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Virgina's Importance In the Civil War

Updated on February 3, 2015

Virginia was the first state in the United States to be colonized. Its history is a long one and as Virginia grew so did its respect by the others states. Jefferson Davis knew that Virginia was going to play a pivotal role for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Virginia had many resources and was able to utilize them to the confederacy’s advantage. Without Virginia in the Confederacy the South would have lost and been crushed very quickly. With Virginia in the Confederacy they stood a chance against the Union and possibly if things happened differently a chance to become a new country. The most significant role that Virginia played was a military role, but she also was an economic leader as well as a political leader.

Before the war Virginia was just a simple southern state that play a huge role in the United States agriculture export. Virginia also had a few factories that made metal, cigarettes, and fabrics. This was important later on because the South needed a financially stable state. Virginia has always been one the first states to speak out when transgression have done to the United States. In the Revolutionary War they were the first state to reject the Stamp Act and publicly criticized the King.[1] To say that Virginia joined the Confederacy because the people wanted to see the extension of slavery would be a false statement. In fact they were joining the Confederacy because they knew that the government wanted to infringe on the rights that the people of Virginia and South wanted to keep. Virginia was very ardent to not have war they pushed for a reconciliation to bring back her sister states that had seceded when Lincoln was elected. On April 17, 1861 Virginia seceded from the Union by a vote of 87-55.[2] The South rejoiced when this happened but the people of Virginia were none too happy to go to war. If the Virginia had seceded as soon as the other seven did then Maryland would have followed quickly behind and they would have had a chance to surround D.C. and have a chance to strangle the Union and they would have been successful. Virginia waited too long to join the Confederacy and by that time Maryland was a neutral state that did not pick a side in the war.[3]

Boxwood Farms
Boxwood Farms | Source
Source

Virginia was an important military leader in the war because they were very close to the Union capital. If Virginia had not joined the Confederacy, they would have had to pass through Virginia who would have fought back very harshly. Soon after Virginia joined the Confederacy the capital of the South was moved to Richmond from Montgomery, Alabama. This made Virginia a pivotal part of the War because the Union forces were just miles away from Richmond. Around 153,000 soldiers from Virginia fought in the Civil War.[4] This was a very large number of soldier. Virginia also produced the most essential number of generals and leaders come from her to lead the Confederacy. Such leaders as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph Johnston, A. P. Hill, George Pickett, and a few others.[5] The first battle in the Civil War was in Virginia was in Manassas. Not only was it the first battle but it was the first Confederate win and Union loss. Stonewall Jackson wanted to pursue the Union and take D.C. after the battle of Manassas. The other generals would not agree and Jackson was never given the chance to possibly end the war right then and there. This was a major flaw on the part of the other generals if they had listen to Jackson they would have been able to take D.C. and basically crush the Union.

Later on in the war there were many battle and campaigns. The seven days campaign or the Peninsula campaign was a march towards Richmond to destroy the capital. Fortunately for the Confederacy they were able to send the Union packing. Another crucial campaign was the Shenandoah campaign in which Stonewall Jackson had to defend a two pronged attack by McClellan that was meant for Richmond. All along the Shenandoah Jackson won battle after battle against larger forces and ended up repelling McClellan. He also achieved his other goal which was to protect Richmond and to take Union resources away from the Union so they would be cut off and have nowhere to run with no supplies.[6] Jackson was able to hold off the Union attacks and with his triumphs came his iconic status. Other crucial battles were the battle of Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and 2nd Manassas.

In April 1861 when the Civil War started the Naval Yard kept working as if nothing was happening. Then tensions in the yard started to flare and the on April 20, 1861 to prevent the Confederacy from controlling the yard the Federal troops burned the yard.[7] They also accidentally sunk ships and tried to blow the drydock up but could not do so.[8] After this break away from the Union, Virginia did not immediately join the Confederacy and so the Virginia Navy took control over the shipyard. When Virginia joined to Confederacy the yard was given to the government which promptly started to work on the Merrimack, which had be partially burned and sunk.[9] The Merrimack was steam frigate that could hold almost 700 men and had at least 60 guns. After the Confederacy was done with her she was renamed “Virginia” and there were modifications done. In E. V. White’s personal reminiscence he says that

“…the ship was covered amidships with a roof 170 feet long, built at an angle of 45 degrees, constructed of 20-inch heart pine, and covered with 4-inch oak. Upon this wood backing there were two iron plates two inches thick and seven inches wide, one laid horizontally and the other vertically, making the armament four inches thick. These plates were bolted through the wood and clinched on the inside. Her bow was armed below water with a cast-iron prow about 6 feet long, to be used as a ram.”[10]

