May 20, 1861 – The Provisional Confederate Congress approved a measure relocating the national capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia.
Legislators hoped that moving to Richmond would strengthen Virginia’s support for the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis had initially opposed such a move because Richmond was much closer to the U.S. than Montgomery. However, he acknowledged that Virginians had made a tremendous sacrifice to join the Confederacy, knowing their state would be a prime invasion target. Thus, Davis endorsed the bill.
The next day the Provisional Congress approved a resolution “that this Congress will adjourn on Tuesday next, to meet again on the 20th day of July, at Richmond, Virginia.” Davis was authorized to move his executive department from Montgomery to Richmond at any time before July 20, and if any change in the war should “render it impolitic to meet in Richmond,” Davis could call Congress into session at any other place of his choosing.
Most members of Congress agreed that placing the Confederate government in Richmond would gain them a military and psychological advantage. However, it would also place them within near the mounting conflict in northern Virginia, and protecting Richmond would become a key military strategy that left the Confederacy vulnerable in other military theaters.
On May 27, President Davis and other Confederate officials boarded the rear coach of a train to move the executive department from Montgomery to Richmond. Fellow passengers did not know Davis was on the train until people cheered him from station platforms along the journey, hailing him as “Jeff Davis” and “the old Hero.”
Davis arrived to a two-gun salute on the 29th, and Richmond became inundated with government officials soon thereafter. Prominent Virginians such as Governor John Letcher and other dignitaries greeted Davis at the station with a carriage drawn by four white horses.
Letcher and the Richmond mayor traveled with Davis to the Spotswood Hotel, where the president delivered a speech from the hotel balcony. Davis later inspected troops at the fairgrounds and delivered another speech. He called his audience “the last best hope of liberty… The country relies on you. Upon you rest the hopes of our people; and I have only to say, my friends, that to the last breath of my life I am wholly your own.” The Richmond Daily Enquirer reported, “The mantel of (George) Washington falls gracefully upon his shoulders. Never were a people more enraptured with their Chief Magistrate than ours are with President Davis.”
Shortly after arriving in Richmond, Davis received a briefing on the state’s military situation. Currently three armies guarded the three most important (and vulnerable) regions:
- General Joseph E. Johnston guarded the Shenandoah Valley from Harpers Ferry
- General P.G.T. Beauregard guarded northern Virginia from Manassas
- Generals Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder guarded the seaward approach to Richmond from Norfolk and the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers
The Blue Ridge Mountains separated Johnston and Beauregard, the two commanders closest to Washington. However, their troops were close enough to each other to join forces if needed.
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5952, 5962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 45-46; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2580; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 76-77, 79; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 630-32; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261