Nestled on the bank of the James River in Richmond, Virginia, near the American Civil War Museum, the Tredegar Iron Works began operating in 1837. The name Tredegar honored engineers Rhys Davies and his crew who were recruited from the Tredegar Mills in Wales. The proximity to railroads and canal boats made this location ideal.
On this very hot and lazy Saturday afternoon, with temperatures upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, locals were sunbathing on the beach nearby.
First producing iron for railroads and then cannon, Tredegar Enterprise did not rise to fame until 1842 when the U.S. Navy ordered 100 cannon. Within eighteen years, Tredegar became the largest ironworks in the South, an important factor in the Confederate decision to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia in 1861.
The American Civil War Museum is located in the Gun Foundry which was built in 1861. The opening salvo on April 12, 1861 at Ft. Sumter was fired by a cannon cast at Tredegar Iron Works. By the end of the American Civil War, Tredegar cast more than 1,160 cannon.
Tredegar also made iron products, ammunition for the Spanish American War, WWI, and WWII, eventually closing in 1986 due to slow demand for iron goods which were replaced by steel.
Joseph Reid Anderson bought out various stockholders and became the sole owner of Tredegar in 1860 when it was the fourth largest ironworks in the country.
A secessionist, Anderson wanted to unite the South and requested a Brigadier General appointment in the Confederate Army which he held until the summer of 1862. At that time, he resigned his commission as he was more valuable to the confederacy as leader of the iron works.
After the federal government confiscated the Confederate war industry, Anderson persuaded President Andrew Johnson to pardon him and to return his property which had been confiscated. He ran Tredegar until his death in 1892.
One of the largest employers in Virginia, Tredegar had recruited workers from Great Britain, Germany, the North, and even hired slaves who were trained as blacksmiths, teamsters, boatmen, and skilled ironworkers.
According to the American Civil War Museum archives, “In 1847, the white workers who usually held these skilled jobs, demanded that Anderson stop bringing in slaves and went on strike. Anderson fired the striking white workers, recruited new workers, and placed slaves in yet more sought-after positions.”
The white labor force shrank between 1861 and 1864 from 86 percent to 25 percent due to Confederate draft and the resignation of Union workers. Until its closing, Tredegar employed between 700 and 1,000 men.
A January 1862 list of “negroes” hired at Tredegar shows 131 slaves and four “free negroes.” The slaves were “housed, fed, clothed, and provided medical care. They earned cash by working overtime or exceeding their daily quota; several bought their own or family members’ freedom. Free black earned the same wages as white workers.” (American Civil War Museum archives)
The outdoor exhibits surrounding Historic Tredegar and the American Civil War Museum display a modern bronze statue of a child sitting on a bench by a man, with the words engraved in stone on a wall behind them, “To bind up the nation’s wounds;” three bronze cupolas from the Virginia State Penitentiary that stood not far from Tredegar and were torn down in 1992, making room for Ethyl Corporation’s laboratories; various Tredegar tools and furnaces; an overshot waterwheel like the many that produced the mechanical energy needed by Tredegar’s furnaces and machinery from 1837 until after the American Civil War.
The waterwheel ran with water from the Kanawha Canal, guided to the top of the wheel and spilled over each bucket, causing the wheel to turn. As it turned, a wind box (a small fan) forced air into the furnace to stoke the fire.
The Historic Tredegar is operated by the non-profit American Civil War Center and the Richmond National Battlefield Park of the National Park Service.
Three stories talk about wartime Richmond, its government, the military, refugees, prisoners, the wounded, and locals whose lives were displaced from 1861-1865 by a civil war that brought national attention to places like Cold Harbor, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, New Market Heights, and transformed farms into battlefields.
The National Park Service displays cannon, memorabilia, limber wagons with six-team of horses that pulled cannon, drums, letters, a well-worn Confederate flag carried in battle by the Richmond regiment, and narrates other interesting facts about southern life, the role of slavery, spies such as Elizabeth Van Lew, most famous Union spy, and other sympathizers who cooperated with the Union. There were Union spies in Richmond just as there were Confederate spies in Washington.