This showed the sheer size and ferocity of the first ironclad, yet its movement was very slow since it still ran on steam and the maneuvering had to be tweaked. Yet it was to no avail the Monitor, the Union’s ironclad, was just as well built and neither could do any real damage. The Merrimack was then blockaded by the Union and eventually captured. On May 10, 1862 the shipyard was once again burned by the Confederate troops as the retreated from the Navy Yard.[11] Most of the buildings were destroyed so reconstruction had to begin again, new shops were built, new roads constructed, new storehouses and a new dock were built.[12] Without the Norfolk Naval Base the South would have never been able to have an ironclad and they would have never been able to defeat or come to a standstill the Union’s ironclad. They would have not been able to build some smaller ships that would be able to outrun the Union blockade. Without the Norfolk Naval Shipyard the South may have run into many problems with naval battle during the war.

The Merrimac and the Monitor
The Merrimac and the Monitor | Source
The ruins of the shipyard
The ruins of the shipyard | Source

Virginia was also important because of the military school that was in the state. In 183 the only major battle in Virginia was Chancellorsville. This was a great victory for the Confederacy they were having some troubles winning battles and this was a great morale booster. For the rest of 1863 it was quiet but the people of Virginia were not feeling to good about the war. The people of Virginia were struggling and they needed to be able to eat and try to help the soldiers. It was a constant battle for the people and they were tired.[13] Virginia Military Institute was the largest military school that produced the largest amount of officers on either side of the war. About 75% of the officers that graduated from VMI who were from the South defected to the Confederacy, and the remaining 25% or so stayed with the Union, while there was a small percent that did not get involved in the war. About 30% of the northern officers from VMI defected to the Confederacy while the rest remained loyal to the Union.[14] VMI was also the only military academy in United States history that had its own company. The VMI Company fought in the Civil War against the Union troops when the Union troops were passing through.[15] The last major battle of the civil war was in Virginia and the surrender of the Confederate forces happened in Appomattox. Virginia was important to the military and the Union would have been able to destroy the Confederacy if Virginia had not seceded.

Virginia was an economic leader because unlike most of the other states that seceded Virginia was a mixture between an agricultural state and an industrialized state. Treadegar Ironworks in Richmond was very important to the Confederacy.[16] The ironworks mad most of the cannons that were on the ships and the cannons that were used on land. They also made a large number of guns and ammo for the Confederacy. Without the Ironworks in Richmond the ships that were built in Portsmouth would have no cannons on the ships and the army would have been defeated without the use of cannons. Since the Union had blockaded the Confederate ports and the entire coastline the Confederacy could not export certain cash crops. With many battles happening mainly in Virginia the ability to grow crops was very limited. Virginia was unable to grow much but they did have a textile factory in Richmond that ran through the war. The mill generated clothes and other fabrics which were useful to the troops that were not only in Virginia but throughout the South. Even as the leader of the economy the ability to have a currency and to keep that currency afloat was not dueable

Politically Virginia was important and really was the center of politics. Without Virginia the South may have not been successful in lasting as long as it did. Moving the capital of the South to Richmond was a risky move because it was so close to the border. It seems that the move of the capital to Virginia was to satisfy Virginia in the hopes that they would not join the Union. The President and Vice President of the Confederacy were not from Virginia but some of the members of the Cabinet were from Virginia.[17] Now there were spies on both sides and some of the best known spies were from Virginia.[18] These women did what they thought was right and were able to gain information that gave each side an advantage. Espionage was a useful tool and women were great spies because they were not suspected because they had not ties to other men in the Union or the Confederacy. [19] The Confederacy soon printed money which had no backing to it and after the first couple month’s inflation skyrocketed and the new Confederate money was soon worthless. The Confederacy had problems being realized as its own country. Both France and England were on the verge of saying that the Confederacy was a country but after some Confederate loses they pulled support. If the South had been able to be recognized by another country of good standing they would have been able to get allies. If England or France said the Confederacy was a country then they would have called the war an unjust war and would have fought alongside the South.




