Behind the Stanchions | Coal Fireplaces
There is something comforting about a fireplace. I don’t think there is any more classic image of comfort than someone with their feet up by a fire. Fireplaces are charming, comforting, and romantic!
We are asked frequently how many fireplaces are in the White House of the Confederacy. The answer is ten. Visitors see eight of them during tours. One thing visitors notice about the fireplaces is that, compared to the fireplaces we’re familiar with today, they are rather small. The fireplace in the Warming Kitchen in the basement is the one exception. It is very large and meant to warm or prepare food.
The fireplaces in the living spaces are small and, with one exception, made of marble. One of the reasons the fireplaces seem small is because coal, rather than wood, was burned in the house for heat. This makes a lot of sense when you realize that Richmond had a lot of coal mines nearby during the war.
The village of Midlothian, Virginia, is about 12 miles west of Richmond on the south side of the James River. Colonists there began mining coal during the 18th century and the settlement grew up around the mines. After the mines became established, they began selling the coal outside the village. Midlothian boasts the first commercially mined coal in America. Coal was shipped from there to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and to every city in Virginia.
Midlothian coal was considered superior by many and Thomas Jefferson ordered it to be used in the White House in Washington, D.C. By 1835, eight mines were producing coal in the Midlothian area. Richmond certainly was a prime customer.
One of the advantages of heating with coal is that it burns hotter than wood. It burns longer, producing a steady heat. The marble fireplaces in the White House of the Confederacy most likely made poor use of this quality, as marble tends to be a poor radiator of heat.
The fireplace in the Library on the first floor was another story. It is cast iron. Painted to look like marble, the iron did a much better job radiating that coal heat into the room. With both doors closed and the coal burning, iron fireplace heating the room, the library was a snug space indeed. In fact one visitor to the house called it, “A Snuggery.”
For Richmond, the nearby Midlothian mines meant there was no shortage of coal. While shortages of nearly everything hit the Confederacy and Richmond, coal seems to have been readily available. This was fortunate because winters during the Civil War seem to have been particularly cold.
By the end of the 19th century, coal mining in Midlothian dwindled and finally stopped as more modern heating methods were adopted. During the Civil War coal was king and White House visitors could count on a nice, warm coal fire during those frigid winters.