U.S. Post Office and Customhouse

1000 E Main St Richmond

From Civil War to Civil Rights/U.S. Post Office and Customhouse
American Civil War Museum
Written By American Civil War Museum

The mission of The American Civil War Museum is to be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.

On May 10, 1865 the First National Bank of Richmond opened in a small room of this building, which had served as a customhouse, courthouse, and post office in the pre-war years. Among the banks founders was Franklin Sterns a wartime Unionist, and one of the first to open an account here was Robert E. Lee. However, a ruling by the U.S. Attorney General soon forbade southerners owning over $20,000 to sell property, negotiate a bill of exchange, execute a promissory note, or raise money by means of mortgage unless they took the Loyalty Oath. Despite this restriction by October 1865 there were 100 buildings under construction, and by 1870 there were 38 tobacco factories in operation. Tobacco would become Richmond’s most important post-bellum industry. By 1870, $318,913 had been deposited into the Freedman’s Bank by African Americans who were earning a living as hack drivers, contractors, undertakers, barbers, restaurateurs, and shop owners. This building is significant for two other reasons. 1) It was here that Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate President, was brought to be remanded to civil custody on May 13, 1867. After having been imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe his lawyers had finally succeeded in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. Ironically, this was the very building where Davis had had his executive office during the war. After he was remanded, Davis’s lawyers requested that he immediately be brought to trial or released on bail. District Judge John C. Underwood set the bail at $100,000, which was promptly posted by eighteen men, among them prestigious northerners Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Gerrit Smith. A huge crowd had gathered out here on Main Street, so someone inside ran to the window and yelled out, “The President is bailed!” His announcement was greeted with loud applause. 2) This is where Unionist and spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew served as postmaster from 1869 -1877. The lucrative job was given to her by President Ulysses S. Grant in appreciation for her services to the Union during the war.

From Civil War to Civil Rights

U.S. Post Office and Customhouse

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