No Richmond family or neighborhood escaped the hardships brought by the war and an exploding population.
In 1861, when the Confederate government moved to town and the war began, Richmond was nearly overrun with government workers, military officials and — as the Union army advanced — refugees from occupied areas.
Shortages plagued the city almost immediately and prices for everything — rent, food, fuel — rose alarmingly throughout the war. Judith McGuire wrote in the fall of 1862:
“I know a family, accustomed to every luxury at home, now in a damp basement room in Richmond.
“Another family, — consisting of mother and four daughters in one room —is supported by the work of one of the daughters who has an office in the note-signing department. To keep starvation from the house is all that they can do....”
In December of the same year, war department clerk J.R. Jones noted: “It is proposed to drive away the strangers (thousands in number) if they will not leave voluntarily. There are too many people here for the houses, and the danger of malignant diseases very great.”
Later in the war the physical deterioration of the city began to show. Sallie Brock Putnam wrote: “Richmond was growing rusty, dilapidated, and began to assume a war-torn appearance. Very few of the buildings had been brightened by a fresh coat of paint since the commencement of hostilities.”
Yet some of the old Richmond spirit survived. A group of young women organized weekly “Starvation Parties,” sanctioned by Robert E. Lee himself. Constance Cary, one of the party planners, remembered: “It was decided that we should permit no one to infringe the rule of suppressing all refreshment, save the amber-hued water from the classic James.”
But the sad reality was even the most prosperous Richmond families were hurting. Salllie Putnam wrote: “In the stores of our jewelers were frequently seen diamonds and pearls, watches and valuable plates for sale, placed there by some unfortunate, who disposed of these articles of former wealth, luxury and taste, to procure necessary articles of food and raiment.”
The occupation by Federal troops in early April 1865 came as a relief to many Richmond citizens. Prices came down almost immediately as food and other supplies once again flowed into the city. Relief organizations soon set up shop. Sallie Putnam wrote that the agencies distributed “suitable delicacies, and what, indeed, in many instances, seemed luxuries to the sick and enfeebled.”
Dr. Charles Minnigerode — who spoke with a decided German accent — shared his congregation’s ups and downs during the war, delivering fiery sermons supporting the Confederate cause. In a sermon given Jan. 1, 1865, just months before the end of the war, Minnigerode tried to rally his congregation to the Confederate cause:
“Our reverses? NO, BRETHREN. For great as they have been, (and no honest man would hide their extent,) we have had reverses before, and God always has blessed them to us, made them the source of greater harmony among ourselves, roused us to new and greater exertions, and taught us to bear them and repair them as men. What makes the present crisis so painful and so perilous lies not in what the enemy has done to us with his armies, but in what our own coward, faithless, selfish hearts may do."