As the capitals of warring parties and major cities in a very active theater of operations, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. were at the same time rear areas and front lines. The populations of both cities swelled. Some due to increased labor demands, but more so as refugees of war sought shelter. Military camps and hospitals added to the number of people present. In the case of Richmond, add to that the extensive prisoner holding facilities. For the Confederate government, the large concentration of people in Richmond – military, civilian, prisoner, and refugee – presented a problem. The logistics of simply keeping Richmond supplied rivaled that of a field army.
On April 12, 1864, General Robert E. Lee wrote Secretary of War James Seddon and related concerns about the population in Richmond. Specifically, Lee expressed concerned about how Richmond might be evacuated, should such contingency arise:
No arrangements that our foresight can suggest or our means accomplish should be neglected, and while every exertion should, and I doubt not will, be made to insure our success, we should not be unprepared for unfavorable results, and neglect precautions that may lighten any calamity that may befall us.
Lee called out the number of prisoners, Federal deserters, and paroled Confederates then in Richmond, which he saw as groups to immediately remove from the Confederate capital. Seddon responded to Lee on April 14, 1864:
General: I have the honor to acknowledge your letter of the 12th instant, just received, and to thank you very sincerely for the valuable suggestions it contained. They fortify me by the might of your authority in the convictions of policy entertained and the line of action I had adopted, to some extent, in pursuance of them. The most earnest efforts are being made to command the full resources for transportation of the railroad lines, and I have not hesitated to stop passenger trains whenever by so doing Government freight could be increased or expedited. The officer in charge of railroad transportation has been sent out, and is now absent on a mission, with all the power the Department could confer, to secure the fullest concert of action and the employment of all the means that could be commanded for transportation. The Piedmont Railroad is being pressed to early completion, but, unfortunately, the recent floods oppose embarrassing impediments, which may delay it two weeks longer than I confidently anticipated. I still hope it may be completed in the early part of next month.
I am thoroughly convinced of the importance of depleting the population of Richmond, and have, on more occasions than one before the reception of your letter, urged on the President the exercise of his influence and authority to accomplish the removal of the population, so far as they could be spared from the necessary work of the city. Such steps have not as yet been taken, for the difficulties and embarrassments attending it must be acknowledged to be of a very grave character. It is next to impossible to make, by the action of the Government, adequate provision for the shelter and support of the numbers which would then be thrown homeless and indigent upon the country, and even those who had means of self-support would find it very difficult to obtain accommodation and supplies. Refugees have begun to be regarded with less of sympathy than of apprehension, for they are looked upon as diminishing the means and increasing the privations of the communities to which they may flee. Still, I fear necessity requires that, to a considerable extent, the removal of the useless population from the city should be attempted, for without such measure I do not see the possibility of accumulating the requisite reserve of supplies to enable us to meet partial reverse and bear brief interruption of communication.
The prisoners of the enemy and our own paroled men are nearly all removed, and the rest will speedily follow. The hospitals and work-shops will be cleared of all who can be spared, and such machinery and stores as are not of immediate necessity I have directed to be prepared and gradually removed. It will be difficult to induce either the people of the city or our officers to make the requisite exertions and sacrifices which a prudent precaution demands, for they repose such confidence in the valor of our troops and the generalship of their commanders as to be incredulous of approaching danger. Still, I hope your counsels and the influence of the Department will not be wholly without avail in inducing the “efforts, self-sacrifice, and labor, until the crisis has been safely passed,” which a prudent forecast of all contingencies demands.
Experience of the past and a just reliance on our means of defense, employed with the skill and energy which have heretofore guided us, may well entitle us to expect, under the blessing of Heaven, deliverance from the worst efforts of our malignant foes: but we should not be the less prepared to be grateful and happy in triumph for having realized our danger and arranged to meet and repair the consequences of a reverse.
Very truly, yours,
James A. Seddon,
Secretary of War.
Sedden’s response indicated that some Confederate authorities had recognized the issue and were acting. Relocating prisoners further south did provide some relief. But to some degree, relocating the wartime population of Richmond was akin to bailing the ocean.
There is an irony here, somewhat. As Seddon observed, the population of Richmond became increasingly dependent upon the government as the war entered its fourth year. Yet the Confederacy was ill-equipped, by virtue of its philosophy of government, to respond to that dependency.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1277 and 1279-80.)