On the Burned Ruins of Richmond

Published:June 13, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Burnt Richmond: 1865

I was in Richmond recently and I wondered aloud whether the city had been burned during the Civil War. This was, perhaps, a stupid question, but I’m from Iowa. So there you go. “Yes,” my companions patiently informed me, “Richmond had been burned to the ground”—but the passive voice, as they say, was used. And perhaps that’s because the Yankees didn’t light the torch.

Take a look at the above photo. It’s natural to want to compare the city’s ruins to Berlin or Dresden during the Second World War. In fact, James Loewen tells us in Lies Across America that some history textbooks do just that—but without explaining “that the departing Confederates burned it, or that Union forces saved much of the city.”

“A librarian at the Virginia State Library told me of an 1876 map that shows ‘everything they didn’t burn,’” Loewen writes. “‘Everything who didn’t burn?’ I asked. ‘Everything we didn’t burn,’ she admitted, also letting slip her Confederate identification; ‘I try not to get into that.’”

This to me lays bare one of the most fascinating aspects of studying history. What we know or what we are willing to admit can depend so greatly on who we are, where we’re from, and to what degree we’re invested in the subject. As for me, I identify as Iowan. So don’t even talk to me about Herbert Hoover . . .


3 Comments on “On the Burned Ruins of Richmond”

  1. Marla Muntner

    This raises an interesting point. Even when using primary source materials like this photograph, there is much room for interpretation. For educators using materials like these, the job is to guide students to use them as a springboard for questioning in addition to using them as a place to find answers.

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Excellent point, Marla. Look for a post in the next day or so that references some of what Virginia children have been taught about the state’s history over the years.

  3. lynda

    I have to say that I have found opposite answers on “Who burned Richmond?” on noted sites. In school, I was always taught the northern aggressors burned Richmond. I’m very surprised. If you asked most Virginians “Who burned Richmond?” I dare say you would not get the answer, “the Confederates.”

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