The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

Reconstruction in Virginia

Reconstruction was a transitory time of political and social upheaval in Virginia and the South. With the passage of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, the South was divided into military districts, all five of which were put under the command of a general to act as head of government in the region. The state governments of the former Confederate states were tasked with creating new state constitutions, ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, and granting voting rights to African American men. Congress had to approve the proposed state constitutions before the states could be readmitted to the Union. Virginia was designated as Military District Number One and put under the control of Major General John M. Schofield.[1]

African Americans voted for the first time that year when they cast votes for a constitutional convention, in which approximately two-dozen African American men were elected to serve.

With the tightening of federal control and the converse weakening of state power, Virginia citizens, both white and black, seized the opportunity to gain political agency and attempted to enact major reform. Schofield initiated changes within the state government, including appointing Radical George Chahoon mayor of Richmond on May 4, 1868, and Henry H. Wells governor of Virginia in the same year.[2] African Americans voted for the first time that year when they cast votes for a constitutional convention, in which approximately two-dozen African American men were elected to serve. Members of the convention drafted the Underwood Constitution, named after the federal district judge of the region. The proposed constitution enfranchised black males, barred former Confederate officers from holding public office, disenfranchised former Confederate officers, and called for the creation of free public schools in addition to changes to county and local governments.[3] Virginia citizens voted to ratify the Underwood Constitution on July 6, 1869 by a vote of 210,585 to 9,135 but rejected the disenfranchisement and test oath clause.[4] Despite Virginia’s new constitution mandating universal male suffrage, the crafters of the document created a loophole so that the General Assembly was allowed to create voter registration laws, a foreshadowing of political barriers to come in the Jim Crow era.[5]

Ruins in Richmond

Ruins in Richmond, 1865

Once the new Constitution was ratified and the necessary changes to Virginia’s governmental structure took place, Congress approved the Act to Admit the State of Virginia to Representation in the Congress of the United States on January 26, 1870, and Virginia was readmitted into the Union.[6] Conservative and native New-Yorker Gilbert Carleton Walker was elected governor, and assumed office that same day, replacing Schofield-appointed Henry H. Wells.[7] With Virginia’s re-admittance into the Union, Richmond’s local politics and governmental structure would soon undergo dramatic changes as former Confederate sympathizers attempted to wrest political control away from Radical Republicans.


1. Richard G. Lowe, “Virginia’s Reconstruction Convention. General Schofield Rates the Delegates,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80, no. 3 (1972): 341-342.
2. “The Mayoralty Case,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 30, 1870.
3. Louis Moore, “The Elusive Center: Virginia Politics and the General Assembly, 1869-1871,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 103, no. 2 (1995): 210; name of constitution from George L. Christian, The Capitol Disaster: A Chapter of Reconstruction in Virginia (Richmond: Richmond Press, Inc., 1915), 6.
4. Christian, The Capitol Disaster, 8; Moore, “The Elusive Center,” 214.
5. Moore, “The Elusive Center,” 215.
6. Department of State to Gilbert Carleton Walker, January 26, 1870, box 1, folder 2, Executive Papers of Governor Gilbert Carleton Walker, 1869-1874, Library of Virginia.
7. Christian, The Capitol Disaster, 8-9.
Image of Richmond ruins from Library of Congress. Image digitally enhanced by the author.