in the means to meet the demands of the time.” [p. 26]

With most of the book detailing things she could not possibly have known for herself, we have to ensure we snare the snippets of information that no doubt came from her own knowledge. For example, “New Year’s day was bright, balmy and beautiful as spring. The first day of the year has never been observed in Richmond as one of public reception for ladies, and of visiting for gentlemen. The usual arrangements of the household under the regime of slavery, would have forbidden such a custom. Christmas week was an undisputed holiday for our domestics. Those who owned their servants could not, by time-honored and regularly established usage, claim regular duties from them, and New Year’s day usually found a Southern housewife altogether unprepared for entertaining friends, and intently engaged in the rearrangement and reconstruction of the menage upon something like a basis of comfort and order. Therefore New Year’s entertainments
never became popular under the ‘old regime.’ It had been, however, from time almost immemorial, a custom with our Governors. Members of the Legislature, officials of the government, and any gentlemen who desired, were expected to pay their respects to his Excellency, and to drink his health in champagne, apple-toddy, whiskey-punch, or egg-nog.” [p. 90]

Her memories of what life in Richmond was like are especially valuable. An example of this is what she says about the availability and sale of food in Richmond. “During all this time, extortion had increased in Richmond, until the complaints of the people grew loud and terrible. Articles of food, absolutely necessary to sustain life, had gone up in price, until it was thought a necessity to legislate upon the traffic. General Winder, the Provost Marshal of the city, in order to remedy the evil, laid a tariff of prices on all articles of domestic produce, but did not legislate upon groceries, liquors, and articles imported from abroad. The consequence was, the markets were so ill supplied that they had almost as well been closed. It was next to an impossibility to procure a dinner at all. The meats were so indifferent as scarcely to be fit for food, and fish became the staple article. To secure these, it was necessary to send to market for them before the break of day, and frequently, then, the crowed that pressed around the fish-market was so dense that many were compelled to leave without anything for a dinner, except potatoes and poor beef, and the market men declared the people might ‘starve !’—they would bring in no more supplies until the tariff was withdrawn, or the sale of imported articles regulated in a manner to protect them likewise from imposition. They argued, if they were forced to pay the exorbitant demands for sugar, tea, brandy and other articles from abroad, they had a right to charge similar prices for their meats, poultry, butter and vegetables, or they would not sell them. The greatest inconvenience arose from the want of such articles of food as were in the power of hucksters to control. Butter and eggs were never seen, and the fishmongers grew tired of the annoyances to which they were continually subjected by their hungry patrons, and refused to keep up a supply. Finding our situation so deplorable, and soliciting relief, through a committee of citizens appointed to wait upon the Provost .Marshal, the tariff was raised, and the merchandise of the hucksters again flowed into our markets. From that time until the end of the war we were entirely at their mercy. Being wholly dependent upon them for so much that was essential to existence, they charged what prices they pleased for their merchandise, and we were forced to pay them or abstain from many necessary articles of food altogether. As if to recompense themselves for time and money lost to them while the tariff was enforced by military authority, they doubled the old prices on their merchandise, and where the people groaned under the extortion before, they found the burden so much increased that the groaning was doubled in proportion. Fishmongers ran up the prices of the piscatorial tribe to such a degree that it became no longer needful to send a servant to market before the dawn of day for a pair of shad or a rockfish for dinner, for so few could afford the luxury that the supply was greater than the demand. Butter dealers tempted the appetites of their customers with huge rolls of golden, fragrant butter, at the moderate price of one dollar per pound, increased from forty cents before the tariff existed. However, as the spring advanced and vegetables became more abundant, the prices declined to a small extent, but not the spirit of extortion. That was unmitigated, and was one of the greatest annoyances to which we were subjected.” [pp. 113-114]

A very interesting turn in Richmond was the expanded role women played in the everyday functions of government agencies, and Mrs. Putnam gets into that as well: “From the Treasury Department, the employment of female
clerks extended to various offices in the War Department, the Post Office Department, and indeed to every branch, of business connected with the government. They were in all found efficient and useful. By this means many young men could be sent into the ranks, and by the testimony of the chiefs of Bureaus, the work left for the women was better done ; for they were more conscientious in their attendance upon their duties than the more self-satisfied, but not better qualified, male attaches of the government offices.” [pp. 174-175]

