The Great Fire

Conflict: Civil War

Rubble blanketing the city of Richmond

One April day in 1865, Confederate troops quickly and quietly set fire to their own capital city, erasing memories of a happier time and spelling doom for the Confederacy.

Richmond, Virginia

Four years earlier, as the Civil War began to unfold, the Confederate capital had just been moved from Alabama to Richmond, Virginia. Richmond was a prosperous southern town profiting greatly from its industries, including the Gallego Mills, a sizable flour mill that surpassed all of their national competitors in flour production by the start of the war. These mills and other manufacturing structures transformed the Richmond waterfront into an industrial center made up of some of the largest buildings then standing in America. With the Confederate government now moved to Richmond, they were situated closer to the war front with a better chance of protecting the profitable city.

Richmond, Virginia, at its height

Map of Richmond battlefield in 1862, showing the Confederate forts and their ranges of fire

In April of 1865, the Union Army advanced on Richmond after a nine-month siege of the capital and the nearby city of Petersburg. When it became clear that the Confederacy would have to retreat before the approaching army, President Davis, his cabinet, the army and the inhabitants of Richmond all hastily evacuated the city.

Richmond during the Civil War

Richmond after the evacuation

Soon after the evacuation, a fire began in the city center – an attempt by the Confederates to keep the Union Army from benefiting from their capture of Richmond. Soldiers were ordered to set fire to bridges, the armory and supply warehouses as they retreated.  The great fire, as it became known, raged uncontrolled through the city, destroying twenty blocks of property and structures, including the massive Gallego Mills, whose charred remains became a symbol of the fall of the Confederacy and the destruction left in the wake of the war.

Ruins of the Gallego Flour Mills

It wasn’t until the next day, when the mayor and some civilians surrendered the city, that the fire was finally extinguished by Union troops.

Below are photos of the ruined city’s “Burnt District,” taken in the months following the Evacuation Fire of 1865:

You can find more photos of this event, as well as other Civil War images, in our collection of Civil War Photos.