The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

The Radical Rebellion

The political environment in Richmond grew tense in March 1870. Despite Republican opposition, the Enabling Act was passed on March 2, 1870, which allowed the governor to remove militarily appointed office holders and replace them with other officials who would serve in their capacity until a new election was called.[1] Walker appointed members to a newly organized Council for the City of Richmond. The council elected Henry K. Ellyson, a Conservative and one of the publishers of Richmond’s newspaper the Daily Dispatch, mayor of Richmond on March 16.[2] Ellyson notified Chahoon that he would be assuming office the following day. Chahoon, who found the authority of the Council illegitimate, refused to give up his mayoral seat. Chahoon’s refusal was the catalyst that signaled the beginning of the Radical Rebellion.[3]

George Chahoon

George Chahoon

The Radical Rebellion, or the Municipal War as it was termed by the Daily Dispatch, involved political and military events that resulted from the political upheaval caused by the Enabling Act. The day following Ellyson’s election by the council, Major Poe, Ellyson’s chief of police, went to police headquarters to assume command. Captains Parker and Callahan refused to turn over the station to Poe, stating that they would obey Chahoon’s orders until Ellyson was elected by the people. Ellyson and Poe established their headquarters at 1114 Main Street, and Ellyson sent Chahoon a letter asking him to turn over all property, books, and records that belonged to the city of Richmond.

Rumors were floating around the city that both sides were preparing for armed resistance. Ellyson swore in 200 white men to a special police force, and dispatched twenty-five men under the command of Captain Pleasants to fortify and hold City Hall. Chahoon established his headquarters at the Old Market, and swore in twenty-five African American men to serve as special policemen under the command of Ben Scott, an African American. Chahoon wrote to Governor Walker warning him that “a serious breach of the peace may arise in the discharge of [his] duties as mayor.”[4] Governor Walker wrote back to Chahoon, stating that Ellyson had been appointed and qualified as mayor of the city in accordance with an act of Virginia’s General Assembly. Walker told Chahoon that his authority as mayor had ceased once the City Council elected Ellyson to the position. Chahoon had Ellyson arrested, but Ellyson was quickly released from police custody and posted bail.

By midnight on March 17, Ellyson held the police headquarters at 1441 Main Street, City Hall, and the engine houses. Chahoon remained stationed at Old Market. Ellyson had cut off the Market’s supplies of gas and water, and was not allowing anyone into the Market to give Chahoon and his men food. Chahoon wrote to Ellyson stating that he did not recognize his election by the Council as valid in accordance with Virginia’s constitution.[5] On March 18, a crowd of African Americans gathered outside the Old Market. Poe ordered the streets clear of loiterers, and the force of special policemen under Ellyson’s command attempted to enforce his order. A fracas broke out between the black supporters of Chahoon and the white members of the special police force, and Daniel Henderson, an African American, was shot and died from his injury a few hours later.[6] The events of March 17 and 18 reveal the degree to which Richmond citizens were split on racial lines over the legitimacy of Ellyson’s mayoral seat; the commitment of those citizens to either Ellyson or Chahoon, their respective political parties and policies; and the highly vulnerable political environment. These two days show how high political tensions were within the city and how those tensions played out in public space by both political and non-political actors.

The events of March 17 and 18 reveal the degree to which Richmond citizens were split on racial lines over the legitimacy of Ellyson’s mayoral seat; the commitment of those citizens to either Ellyson or Chahoon, their respective political parties and policies; and the highly vulnerable political environment.

Despite the social upheaval, the death of Daniel Henderson, and the disruption of the peace that ensued from their political struggles, Chahoon and Ellyson continued to bicker over the legitimacy of the Enabling Act and the mayoral seat. The mayoralty case was taken to the Circuit Court, and on March 31, after a week of hearing the case, Judge Underwood ordered “the defendant Ellyson shall no longer assume to perform the functions of mayor of this city under a color of a void and unconstitutional act.”[7] Despite Underwood’s ruling, Ellyson refused to give up City Hall and filed an injunction against Chahoon in which he sought to restrain Chahoon from performing any mayoral duties or possessing any buildings or properties of the city of Richmond.[8] The Circuit Court demanded that Ellyson give up possession of City Hall, but Ellyson refused.[9] Deputy marshals Billing and Leahy served Ellyson a writ that gave them the power to eject Ellyson from City Hall, and to put the building and other city property in the possession of Chahoon, but Ellyson still refused to leave.[10] Finally Chahoon and Ellyson agreed that on April 11 they would submit the case to the Virginia Court of Appeals, which consisted of Judge R.C.L. Monocure, Waller R. Staples, Joseph Christian, William Joynes, and Francis Anderson. Both sides argued their case, and on April 20 the court began their deliberations.[11] After being played out in the public sphere to no success, Chahoon and Ellyson were forced to take their battle for the mayoralty seat to the Court.


Notes

1. Moore, “The Elusive Center,” 221.
2. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 1, George Chahoon Papers, 1870-1934, Library of Virginia; information pertaining to the Dispatch and Ellyson’s political leanings from Edwin J. Slipek, “The Mayor Time Forgot,” Style Weekly, November 2, 2005, 2.
3. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 1, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.
4. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 18, 1870.
5. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 18, 1870.
6. "The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 19, 1870.
7. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 1, 1870.
8. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 2, 1870.
9. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 4, 1870.
10. “The Municipal War,” Richmond Times Dispatch, April 5, 1870.
11. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 2, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.
Portrait of George Chahoon from Edgar L. Murlin, The New York Red Book (Albany: James B. Lyon, 1897), 162. Image digitally enhanced by the author.