Wealthy Richmonders ran a spy network, “the best-organized one in the Confederacy, utilized safe houses, codes, signals, and clever hiding places, as well as smuggled newspapers, personal letters, and access to Confederate high command.” (National Park museum archives)
Richmond’s 1860 population of 38,000 grew to 80,000 due to the war and the cost of living rose through the roof while housing space became scarce. People had to flee in order to survive. Even a coal cellar was used as living quarters.
Women had to take unsavory jobs in order to survive, even jobs generally done by men. Some turned to prostitution or selling writing paper, sewing kits, and small pies in the streets.
Children had a difficult life in war-torn Richmond. Older ones joined gangs, bullying blacks and poor whites alike. Younger children who sought refuge in Richmond were petty thieves who vandalized property and created general disturbance. Some escaped to Union lines.
Well-to-do Richmonders sent their girls to boarding schools or to live with relatives out of harm’s way. Others were hired to sign Confederate Treasury notes. Poor girls worked in factories and stores. Upper class boys were sent to military schools and became officers.
By 1860, Richmond had five black churches and many black charities. Blacks worked as “domestic and day laborers, but also in tobacco factories, coal mines, flour mills, ironworks, bakeries, construction sites, hotels, and print shops. Free blacks dominated barbering, blacksmiths, street vendors, musicians, and cooks.” (National Park archives)
Blacks and free blacks had to carry passes or free papers at all times, an indignity to the human spirit. Richmond’s war chaos provided opportunities for some to escape to the Union lines.
Massive stonework on the first floor and brick walls on the second floor of the Historic Tredegar show evidence of the woolen mill that burned in 1854 on whose foundation the ironworks building was reconstructed.
The National Park Service describes the atmosphere in Richmond before the Virginia Convention voted to secede on April 17, 1861. “Although some Richmonders were passionate secessionists, many immigrants, merchants, and politicians had little enthusiasm for the Confederacy. Slaves and free blacks waited to see where their advantage lay.” (National Park museum archives)
Richmond became the Union prisoners’ destination. Officers were kept in Libby Prison. Enlisted men, upwards of eight thousand, were held prisoners on Belle Isle on James River. Lew and other Union sympathizers helped officers escape from Libby Prison.
The American Civil War Museum displays on two floors historical accounts and the time line of the Civil War. Films present evidence, facts, and opinions about the war that had torn a nation apart and caused so many casualties on both sides.
Interestingly, the museum presents the causes of the American Civil War as four possible choices and invites the visitor to decide by making careful insinuations:
The U.S. population in 1790 was four million, including 800,000 enslaved Africans in the North and the South. By 1860, the population grew to 31 million, 4 million of which were slaves concentrated in the South.
“While the average value of enslaved women, children, and the elderly was $750 a person, a single field hand could sell for $1,500 (about $25,000 in today’s dollars). The market value of slaves totaled nearly $3 billion, exceeding other U.S. assets such as railroads and factories.” (American Civil War Museum archives)
It is hard to understand man’s inhumanity to man but human trafficking and slavery continue to this day around the world and is swept up under the rug. Few people actually mention it or seriously try to stop it.
The true cost of the American Civil War was tallied at the end by taking into account soldiers lost to disease, battle wounds, and injuries. According to the museum archives, there were “10,455 skirmishes and recorded battles which resulted in over one million casualties (killed, wounded, missing in action, captured, or sick).” Survivors had to live with amputated limbs, depression, and persistent disease which forever changed their quality of life.
The museum had been somewhat sanitized in its revisionist historical opinions presented as a “balanced way to explore the Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives.” The causes of war, the war years, and its legacy, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in reference to freedom, citizenship, and equal protection were explored from different angles.
As we left the somber American Civil War Museum grounds, children’s laughter and playful beach banter echoed from the banks of the James River.
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Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh, Romanian Conservative is a freelance writer, author, radio commentator, and speaker. Her books, “Echoes of Communism”, “Liberty on Life Support” and “U.N. Agenda 21: Environmental Piracy,” “Communism 2.0: 25 Years Later” are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
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