Unless otherwise noted, all images provided by the Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Civil War Williamsburg

The City of Williamsburg, at the beginning of the Civil War bore, little resemblance to its eighteenth century past as Virginia's second capital (1699-1780) and even less to its modern counterpart, restored Colonial Williamsburg.  After the legislature and state governor departed Williamsburg for Richmond in 1780, the old colonial capital settled into a period of slumber and decay. The town became known as a quiet, sleepy place with shaded streets, roaming livestock, old decrepit buildings, a college, and a lunatic asylum.  The 1860 census for Williamsburg (both free and slave schedules) listed a total of 1,895 persons, of whom 743 were slaves, living in the city limits or at the lunatic asylum.  The leading citizens were doctors, lawyers, gentleman farmers, and prosperous merchants.  Most of the slaves were listed as house servants and usually resided in town within their master’s household. 

Map from Civil War Williamsburg by Carson O. Hudson, Jr., published 1997 by and used with the permission of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Contemporary names provided with 19th century equivalents in parenthesis)

Duke of Gloucester Street, the honorable name the Virginia General Assembly gave the wide, principal roadway of the new capital in 1699, was simply called Main Street by residents two centuries later.  It's parallel side streets (Francis and Nichol-son), named for the city's planner Gov. Francis Nicholson, were just referred to as “the back streets.” Present-day Jamestown and Richmond Roads, intersecting at the west end of town, were called Mill Road and Stage Road, respectively. At the east end of town, Waller Street was known as Gallows Street; and the road that left town towards Yorktown and Hampton, now named York Street, was referred to as Wood-pecker Street due to the red-roofed houses along it.  None of the streets or sidewalks were paved, and there were no street lamps. Traffic on the sandy-clay surfaces in dry weather stirred up dust clouds and sank deep in quagmires in wet weather.

View from the College of William and Mary looking east on Main Street (present Duke of Gloucester Street), ca. 1870


West End of Town

There was no railroad station or tele-graph office in 19th century Williams-burg.  There were also no banks or pub-lic schools.  There were about nine pri-vate schools, most notably the College of William and Mary at the far west end of Main Street. Chartered in 1693, it was the first college in the colony.  The main building on campus was (and still is) the Wren Building. It burned for the second time in early 1859. Before the end of the year, though, a third Wren 

Building with two Italianate-style towers at its entrance had been con-structed.  The town did have the only newspaper between Richmond and Norfolk.  Brothers Robert and Edward Lively published The Weekly Gazette and Eastern Virginia Advertiser from their mother's home at the west end of town on the site presently occupied by Binn's Fashion Store in Merchants Square. The newspaper survives today as the Virginia Gazette

Lithograph of the third Wren Building, ca. 1859-1862


Market Square & Palace Green

The 1770 Courthouse and Powder Horn at the center of Main Street in Market Square must have at times re-minded residents of their glorious past as Virginia's colonial capital.  The Courthouse was still in use, but the Powder Horn suffered the ignominy of being used variously as a meeting space, market house, and even dance classes.  A large, Greek Revival-style Baptist church and new District Courthouse were built on either side of the Powder

Horn between 1856-1859. The colonial Governor's Palace, though, was only a memory. Once prominently situated at the north end of the Palace Green, it had burned down in 1781. Its East and West Advance buildings were all that re-mained, and they were now used solely as private residences. At the south end of the Palace Green still stood Bruton Parish Church.  The church had been in use since 1715, first as an Anglican and then Episcopal church.

View of Market Square looking west, ca. 1898-1902 (Baptist Church, Powder Horn, and District Courthouse on left and 1770 Courthouse on right)

Bruton Parish Church, ca. 1890


East End of Town

At the far east end of Main Street, the old Capitol building had suffered an inglorious fate.  The eastern half  had been torn down in 1793, and its bricks sold.  In 1832, the abandoned remains of the western half succumbed to fire. On that site now stood the Female Academy, an exclusive girl's school 

built in 1849.  Near the school in the blocks between present-day Colonial and Botetourt Streets, there were no buildings.  Fire had gutted these blocks in 1842, and only empty foundations remained, serving as swimming pools for the town's children in the summer and ice skating rinks in the winter.

19th century lithograph of the Female Academy


Election of 1860

Decades of sectional tensions between northern and southern states over the expansion of slavery boiled over in the presidential election of 1860. The Dem-ocratic Party split over the issue, resulting in four candidates running for president. Virginia had historically voted Democratic.  On Nov. 6, though, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party narrowly won in Virginia and Williamsburg.  Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican Party did not support the expansion of slavery, won the election without carrying a single southern state. Virginia, in fact, was the only state of those that would eventually secede from the Union in which ballots for Lincoln were even distributed.  He received no votes in Williamsburg.  

Events occurred rapidly after the election.  By February 1861, seven Deep South states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The Virginia General Assembly called a special convention to consider secession. On April 4, two-thirds of the delegates, including Williamsburg's, opposed secession. Thirteen days later, after Confederates bombarded Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and President Lincoln called for volunteers to put down "the rebellion," two-thirds of the delegates, including Williamsburg's, voted for secession subject to public referendum.  On May 23, Virginians voted overwhelmingly for secession. Williamburg's citizens voted unanimously for it. Virginia was now a Con-federate state and Williamsburg a Confederate town.


View from the old Capitol site looking west on Main Street, ca. 1905-1921 (Vest Mansion on left)

View looking west on present-day Nicholson Street towards the George Wythe House, ca. 1898 (Bruton Parish on left)


Confederate Williamsburg

With secession and the coming of war, the quiet town awakened. Williamsburg eagerly embraced the new Confederate States.  Secession flags flew in town, and a local, dormant volunteer military unit called the Williamsburg Junior Guard reformed.  When 90% of the students and faculty at the college en-listed in the Confederate military, the institution had to close. The Female Academy did likewise. The town soon became the mustering ground in East-ern Virginia for troops from all over the Confederacy. There were balls, drilling, parades, and presentations. The first Mardi Gras parade in Virginia was held on Williamsburg's Main Street by

Louisiana soldiers in March 1862. Along with the soldiers and celebra-tions, though, came disease.  Crowded conditions and unsanitary camps often made half the men in a regiment sick during their first months of service. In 1861, Williamsburg became home to the first Confederate military hospital. Mrs. Letitia Tyler Semple, daughter of ex-president John Tyler and a town resident, received permission from the Confederate Secretary of War to establish a hospital in the vacant Female Academy. The hospital opened in late May, but by June, Mrs. Semple was forced to use the college and churches to quarter the number of sick soldiers.


The 1770 Courthouse (photo ca. 1900) was used as the morgue during and following the May 5, 1862 battle

Garrett House, ca. 1907 (Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William & Mary)

The Reality of War

After exactly a year as a Confederate town, Williamsburg faced the reality of war. The atmosphere suddenly changed to one of confusion and fear.  On May 5, with a battle near its doorsteps, the entire town became a hospital for wounded soldiers as casualties flowed into the public buildings, private homes, and open greens.  The venerable 1770 Courthouse became the morgue, and its once beautiful green a muddy field hospital. Young Victoria King stood along Main Street all day in the rain passing out biscuits and meat to Confederate soldiers slogging into and out of the fighting.  Even the mayor, Dr. Robert M. Garrett, opened his front lawn, home, and surgery to both Confederate and Union wounded.  As the last of the Confed-erate Army evacuated at dawn on May 6, many citizens felt abandoned and wonder-ed if they should leave or stay.  Later that same day, the Union Army entered the town, and thus began the saddest period of Williamsburg’s long history. The town was occupied by Federal troops and governed by martial law for three long years.