The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

About

This website examines the Capitol Disaster of 1870 and consists of parts of a rough draft of a research paper I wrote for a graduate class on American Disasters titled "The Capitol Disaster of 1870: The Politics of Reconstruction in Richmond, Virginia." This website also serves as my final project for the Clio 2 course, taught by Dr. Paula Petrik. To learn more about Clio 2 and the course requirements, visit the course website. I am a doctoral student in History at George Mason University, studying the 19th century South, women and gender, digital history, and public history. To learn more about me and my interests, visit my blog.

Introduction

On April 27, 1870, the gallery and floor of Virginia’s state courtroom collapsed within the Capitol building killing approximately sixty men in what became known as the Capitol Disaster. In the aftermath of the event, political authorities and newspapers painted the disaster as an act of God, a private committee handled relief efforts, and monetary gifts poured into Richmond from cities and businesses all over the country. The men had gathered in the courtroom to hear the outcome of the mayoralty case: George Chahoon and Henry K. Ellyson were both vying for the mayoral seat. The disaster was not a providential event but a culmination of political processes that revealed a highly strained political environment in Virginia’s Reconstruction era. By examining the disaster and its aftermath through the lens of city and state politics, including Reconstruction in Virginia, the Radical Rebellion, and the outcome of the mayoralty case, it is clear that the disaster was caused by and is a reflection of Reconstruction politics. Studying this disaster provides insight into the highly charged political environment in Richmond in 1870, when the state had just been re-admitted to the Union, in which Conservatives were attempting to free Virginia politics from the shackles of Reconstruction policies put in and place and enforced by Radicals.

Disaster studies is a relatively recent addition to the historiography and incorporates interdisciplinary approaches. Anthony Oliver-Smith argues in “Theorizing Disaster” that although disaster is often thought of as an event, the disaster is embodied within a larger process. Oliver-Smith also states that disaster studies are similar to microhistory in that disaster can be used as a lens through which scholars can examine a particular society in a defined time period.[1] Ted Steinberg, in Acts of God, posits that human actors are responsible and culpable for disasters, and that the term “acts of God” is used as a way for those actors to skirt blame. Steinberg finds that disasters intersect with society and culture.[2] In The Culture of Calamity Kevin Rozario studies the American culture of disaster, and argues that disasters generate cultural discourses as well as scientific and historic debates. He also posits that disasters are agents of progress. [3] Uwe Lübken and Christof Mauch, in “Uncertain Environments,” examine the development of the insurance industry as well as the notion of risk, which they argue emerged because of a change in ideology as well as the use of science to understand disaster.[4]

This paper aligns with and will add to the current historiography on disaster studies in several ways. The disaster is examined as an intersection between society and culture, and the paper analyzes the societal, cultural, and political implications of it. In the case of the Capitol Disaster, the political implications are more significant than the cultural discourses that were created in the wake of the collapse at the Capitol, and as such, this paper places more emphasis on the political events that led up to, and occurred after, the disaster. In addition, this disaster is not viewed as a singular event but as a process that began with the Reconstruction Acts, continued with the passage of the Enabling Act by Richmond’s City Council, the election of Ellyson as mayor by the Council, and the ensuing municipal war. The Capital Disaster was a culmination of these various political changes. This paper will argue against Rozario’s thesis that disasters are agents of progress. The Capitol Disaster did not bring about progress for Richmond: neither Chahoon nor Ellyson ultimately served the city of Richmond as mayor; rather, Anthony M. Keiley was fairly elected in November of that year. Prior to Keiley’s election, Richmond floundered in a state of political uncertainty.


Notes

1. Anthony Oliver-Smith, “Theorizing Disaster: Nature, Power, and Culture,” in Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster, edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2002), 23-47.
2. Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), xvii-xxv.
3. Kevin Rozario, The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1-29.
4. Uwe Lübken and Christof Mauch, “Uncertain Environments: Natural Hazards, Risk and Insurance in Historical Perspective,” Environment & History 17, no. 1 (2011): 1-12.
Image of the Capitol building in 1865 from the Library of Congress. Image digitally enhanced by the author.