1912 sketch

A 1912 sketch from prisoner Henry Vander Wedye entitled "Morning Toilette" shows where Vander Weyde and fellow prisoner George H. Putnam slept. The sketch is on display at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History. 

However future generations view the appellation of “Last Capital of the Confederacy,” history cannot be rewritten and reroute the train of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to a city other than Danville.

In Danville April 3-10, Davis and his Cabinet stayed at the home of William T. Sutherlin on Main Street, which now houses the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, and there signed the final proclamation of the Confederacy.

Ready for her role that fateful April of 1865, Danville had remained relatively unscathed by the war that had decimated other Virginia cities. The city had endured and even prospered during the conflict.

Hundreds of Danville’s sons had marched off bravely to fight, but the area itself had not been the scene of any major battles nor had starvation and privation stalked her streets.

The city actually did quite well during the Civil War, said Lawrence McFall Jr., a Danville and Civil War historian and author of “Danville in the Civil War.”

“Danville was busy and flourishing,” he said.

By 1860, with a population of 3,500 in the city, 50 percent had been involved with the tobacco industry in some aspect, including women. Danville had five schools, four churches, five banks, two newspapers and more than 40 businesses manufacturing tobacco products, his book recounts.

Even with tobacco farmers off at war, the railroad brought a lot of money into town, making Danville a “major economic beneficiary of the war,” according to McFall.

“Many new out-of-town tobacco men also came to town and quickly filled the void. In addition, nearby county residents were moving into town and local commerce flourished.

“For example, James C. Voss ran a clothing store and was forced to have shipped-in ready-made suits because his tailors simply could not produce enough of them to meet the demand. Danville became a hub of wagon roads. Of course, the Richmond and Danville Railroad was the biggest shot-in-the-arm.”

Fleeing the war in Petersburg, Richmond and Lynchburg, tobacco manufacturers found refuge for their operations behind the battle lines in Danville.

Pocket of prosperity

“Between the Lines, 1861-1865,” a permanent exhibit at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, which explores the effect of the Civil War on the people of Danville, notes that the city was “one of the pockets of greater prosperity and plenty.” Because it was a supply depot, the city remained well stocked and “the government’s generosity to its people kept hunger at bay.”

The records of the Town Council indicate that Danville outspent other Virginia cities in caring for their own, and “The Corporation,” as the government was known, provided for the left-behind families of the soldiers and the poor.

Refugees from other war-beleaguered cities also fled to Danville, expanding the population. By 1862 the population had expanded to 6,000 from the 1860 census of 3,500.

No major battles

Miles away from major battlegrounds thus far, Danville’s soil and that of nearby Pittsylvania County had not been soaked with the blood of fallen soldiers, although both had sent off soldiers to the cause.

“An outpouring of patriotism in Danville at the beginning of the war was rampant. They were anxious to rush off and beat those Yankees and be back home. They thought if they missed one battle, they would miss the whole war,” McFall said.

The number of soldiers from Danville was probably close to 600 with as high as 28 percent not returning home, many of them dead from disease, McFall said. From his work tracking down the war dead for the Danville Veterans Memorial, McFall quickly recalled that between Danville and Pittsylvania County, 3,424 soldiers went off to fight.

He said it is hard to say how many soldiers from Danville enlisted because numbers could be deceptive since some soldiers left in one unit, got wounded and came home in another unit.

The closest battles

The closest battle to Danville, however, was actually a cavalry skirmish in Axton, which occurred on the morning of April 7, 1865, when 250 horsemen of the 6th Tennessee Cavalry tried to impede the advance on Danville of 800 Union cavalrymen under Col. William J. Palmer, according to McFall. There were several Union casualties, who were buried in what became the National Cemetery on Lee Street and then were later moved.

The closest true battle was the final one in Appomattox on April 8, about 80 miles away. The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, in which Lee lost about one-third of his army, was about the same distance away from Danville.

Danville also sent 200 soldiers to the Battle of Staunton River Bridge, about 54 miles away, in which two of the soldiers lost their lives — Thomas H. Wilkerson and Jordan Bell. The families were given a barrel of bacon for their service.

The Home Guard, consisting of the boys aged 16-18 and the men 45-55, were charged with protecting the city as early as 1861 “from invasion from without and insurrection from within,” according to McFall’s book.

Changes in life

Nevertheless, life was not without monumental changes for the ones left behind.

With the military-age men away, the women had to assume the normal tasks of the men, whether it be on the farm or in the shops, according to the exhibit.

Even the wealthy women began to suffer, not able to leave their homes and struggling with unfamiliar responsibilities, such as physical labor and the management of slaves.

One such woman, Kate Foster, recorded in November of 1863, “I came near ruining myself for life as I was too delicately raised for such hard work.”

Union prisons

Gazing upon Union prisons was also a frequent occurrence in everyday Danville life. Six buildings, empty tobacco warehouses, were used as the prisons beginning Nov. 7, 1864. Robert E. Lee had contacted James Seddon, Secretary of War, to set up temporary prisons in Danville in October of 1864. Within two weeks he had the prisons up and running, basically by putting bars on the windows of warehouses lying unused.

“Ultimately, there were about 7,500 Union prisoners in Danville, although not all at the same time; they were constantly coming and going,” McFall said. “Typical of Civil War prisons, they were overcrowded and the food wasn’t that good, but in every published history about the prisons, which are eight to 10, the citizenry of Danville is always spoken highly of for bringing in foodstuffs to the prisoners.”

The record of prisoner Alfred S. Roe states, “During the months of August and September, we are given corn bread and occasionally a soup made of refuse bits of bacon … Sometimes a rat is caught, and those initiated claim he makes an excellent soup.”

Even the commandant of the prisons didn’t want to be here, McFall said. He wanted to be out in the field fighting because he couldn’t stand to see the agony of the prisoners.

Well fortified

Danville was well fortified, or so the citizens thought. Three examples of the fortifications, also called “earthworks” or “ramparts,” can still be seen in the city. Two are above the Public Works Complex on South Boston Road and one is on private property. Access is restricted to these sites.

“Their purpose was pretty much to overlook the Dan River, not necessarily to protect the river but to protect the low ground around the river. They were originally constructed to prevent Danville from a raid to free the prisoners,” McFall said. “The fortifications extended parallel to the river from what was called ‘Breastworks Hill’ on the west side of Fall Creek to Audubon Drive and on the south side across to where Mount Vernon Church now stands.”

They were probably not manned, except by the Home Guard and then only after periods of excitement, such as after the Lynchburg Raid in June 1864, McFall said.

The largest of the fortifications was a six-gun battery on Front Street in the area where North Main Street now is and which was noted by several of the Union occupation troops, one calling it the “Silent Sentinel.”

A well-preserved cannon ball was dug up in a garden on Henry Street in the 1930s.

The morning after Davis arrived in town, he inspected Danville’s garrisons and pronounced them “as faulty in location as construction,” said McFall, and started rebuilding.

“Of course, they only had one week to work on them, and,” McFall added with a chuckle, “they had been constructed by a music professor (Charles de Nordendorf) at Methodist Female College.”

De Nordendorf had previous military engineering training in Prussia.

Looking ahead

Fortified to some degree. More prosperous than most Virginia cities. Removed from the front lines. Such was the homefront of Danville the week of April 3-10 when Jefferson Davis packed his bags, boarded the train and set his sights on the city beside the Dan River with hopes to re-supply, re-organize and re-group his exhausted, hungry and flagging soldiers.

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Elzey is a freelance writer for the Register & Bee. She can be reached at susanelzey@yahoo.com or (434) 791-7991.

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