Stories about cowboys and the Wild West give the impression that beginning in the mid-19th century, ranching was dominating the United States. While outlaws were battling lawmen in many places, the country continued its expansion and development. Political and industrial advances increased its international influence and Virginia, like all the other states was moving along with the country’s progress.

During the first half of the 1800s Virginia was a divided state, and its growth contributed further to this. The sections which had been first developed, in the eastern part of the state, relied heavily on slave labour. This continued even though large scale farming was moving away from more labour intensive tobacco farming to mixed crops. The farmers had become dependent upon the slaves, and the large fields required many hands to work. This was in direct contrast to the western areas that, even though they were also supported by agriculture, had smaller family farms.

shutterstock_12189328Railways were becoming necessary in all areas of the United States and, as the state expanded into the areas of mining and timber harvesting, Virginia was no exception. During the 1830s several different companies began railway construction. One of the first, The Chesterfield Railroad, was made in order to haul coal from the mines. It originally used gravity and large animals as a power source.

By 1834, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad had become the first locomotive railway in the state. The manufacturers’ intention was to connect with steamboat lines at Aquia Landing, and run from the state to Washington. Many other companies followed suit and Petersburg became a manufacturing centre, which encouraged the freed slaves to settle here as artisans and craftsmen.

The American Civil War

Voting, during this period, was limited to white males who owned a certain amount of land. This meant that the political influence of the more prosperous eastern section was significantly higher. Even though the legislation attempted to mend the division, they were unsuccessful and at the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia was still separated. This affected both sides of the war, as men from all economic and social backgrounds enlisted.

Richmond, because of its convenient location, became the headquarters of the Confederate Army. Most of the artillery for the war was produced in the city’s Tredegar Iron Works, and many hospitals were formed in the city. The Libby Prison became the main holding area for captured Union officers, and a source of additional conflict as the conditions the officers were kept in was terrible and many died. The main defences for the city were trenches built down towards Petersburg, and Union forces targeted it throughout the war.

shutterstock_242290105The Confederacy’s behaviour distressed those in the west of Virginia so much that they broke away to form the first Union of Virginia. A series of unionist conventions began in May 1861, and these resulted in the split of the state and West Virginia officially became America’s 35th state, on June 20, 1863.

In spite of its official recognition the Virginia state government refused to acknowledge West Virginia and confederates were not allowed to vote here. They also began losing more of their areas, and Union forces extended their control from the region west of the Alleghenies as far as the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in the north. There continued to be battles fought in Virginia, including the Seven Day Battle, the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Brandy Station. In 1864, the Union Army began a planned attack on Richmond and in April 1865, the Confederates retreated from the city burning it on the way out. By November 1865 the Union had gained control over three-quarters of the districts in Virginia.

Rebuilding after the War

The Civil War left Virginia in ruins and the state began the process of rebuilding. During the fighting, railroads had been destroyed and plantations burned. Added to this the state was overflowing with the unemployed, now that the slaves were emancipated, and rations were still being controlled by the Union. Even though they were now free, the Bureau attempted to deal with the problem of rebuilding and unemployment by declaring that all men were required to work, or they would be arrested as vagrants. Single mothers were also encouraged to hand their older children over to the former masters as apprentices.

The vote remained exclusive to white, male landowners after ‘black codes’ were put into effect by the Virginia legislature. These codes restricted other rights of the freedmen, including those that were awarded US citizens as they were not viewed as such.  A political group rose in response to these injustices, which became known as the Radicals. They protested for freedmen to become citizens, also demanding evidence that slavery had really been abolished. In the 1866 election, the Radical republicans won large majorities and, with this gain in power, put Virginia and nine other ex-confederate states under military rule. Virginia became known as the ‘First Military District,’ in the country.

shutterstock_728569-1Apart from its political obstacles, the state had other areas which needed to be resurrected. Railroad rebuilding began immediately and additional ones were planned and constructed. In the 1880s, the Pocahontas Coalfield opened in Southwest Virginia, which increased the state’s transportation needs. This growth also encouraged the expansion of existing towns, and coalmining companies began constructing others specifically for their workers and families.

The state’s landscape was also changing dramatically due to the fact that the timber industry was becoming so popular. In the north, Reedville became a centre of the menhaden industry. The fish was farmed and made into oil, fertiliser and food for poultry. The farming industry continued and tobacco once again became a major crop in Richmond, and the surrounding area, with the invention of the cigarette rolling machine. These products made Virginia an international supplier, and prosperity increased.


After the slaves were emancipated, the entire way of life in the United States changed. In Virginia, many of the large plantations were divided and the business of farming was reformed. Plantation owners entered into labour contracts with former slaves, and a system known as sharecropping emerged. The worker would tend to the crop and livestock and, after the harvest, would share the crop with the land owner. They would also be entitled to a percentage of any that was sold. Theoretically this gave freedmen a chance to have an income, while maintaining control of their lives. In practice, this supposedly fair division rarely occurred and disputes were always settled in the farmers’ favour.

Missionaries set up schools for the former slaves and both children and adults flocked to them. Becoming educated marked a new era in the war against slavery and citizens of Virginia were generally supportive of this. One of the first African-American schools, Chimborazo School, was established in 1865 in Richmond and by 1870 it was one of many recognised as part of the city’s educational system. This further integration of the newly freed slaves into society encouraged the state’s growth and Virginia continued to thrive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s