VMI During the Civil War
VMI During the Civil War | Source
Tredegar Ironworks
Tredegar Ironworks | Source

Some of the mistakes that Virginia made were that they were not able to keep West Virginia as a part of Virginia. The West Virginian delegates did not feel that they had a say in the convention that was established to figure out if Virginia would secede. With West Virginia breaking away and joining the Union they lost some power as a state. West Virginia now a Union state still was torn between the North and the South. They still had ties to Virginia and wanted to support their brothers but their favor eventually fell to the Union.[20] The Union recognized West Virginia as a state so they tended to lean towards the government that saw them as a legitimate state. In the end West Virginia sent about 15,000 troops to fight for the Confederacy and about 40,000 to fight for the Union.[21] If Virginia had listened to West Virginia they would not have voted to secede and they would have remained a neutral state and that would have been devastating to the Confederacy.[22] The other problem that Virginia faced was the lack of food for the troops in the area. With all of the battles happening in Virginia the crops that farmers had planted were destroyed and farms were destroyed as well. The land was worn and run over, there were battles everywhere and the dead littered the land of Virginia. These were very unhealthy conditions not only for crops but for people too.

Another problem that Virginia faced was the ineffectiveness and drive from their generals. After the first battle of Manassas Jackson thought it would be a good idea to go ahead and head for D.C. to take it from the Union’s control. The other generals would have none of it. They decided to play it safe and stay where they were. As Jackson fought and gained land for the Confederacy the others generals simply maintained the land won and did not push forward and try to keep pressure on the Union.[23] With this ineffectiveness came apathy and lethargy. When Grant made his move he was able to defeat the forces around Richmond and that ended the reign of the Confederacy when Richmond burned. They lost their capital and they really had nowhere else to go and be able to fight a good fight. The Union had a currency that was backed by gold and had had over 50 years to become powerful. When the Confederacy made their currency they had no backing and soon their currency inflated greatly and soon was worth nothing. The Confederacy had another problem and that was being recognized as a true country. Without that kind of recognition they were unable to gain many allies. The English built ships for the Confederacy after claiming neutrality and if the

Virginia’s importance is measured by its military, economic, and politically ability to lead the Confederacy. Even though the Confederacy was unable to win the war, with Virginia’s help they were able to stave of the Union for a while than they would have if Virginia was not in the South. The men, the ships and the leaders that emerged from this war were from Virginia. Without Virginia there would not have been a navy and the emergence of the ironclad ships. Without the establishment of VMI and the officers that came out of VMI Virginia would not have been able to successfully defeat the Union in battles across Virginia. Economically Virginia was able to produce guns and other staples that were necessary for the men to have in the war. Without Virginia’s works the South would not have had guns, clothes, and some food. Politically Virginia was the center of the Confederacy. Virginia was where the capital of the Confederacy was and some of the Confederate leaders were from Virginia. Without Virginia the Confederacy would have listed around and eventually given up because they had no resources and men.

[1] Munford, Beverly B. Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession. Richmond: VA, 1909. 245.

[2] Ibid, 256.

[3] Munford. Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession. 239.

[4] DeLeon, Thomas. Four Years in Rebel Capitals. New York: 1962. 56.

[5] Evans, Clement. Virginia: Confederate Military History. Secaucus: NJ, 1900. 135.

[6] Cozzens. Shenandoah 1862. 3-5.

[7] Report on the condition of the U.S. Navy Yards (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1869), 8.

[8] Edward P. Lull, History of the United States Navy-Yard at Gosport, Virginia (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1874),12, Birth of Gosport Yard and into the 19th Century, http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/nnybooks1.html (accessed November 11, 2010). 50.

[9] Ibid 60.

[10] E.V. White, The First Iron-Clad Naval Engagement in the World (New York: J. S. Ogilive Publishing Company, 1862), The Battle of Hampton Roads Ironclads, http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/evwhite/hisofmvsm.html (accessed November 17, 2010).

[11] Lull, History of the US Navy-Yard, 60.

[12] Robert W. Lamb, Our Twin Cities: Norfolk and Portsmouth (Norfolk, Virginia: Norfolk Landmark Steam Presses, 1887), 125, Norfolk and Portsmouth, http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/history/lamb/lamb4.html (accessed November 17, 2010).

[13] Davis, William C., and James I. Robertson Jr. Virginia at 1863. The University Press of Kentucky, 2009. 5-10.

[14] Evans. Virginia: Confederate Military History. 229.

[15] Ibid, 235.

[16]

[17]

[18]

[19]

[20] Evans. Virginia: Confederate Military History. 267.

[21] Evans. Virginia: Confederate Military History. 275.

[22] Munford. Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession. 255.

[23] Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862. Chapel Hill: NC University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 7-9.

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    • william landis profile image

      William L 

      3 years ago

      you covered every point I could have thought about when I read the title. The Shenndoah valley, VMI, Robert E Lee, the capital in Rishmond. Very good article.

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