Since the Civil War eventually led to the abolition of slavery in America through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, it’s easy to forget that slavery didn’t end during the war. Slave auctions and other atrocities continued.
This dark, tragic side of history is often overlooked, and today we’ll try to take an honest look at the slave trade going on in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War.
With access to the Atlantic Ocean by the James River, the city was involved in the transatlantic slave trade during the Colonial Years. As tobacco flourished as a cash crop in southeastern and central Virginia, slavery increased.
Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1780 and poised at a communication and transportation crossroads in the state and between the border states and the deep south. Unfortunately, this offered opportunity for slave trade growth, especially by the early 19th century when the importation of captured slaves ceased. Then the slave became interstate with Virginia and Richmond becoming a hub for slave traders.
Wall Street of the Confederacy
By the mid-19th Century only New Orleans had a larger slave trade than Richmond, and Virginia had become the leader in interstate in slave exportation. In 1861 alone, one auction house made $3 million from the sale of human beings. During the Civil War, the slave trade actually accelerated as some slave holders wanted to make a profit before the Yankees arrived; some months, 10,000 slaves were trafficked through Richmond to the other southern states.
The economic power gained from the practice of selling other humans was a major part of the Virginian economy. One way this was recognized at the time was through the name of the slave auction district in Richmond – Wall Street of the Confederacy. The actually street – 15th Street and its surrounding district – sat just three blocks from the Virginia State Capitol building.
Richmond’s Response to the Slave Trade
Let’s be clear about something. Not everyone in Richmond owned slaves or participated in the slave trade. Not all Virginians owned slaves, and for many slavery was not the number one reason for fighting during the Civil War, though slavery was part of the causes of the conflict.
So…how did the white citizens of Richmond respond to the auctions and atrocities in their city? It’s complicated – like most history. Elite society members wanted slaves for their households, but did not want to get involved in the actual slave trade process since it was horrifying and “middle class”; they usually employed a broker or representative to buy the slaves they wanted. Or they rented slaves. Richmond had a complex system for renting or leasing slaves for a year at a time. Middle class white citizens tended to be the owners of the auction houses; that’s not to say all middle class white citizens were involved in the slave trade, but those who were came from the middle class and ended up as “outcasts” from the rest of society.
Richmond had a stigma against the slave trade and the slave traders, but – on the whole – did not try or manage to break that part of their local and state economy prior to the war. From journals and the recorded stigma, it seems Richmond citizens were not comfortable with the slave trade, but took no major actions against it, tending to avoid the subject altogether.
The End of Richmond’s Slave Trade
Sadly, the slave trade reached its economic peak during the Civil War, but the conflict also spelled its doom. In 1863, Lincoln promised emancipation and complete abolishment of slavery would come later with the 13th Amendment. This news eventually made its way to Richmond and into the cells on 15th Street, offering a promise of hope and freedom to those in bondage.
The slave trade continued until 1865 when Union soldiers – some of them African Americans – arrived in Richmond and broke open the cells of Lumpkin’s Jail and other auction houses, freeing the last victims of the slave trade in Richmond.
There is a lot of information available beyond the scope of this short article. The purpose of this article is not to inflame, but to make sure historical facts are shared. It’s too easy to avoid the ugly sides of the Civil War, but we need to discuss issues like this.
If you are looking for more information about the slave trade and Richmond, Virginia, I recommend the book by Jack Trammell The Richmond Slave Trade, published in 2012 by History Press.