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Virginia's Coal Resources and the American Civil War


Sometime around 1700, coal was discovered in the Huguenot Springs area west of present day Richmond.  This coal was used in local blacksmith forges and may have been the first coal mined in the Western Hemisphere.  Eventually six mining districts were established in the area: Huguenot Springs, Manakin, Midlothian, Deep Run, Carbon Hill, and Clover Hill. 

The coal was initially deposited as layers of peat in a fault-bounded basin, which slowly filled with Triassic-age swamp and lake sediments.  The swamps and lakes were eventually buried by sand and silt, and the peat was converted to coal.

Strategic Mineral Resources of Virginia in the American Civil War - Coal

Strategic Mineral Resources of Virginia in the American Civil War - Coal

In 1758, nine tons of coal from the Midlothian mines were shipped to New York City, the first recorded commercial production in the Colonies (Wilkes, 1988).  During the American Revolution, Midlothian coal supplied the cannon foundry at Westham.  Initial production was modest, on the order of 1,000 tons annually, but the Richmond coal market expanded considerably when the Federal Government imposed an import tariff on foreign coal in 1794 (Wilkes, 1988).  From the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, the streetlights of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were lit with gas derived from Richmond coal.

Stock certificate for the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company.

Stock certificate for the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company from

The mining around Richmond spawned a flurry of advances in transportation.  The Manchester & Falling Creek Turnpike opened in 1804, and by 1807 it was the first graveled roadway of any length in Virginia (O’Dell, 1983).  Around 1824, this turnpike was carrying from 70 to 100 wagons daily, each with four or five tons of coal, totaling more than 40,000 tons annually (Coleman, 1954).  In 1828, a canal was opened along Tuckahoe Creek, linking the Manakin mines to the James River.  The  Railroad, completed in 1831, running twelve miles from the Midlothian mines to wharves on the James River, was the first railroad built in Virginia.  In 1836, the Chesterfield Railroad reported carrying 25,903 cars with 84,976 tons of coal during the year (Coleman, 1954), and boasted that it was the most profitable railroad in the world. 

Map of the Chesterfield Railroad.

Coalfields around Richmond, Virginia, 1856. From the Library of Congress

During the Civil War, most of Virginia’s coal supply was used to fuel railroad locomotives, with the remainder allocated for iron manufacture.  The Confederate Army commandeered the Black Heath Mine in the Midlothian District, and this coal was used for making cannons at the Tredegar Iron Works.  Coal from the Carbon Hill and Clover Hill districts was also used at Tredegar.  Semi-anthracite coal from the Merrimac District mines near Blacksburg is believed to have fueled the engines of the CSS Virginia, the Confederacy’s first ironclad warship.  These mines were operated by the Confederate Government and produced coal for manufacturing salt kettles and for making shot and shell at Howardsville on the James River (Whisonant, 2000).

During 1861 and 1862, total Virginia coal production amounted to 445,000 tons, but from 1863 through 1866 total production dropped to a mere 40,000 tons, primarily due to lack of laborers (Boyle, 1936).  In May of 1864, when Union cavalry under General August Kautz raided the Midlothian area, Major Samuel Wetherill, a miner from Pennsylvania, intervened to rescind the orders to set the coal mines afire.

The U.S. Census for 1870 shows that Virginia produced 61,803 tons of coal that year, indicating that the industry was slowly recovering after the war.  At this time, the great coalfields of far southwestern Virginia had yet to be exploited.




Boyle, Rockwell S., 1936, Virginia’s mineral contribution to the Confederacy: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin 46, p. 119–123.

Coleman, Elizabeth Dabney, 1954, Forerunner of Virginia’s first railway: Virginia Cavalcade, Winter, p. 4–7.

O’Dell, Jeffrey M., 1983, Chesterfield County: Early architecture and historical sites: Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors.

Whisonant, Robert C., 2000, Geology and history of the Confederate coal mines in Montgomery County, Virginia: Virginia Minerals, v. 46, no 1.

Wilkes, Gerald P., 1988, Mining history of the Richmond coalfield of Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 85.

View of Saltville, Virginia during Civil War