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ListenListen to the introduction (2:18 minutes):

Distance: Approximately 1.1 miles one way.

This tour begins at the public entrance to the Virginia Capitol and will head south toward the James River. It should take a little more than an hour to walk. Allow time for visits to the museums at the American Civil War Center/Tredegar Iron Works and a trip to Belle Isle.

The city’s manufacturing capability made Richmond “the only truly indispensable city in the Confederacy,” according to one historian, and was a major factor in choosing Richmond as the Southern capital in the spring of 1861.

During the Civil War, the streets just below us, Main and Cary, bustled with commerce. Shops, banks, newspaper offices, hotels and other businesses did a brisk business there.

Only two buildings on this tour — the old Customs House directly in front of you and the Tredegar Iron Works’ gun foundry — survive from the Civil War era. The 1865 Evacuation Fire destroyed virtually every building from here to the river. So some imagination is required for this tour.


Customs House/Confederate executive offices
1100 E. Main St.
(You are viewing the Bank Street side from Capital Square)

Built in 1858 as the U.S. Customs House, this building was taken over by the state almost immediately after Virginia seceded, then by Confederate authorities.

As the war began, the building housed recruits and military offices and briefly confined prisoners of war from the earliest battles. When the Confederate government arrived, the building was converted into offices for the President and the Treasury and State departments.

Since the war, the building has changed considerably with additions to each side and another floor on top. This is the only Main Street survivor in the core area of the 1865 Evacuation Fire.

Following the war, the building was returned to Federal use. Jefferson Davis, who was imprisoned at Fort Monroe after his capture in Georgia, returned here in 1867 to answer an indictment for treason. He was freed on bail here during a court hearing. Among those helping to free him was New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley. The indictment was later withdrawn. The building currently houses the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

As you make your way south toward the James River, take a look at a small remnant of Richmond history: Basin Street. This cobblestone street once ran along the northern edge of the turning basin on the James River and Kanawha Canal system (more about that at Stop 2.) See the cobblestones in the parking lot between Eighth and Ninth streets just south of Cary Street.

Customs Hs

The Canals and the Evacuation Fire
Kanawha Plaza
Entrance on Canal Street at the base of Eighth Street
(turn to face downtown buildings)

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The James River and Kanawha Canal with its great turning basin (once between here and downtown) was a focal point of Richmond commerce before the war. Although railroads were gradually eroding the canal’s influence, Richmond’s wartime industry continued to depend on this and other man-made waterways to transport goods and provide power.

The James River canal, which continued more than 180 miles west from Richmond, provided a cheap and efficient way to transport the raw materials that fueled Confederate wartime production at such factories at the Tredegar Iron Works.

If we were standing here during the early morning hours of April 3, 1865, we would be in the middle of a major conflagration known as the Evacuation Fire. The wind-blown fire, set by retreating Confederates (intended to burn only a limited number of public warehouses) got out of hand and destroyed much of the city’s commercial district, including virtually every building within several blocks in all directions from here.

Confederate authorities, including President Davis and some of his cabinet officers, had escaped the city just hours earlier, leaving the city to mob rule.

Union soldiers entered the out-of-control city later that morning and began to restore order and put out the fires. Much of Richmond’s industrial and commercial district lay in ruins.

The Confederate troops who evacuated Richmond continued southwest, joining the rest of Lee’s army on the roads that led to Appomattox. The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered less than a week after Richmond’s fall.

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slides1865 photos of the burned district



Canal views



Brown’s Island
(Stop on the pedestrian bridge at the base of Seventh Street and face the James River)

ListenListen to the narration (2:43 minutes):


You are now standing in the middle of the pedestrian bridge leading to Brown’s Island, beginning a visit to the most important military industrial complex in the Confederacy. More than 1,000 cannon, thousands of rifles, and millions of shells and cartridges were produced for the Confederate war effort in the few acres surrounding you.

This pedestrian bridge spans the restored Haxall Canal, which diverted James River water to power a flour mill (which once stood to your left).

Brown’s Island in front of you was the site of the “Confederate Laboratory,” a facility composed of small frame buildings where gunpowder was loaded into cartridges. An explosion here in March 1863 (on Friday the 13th) killed dozens.

As you walk on the island toward the James River, be sure to read the bronze markers embedded in the walkways. Many are devoted to Civil War history. And be sure to visit the river overlook devoted to the 1865 fall of Richmond. (The entrance is near the river under the railroad trestle, just off the main path around the island.)

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Tredegar Iron Works

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These few acres by the James River were arguably the most important manufacturing center in the Confederacy.

During the war, the Tredegar Iron Works produced 1,099 cannon for the Southern cause. The facility rolled most of the iron plating that protected the CSS Virginia (former USS Merrimack) during its famous battle with the USS Monitor. A mysterious submarine (fate unknown) also was built here for the Confederates.

The building complex and grounds now comprise the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The Richmond National Battlefield Park operates a visitor center and museum in the three-story building. The 1861 cannon foundry (with the big smokestack) now houses the “In the Cause of Liberty” exhibit.

The NPS visitor center/museum offers maps and other information about the Richmond-area Civil War battlefields (including Cold Harbor, Gaines’ Mill and others.) A film and exhibits focus on Richmond during the war. It’s open 9 am-5 pm daily. It’s free.

The “In the Cause of Liberty” exhibit offers a wider view of the Civil War, covering all aspects of the conflict from three points of view: Union, Confederate and African-American. It’s also open daily 9 am–5 pm. There is an admission charge. Parking is available on site for a fee, refundable if you pay to see the “In the Cause of Liberty” exhibit.

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SlideshowPhoto album of American Civil War Center


Belle Isle

ListenListen to the narration (1:39 minutes):

You can see Belle Isle, a large island in the James River, from the Tredegar Iron Works. A pedestrian walkway to the island is located under the U.S. Route 1 bridge and is open daylight hours.

One of the most notorious Civil War prisons was located on the eastern tip of this island. Opened as an enlisted man’s prison camp following the Seven Days Battles in 1862, the island quickly filled with thousands of captured Union soldiers who were housed initially in tents.

The prisoner population of the Belle Isle camp ebbed and flowed with the course of the war. The island was sometimes deserted, sometimes overwhelmed with prisoners captured during major campaigns and battles.

At times, prisoners suffered horribly from overcrowding, exposure (most of the tents were long gone by 1863), disease, and lack of proper food. According to prisoner William Lee Goss, the daily ration “consisted of one half loaf to each man per day, and beans, cooked in water in which bacon had been boiled for the guards, — usually containing about twenty percent of maggots,... thirty percent of beans and the remainder in water.”

A 3-foot-deep ditch and an earthwork enclosed the prison compound. Prisoners wandering outside the “dead line” without permission were liable to be shot. Guards and an artillery piece were posted overlooking the camp on high ground just west of the prison.

The most often quoted number of Belle Isle residents at one time or another during the war is 30,000. The estimated numbers of dead vary widely, but 1,000 seems to be the most common number. More probably died later, after being weakened by confinement.

Today the island is accessible during daylight hours via the pedestrian bridge from the north bank of the James River.

Years ago the outline of the Civil War prison camp was identified and a small earthen berm was placed above it. Some of that modern-day berm can be seen today.

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Belle Isle