The Revolution in Richmond: Part 1 of 3

Richmond, Virginia was a village of 300 homes during the Revolution. Its residents were concentrated in the modern neighborhoods of Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill. Most of its few houses lined Main Street, with warehouses and workshops along the waterfront where the James River is very shallow. Williamsburg was still the capital when the war broke out.

Although best known for its Civil War history, Richmond has many important sites related to the Revolution that are overshadowed by that later conflict. Foremost among them is St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his “Liberty or Death” speech in 1775.

Virginia’s first public reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred in front of the Henrico County Courthouse on Main Street. A newspaper reported:

On Monday last, being Court Day, the Declaration of Independence was publicly proclaimed to the town of Richmond, before a large concourse of respectable concourse of freeholders of Henrico County, and upwards of 200 militia, assembled on that great occasion. It was received with the universal shouts of joy, and re-echoed by three volleys of small arms. The same evening the town was illuminated, and the members of the committee held a club, where many patriotic toasts were drunk. Although there were near 1,000 people present, the whole was conducted with the utmost decorum, and the satisfaction visible on every countenance officially evidences their determination to support with their lives and fortunes

Feeling Williamsburg was too close to the coast, the Capital was moved in 1780, and the first session of the General Assembly in Richmond convened in May at a tobacco warehouse confiscated from a Loyalist. The site was a nondescript building at the corner of 14th and Main Streets, today occupied by the First Freedom Center. This museum highlights the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted on the site in 1788. The state government would meet here until the new Capitol building on Shockoe Hill was completed after the war.

Not only was Richmond a center of trade and commerce, local government, eventually state government, but it was also the site of a skirmish. In January 1781, newly minted British General Benedict Arnold landed in Portsmouth, on the coast. He launched a raid up the James, landing about twelve miles from the city on January 4.

The rapid arrival of the British set the town into a panic. Roughly 200 local militia commanded by Major Alexander Dick hastily gathered to defend the new capital.

Approaching on the Williamsburg Road in the valley below were Arnold’s 1,600 troops, consisting of British soldiers, Hessian riflemen, and Loyalist troops. Seeing the Americans on the heights, Arnold sent the Hessians to flank the Americans on their left, they ascended this hill in the vicinity of modern Glenwood Avenue. The militia here fired a volley, then fled in confusion, allowing Arnold’s troops to occupy the town.

For the last few years, several groups have partnered to tell this story and restore Richmond’s Revolutionary history. On Sunday, January 5, 2020, staff from Richmond National Battlefield Park and St. John’s Church Foundation will offer living history demonstrations, guided tours, and presentations focused on Richmond in the Revolution.

More information about the event is here: http://www.nps.gov/rich/

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