The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

Relief Efforts

The official relief effort took the form of a committee that was appointed by the state government and was thus an extension and reflection of state power. Efforts to aid the victims of the disaster and their families began almost immediately. Two days after the disaster, the Daily Dispatch noted that there are several families who were “left destitute” as a result, and the paper “trust[ed] that they will be provided for as far as this may be done by contribution for present wants.”[1] The writer of the column entreated citizens of other cities to aid in the relief efforts, and noted that a committee designated to receive and distribute relief funds would be announced either the same day or the next.[2]

A committee of twenty-five men was appointed by the Chamber of Commerce to head the relief efforts. Isaac Davenport, Jr. was elected treasurer and given the power to collect all money received, while John Purcell, John Enders, E.O. Nolting, W.M. Sutton, and Thomas McCance were charged with disbursing the funds. The distribution committee resolved to meet every day at the First National Bank to receive applications for relief. Another committee of ten men was created and charged with determining the conditions of those who applied for aid, and to report their findings to the distribution committee. Each ward of Richmond was assigned a sub-committee of five men who would seek money from the ward’s inhabitants for the relief committee.[3] The relief committee ultimately succeeded in collecting $80,603 and distributing $77,201 to those affected by the disaster.[4] The committee wielded fairly significant power in that it had the ability to determine whether aid applicants were actually eligible for funds. Men with political influence retained their control over how much money would be disbursed, and if such families and widows were worthy of aid. These men acted as agents of the state government, which ultimately held great power in providing relief and aid to those in need.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew, infamous for being a spy for the Union during the Civil War, was working as Richmond’s first female postmaster at the time of the disaster, and was one of the most successful collectors of relief funds. Van Lew wrote letters to acquaintances living in northern states, including Daniel Fox, mayor of Philadelphia, who incorporated her letter into a circular appeal that he distributed to citizens of the city. George Childs, affiliated with the Philadelphia newspaper The Ledger, saw the letter and sent Van Lew a check for $1,000.[5] Van Lew presented the money to the relief committee members, and informed them that if they made her a member, she would give them the check. As the men refused to accept Van Lew into the committee, she did not give them the check. Van Lew informed the committee members that she was expecting to receive a large amount of money as a result of her letters, and since she was raising so much money she should have a say in how it the funds are collected and distributed. Van Lew decided to select her own committee of men from both political parties to distribute any funds that she received.[7] Interestingly, Van Lew’s proposition to create her own committee was not reported on in the conservative Richmond daily paper, but Petersburg’s Index did run the news. Van Lew presents an interesting and unique lens through which to examine the disaster. Already wielding tremendous power at that time for a woman, Van Lew shows how she was able to subvert traditional gender roles and position herself as an actor with great political and social clout.

These expressions of support and sympathy demonstrate how the disaster was a unifying force that crossed regional and political lines.

Resolutions expressing support and sympathy for Richmond and its sufferers came from across the country, as did monetary donations to the relief fund. The city of Frederick, Maryland sent a resolution and contribution of $193.50.[7] The newspaper Baltimore American contributed $1000, and the Brooklyn Life Insurance Company offered $100 to the relief fund.[8] Governor Alcorn of Mississippi wrote Governor Walker a letter and offered resolutions.[9] The city of Philadelphia sent their “heartfelt sympathies and condolences in this the sad hour of their affliction” to the people of Richmond.[10] These expressions of support and sympathy demonstrate how the disaster was a unifying force that crossed regional and political lines. Northern and southern cities alike donated money to the victims of the disaster, passed resolutions, and wrote letters of support. The Civil War had only ended five years previously, but the disaster was a means of political unification for the states that had until recently been political enemies.

After a day of public mourning, business continued in the city as usual, though the Capitol building wouldn’t be occupied for several months as it underwent repairs. Wednesday, May 4, a week to the day that the disaster occurred, was set aside as a day of humiliation and prayer on the suggestion of Governor Walker. The city government, schools, and businesses closed, and the people of Richmond went to church to “humble themselves before Almighty God and implore His aid in learning the lessons of His inscrutable providence.”[11] On May 6, the General Assembly approved a joint resolution allowing the state to purchase Sycamore Church for its use while the Capitol building was undergoing repairs. It wasn’t until October 5 that a joint resolution was passed allowing the House of Delegates to resume its sessions in the now-repaired Capitol.[12]


Notes

1. “Relief for the Suffering,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1870.
2. “Relief for the Suffering,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1870.
3. “The Recent Calamity – Action of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 30, 1870.
4. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 3, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.
5. “Aid for the Sufferers,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 3, 1870.
6. “Our Richmond Letter” and “The Late Calamity in Richmond,” Petersburg Index, May 3, 1870.
7. Valerius Ebert to Gilbert Carleton Walker, May 18, 1870, box 1, folder 2, Executive Papers of Governor Gilbert Carleton Walker.
8. Charles C. Fulton to Gilbert Carleton Walker, telegram, April 30, 1870, box 9, folder 4, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Executive Papers, 1866-1878, Library of Virginia; B.M. Bouck to Gilbert Carleton Walker, May 11, 1870, box 9, folder 4, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Executive Papers.
9. James Lynch to Gilbert Carleton Walker, May 23, 1870, box 9, folder 4, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Executive Papers.
10. Washington J. Jackson to Gilbert Carleton Walker, telegram, April 29, 1870, box 9, folder 4, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Executive Papers.
11. Local Matters,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 3, 1870.
12. Relative to buildings and Capitol Disaster, Acts of Assembly, 1869-70, page 77, Capitol Square Data for Mr. W.W. Savedge, box 1, folder 5, Capitol Square Data.
13. Relative to buildings and Capitol Disaster, Acts of Assembly, 1869-70, page 192 (cont’d.), Capitol Square Data for Mr. W.W. Savedge, box 1, folder 5, Capitol Square Data.
Image of Elizabeth Van Lew from the National Park Service.