Mrs. Putnam also gives us her memories of the famous Richmond Bread Riot of 1863: “These precautions had some influence in originating in Richmond in the Spring of this year, (1863,) a most disgraceful riot, to which, in order to conceal the real designs of the lawless mob engaged in it, was given the name of the ‘bread riot.’ The rioters were represented in a heterogeneous crowd of Dutch, Irish, and free negroes—of men, women, and children—armed with pistols, knives, hammers, hatchets, axes, and every other weapon which could be made useful in their defence, or might subserve their designs in breaking into stores for the purpose of thieving. More impudent and defiant robberies were never committed, than disgraced, in the open light of day, on a bright morning in spring, the city of Richmond. The cry for bread with which this violence commenced was soon subdued, and instead of articles of food, the rioters directed their efforts to stores containing dry-goods, shoes, etc. Women were seen bending under loads of sole-leather, or dragging after them heavy cavalry boots, brandishing their huge knives, and swearing, though apparently well fed, that they were dying from starvation—yet it was difficult to imagine how they could masticate or digest the edibles under the weight of which they were bending. Men carried immense loads of cotton cloth, woolen goods, and other articles, and but few were seen to attack the stores where flour, groceries, and other provisions were kept. This disgraceful mob was put to flight by the military. Cannon were planted in the street, and the order to disperse or be fired upon drove the rioters from the commercial portion of the city to the Capitol Square, where they menaced the Governor, until, by the continued threatenings of the State Guards and the efforts of the police in arresting the ringleaders, a stop was put to these lawless and violent proceedings. It cannot be denied that want of bread was at this time too fatally true, but the sufferers for food were not to be found in this mob of vicious men and lawless viragoes who, inhabiting quarters of the city where reigned riot and depravity, when followed to their homes after this demonstration, were discovered to be well supplied with articles of food. Some of them were the keepers of stores, to which they purposed adding the stock stolen in their raid on wholesale houses. This demonstration was made use of by the disaffected in our midst, and by our enemies abroad, for the misrepresentation and exaggeration of our real condition. In a little while the papers of the North published the most startling and highly colored accounts of the starving situation of the inhabitants of Richmond.” [pp. 208-209]

Mrs. Putnam’s narrative takes us all the way through the fall of Richmond and its capture by Union forces. She writes, “As the day advanced, Weitzel’s troops poured through the city. Long lines of negro calvary [sic] swept by the Exchange Hotel, brandishing their swords and uttering savage cheers, replied to by the shouts of those of their own color, who were trudging along under loads of plunder, laughing and exulting over the prizes they had secured from the wreck of the stores, rather than rejoicing at the more precious prize of freedom which had been won for them. On passed the colored troops, singing, ‘John Brown’s body is mouldering in the grave,’ etc. By one o’clock in the day, the confusion reached its height. As soon as the Federal troops reached the city they were set to work by the officers to arrest the progress of the fire. By this time a wind had risen from the south, and seemed likely to carry the surging flames all over the northwestern portion of the city. The most strenuous efforts were made to prevent this, and the grateful thanks of the people of Richmond are due to General Weitzel and other officers for their energetic measures to save the city from entire destruction.” [p. 367] She also writes, “There would be a failure in simple justice, and a compromise of conscientious generosity, did we refuse to accord to those placed in temporary authority over us as military rulers of Richmond, the offering of sincere gratitude, for the respect, the kindness, the lenity with which the citizens were treated. For a conquered people, the lines had fallen to us in pleasant places. The names of Ord, Weitzel, Patrick, Dent, Manning, Mulford and others, cannot be remembered with unkindness. They softened greatly the first bitter experiences of our subjugation.” [P. 386]

I thought this was a very valuable book for the student of the war for the observations of life in Richmond and what the author personally saw. Unfortunately, those portions made up the minority of the book, with the great majority being what she heard and read about in other areas of the confederacy and other parts of the war. Still, I can recommend it for those who want an insight into how people in Richmond lived during the war and for an insight into the confederate home front.


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