RVA Legends — The Municipal War

RVA Legends — The Municipal War

A look into the history of Richmond places and people that have disappeared from our landscape.


March-April 1870


So what’s wrong with having two competing police forces?

(Find A Grave) — Mayor Henry K. Ellyson

The post-war Reconstruction Era didn’t go quietly. This was in the day when the two major parties were mirror images of what they are now. Mostly. After the Civil War, Richmond city officials were selected by the governor, often filled with People-Richmonders-Didn’t-Like. When the city gained the right to elect officials again in 1870, it was Radical Republican Mayor George Chahoon’s turn not to care for it.

The most serious violence of Reconstruction erupted when conservative forces tried to oust the Republicans in the city government. The new Conservative council met on 16 March 1870 and elected (Henry K.) Ellyson as mayor, Ellyson, a former Whig, was publisher of the Richmond Dispatch, former city sheriff, and one of the founders of the Conservative party.

[NYRB] — New York Senator (and Richmond Mayor) George Chahoon

When John Poe, Jr., was returned to the office of police chief, Mayor Chahoon and his Republican supporters, black and white, refused to surrender the city government, The power struggle between the Chahoon and Ellyson forces started the Municipal War, a series of violent incidents similar to those that marked the return of conservative white rule in other southern cities.

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — original City Hall, occupied by the Ellyson forces

For several weeks Richmond had two municipal governments; two mayors, two court systems, two police forces, and two sets of city officials. The gasworks and waterworks superintendents sided with the Conservatives, but many of Chahoon’s police remained loyal to him and refused to give up their guns and badges. The Conservatives deputized some white civilians and all the city’s firemen as special police.

[RAW] — Old Market building at Seventeenth & Main streets, built in 1854 — occupied by the Chahoon forces

Although each side occupied and controlled several major city buildings, the Conservatives managed to surround Mayor Chahoon and many of his men in their headquarters at the police station above the Old Market. On 18 March 1870 the Ellyson forces cut off the Republicans’ food, water, and gaslights, and let no one enter the building. The siege lasted for several days and inspired bits of verse adapted from in English music hall tune;

Up in a balloon, boys, up in a balloon,
All around the station house a-peeping at Chahoon

(The Nation) — an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau adjudicates a dispute during Reconstruction

Comedy turned to tragedy when a crowd of black Republicans tried to rescue the besieged Republican mayor and was fired upon by Mayor Ellyson’s police. One black Republican was killed. General Canby sent troops into the city to prevent further violence, and Ellyson’s policemen retired from the scene under protest. The black crowd perceived this as a retreat, followed the police, and stoned them. The police fired again and several blacks were wounded. A few nights later black Republicans ambushed Ellyson’s police and killed a German-Catholic baker who was on duty as a special deputy. Neither the Conservative policeman who killed the black Republican, nor the man who killed the deputy, was ever identified.

(Ray City History Blog) — Thomas Nast sketch from a montage on Reconstruction violence entitled “Southern Justice,” Harpers Weekly, March 23, 1867

Traditional accounts depict Richmond in a chaotic state during the Municipal War, but for ordinary Richmonders life went on as before, George H. Clarke, a student at Richmond College who clerked in the family store on Main Street, coolly noted in his diary that “today we had a fight in front of the store. About a hundred shots were fired and the Negros ran. Quite an exciting time.” The evening of the market house riot, young Clarke followed his usual social routine, meeting friends at the First Baptist Church to hear a sermon. Tragic as they were, only two deaths occurred when the Conservative “Redeemers” wrested Richmond from Republican control. This is a marked contrast to the much greater bloodshed in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis.*

(Bygone Brookland) — Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase

The end of the Municipal War left the Conservatives with de facto control of the city. Governor Walker charged General Canby with exceeding his authority, and the general withdrew his troops from the city. The Republicans did not give up the struggle. They appealed to Judge John C. Underwood’s circuit court and to Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

(UVA Disasters Wiki) — Harper’s Weekly illustration — May 14, 1870 — “The Richmond Calamity – Interior of Hall of Delegates – Getting Out the Dead and Wounded.” by W.L. Sheppard

Their case was referred back to the Virginia Court of Appeals, and Conservatives and Republicans packed the Capitol on 27 April 1870 when a decision was to be handed down. When the courtroom gallery gave way under the weight, the second-story court chamber collapsed into the hall of the House of Delegates below. Sixty persons were killed and several hundred were injured. The tragedy eased tensions and united both sides in mourning. Two days later the court announced its decision in favor of Ellyson, and he was installed as temporary mayor.

(Time) — Cartoon charging Irish and German immigrants with stealing elections, showing a keg of Irish whiskey and a barrel of German beer running off with the ballot box, circa 1840s

The campaign that followed was marked by renewed violence. In an election held late in May 1870 to choose regular city officials, early ward returns showed that the Republicans had won. Men carrying the ballot box from the Jefferson Ward precinct that had recorded the largest majority for Chahoon were attacked in broad daylight, and the ballots were stolen. A count of the remaining ballots gave the victory to Ellyson, who refused to serve as mayor unless he was elected honorably.

(The Progress-Index) — Anthony M. Keiley

A second election was held, with different mayoral candidates. Anthony M. Keiley, a Roman Catholic native of New Jersey, an editor, and a Confederate veteran, was elected amid Republican charges of widespread fraud. Keiley’s victory ended Republican rule. [RAW]

What a difference 150 years makes! Good thing we’re on the other side of this kind of nonsense.

[RAW] — Richmond’s make-do municipal building
And like dominos, the collapse of the galleries in the Capitol building caused the Richmond intelligentsia to suspect the quality of the original City Hall, ending in its completely unnecessary demolition in 1874. A major miscalculation, it left Richmond without a main municipal building until the magnificent Old City Hall was constructed in 1894.

Print Sources

  • [NYRB] The New York Red Book. Edgar L. Murlin. 1897.
  • [RAW] Richmond After the War. Michael B. Chesson. 1981.


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