Rebuilding Virginia

Rebuilding after the War

The Civil War left Virginia in ruins and the state began the process of rebuilding. During the fighting, railroads had been destroyed and plantations burned. Added to this the state was overflowing with the unemployed, now that the slaves were emancipated, and rations were still being controlled by the Union. Even though they were now free, the Bureau attempted to deal with the problem of rebuilding and unemployment by declaring that all men were required to work, or they would be arrested as vagrants. Single mothers were also encouraged to hand their older children over to the former masters as apprentices.

The vote remained exclusive to white, male landowners after ‘black codes’ were put into effect by the Virginia legislature. These codes restricted other rights of the freedmen, including those that were awarded US citizens status as they were not viewed as such.  A political group rose in response to these injustices, which became known as the Radicals. They protested for freedmen to become citizens, also demanding evidence that slavery had really been abolished. In the 1866 election, the Radical republicans won large majorities and, with this gain in power, put Virginia and nine other ex-confederate states under military rule. Virginia became known as the ‘First Military District,’ in the country.

Apart from its political obstacles, the state had other areas which needed to be resurrected. Railroad rebuilding began immediately and additional ones were planned and constructed. In the 1880s, the Pocahontas Coalfield opened in Southwest Virginia, which increased the state’s transportation needs. This growth also encouraged the expansion of existing towns, and coalmining companies began constructing others specifically for their workers and families.

The state’s landscape was also changing dramatically due to the fact that the timber industry was becoming so popular. In the north, Reedville became a centre of the menhaden industry. The fish was farmed and made into oil, fertiliser and food for poultry. The farming industry continued and tobacco once again became a major crop in Richmond, and the surrounding area, with the invention of the cigarette rolling machine. These products made Virginia an international supplier, and prosperity increased.


After the slaves were emancipated, the entire way of life in the United States changed. In Virginia, many of the large plantations were divided and the business of farming was reformed. Plantation owners entered into labor contracts with former slaves, and a system known as sharecropping emerged. The worker would tend to the crop and livestock and, after the harvest, would share the crop with the land owner. They would also be entitled to a percentage of any that was sold. Theoretically this gave freedmen a chance to have an income, while maintaining control of their lives. In practice, this supposedly fair division rarely occurred and disputes were always settled in the farmers’ favor.

Missionaries set up schools for the former slaves and both children and adults flocked to them. Becoming educated marked a new era in the war against slavery and citizens of Virginia were generally supportive of this. One of the first African-American schools, Chimborazo School, was established in 1865 in Richmond and by 1870 it was one of many recognized as part of the city’s educational system. This further integration of the newly freed slaves into society encouraged the state’s growth and Virginia continued to thrive.

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