Shockoe Hill Cats vs. Butchertown Cats: boy gangs of old Richmond

As the battles of the Civil War unfolded in the Commonwealth of Virginia, young boys from neighborhoods all over Richmond were engaged in small battles of their own…GANG BATTLES! Seriously!

It’s September of 1861 and Richmond has a gang problem.

As the battles of the Civil War unfolded in the Commonwealth of Virginia, young boys from neighborhoods all over Richmond were engaged in smaller battles of their own. During the war, boy gangs throughout the city regularly defended their turf from rival gangs, using any means necessary: fists, rocks, slingshots, and bricks. According to Harry Kollatz, author of True Richmond Stories: Historic Tales from Virginia’s Capital, it was more than just a handful of kids, too:

According to various accounts, about four large and thirty-three splinter gangs – “some of them downright tough” – flourished in Richmond during the mid- to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were bare-fisted, prank-pulling, fruit stand-stealing, brick-throwing hooligans.

And they had the BEST names: the Shockoe Hill Cats, the Butchertown Cats, the Clyde Row Gang, the Bumtowners, the Oregon Hill Cats, the Fourth Street Horribles, and the Sparrows of Monroe Park, just to name a few.

Why cats? The use of the word “cat” originated as an insult to hurl at a rival gang (as in, “those damn Butchertown cats!”), but over time it seems to have eventually replaced the word “boys” and became part of the names of Richmond’s gangs.

Among the gangs, the rivalry between the mostly upper-class Shockoe Hill Cats and the lower-class Butchertown Cats was particularly heated. Shockoe Hill’s turf consisted of the area surrounding the capitol grounds north to the area where most of VCU’s College of Medicine currently sits and down below to the Shockoe Creek. The Butchertown Cats hailed from Butchertown, a working-class slum area near Union Hill, northeast of Church Hill. The contested and much-fought-over turf were the flatlands of Shockoe Bottom along the creek, which both gangs claimed for their own.

Early in September of 1861, a particularly big rock battle between the Butcher and Hill Cats made the local papers. From the Richmond Whig:

“ROCK BATTLE.” – From time immemorial the boys in Adams Valley, (popularly known as “Butchertown,”) and those residing on the north side of Shockoe Hill, have engaged, every successive summer, in “rock battles,” rallying under the distinctive titles of “Butcher Cats” and “Hill Cats.” Last Sunday afternoon the contending parties waged a fierce contest on Navy Hill, about one hundred boys being engaged on each side. – Stones and other missiles flew as thick, almost, as the Minie balls at the battle of Manassas, and it is wonderful that some of the belligerents were not maimed or seriously hurt. The progress of the fight was fortunately arrested by the timely arrival of officer, Chalkley, Seal, Davis, Quarles and Crone, in one direction, and officers Pleasants, Perria and others, in an opposite direction. At the sight of the police, the boys fled the field, but all of them did not make their escape. Six white boys and ten negro boys were captured and taken to the station house. The former were eventually bailed out; but the others were detained until next morning, when they were conducted to the presence of the Mayor. Richmond Whig, 9/10/1861

While the boy gangs existed many years before the Civil War and continued several years after, it created an interesting juxtaposition during the war itself. Boys fought over hills and land, engaging in heated battles throughout the city, all the while mirroring the bloodshed taking place oftentimes only a short distance away and by boys not much older than they were.

Richmond’s newspapers reported on these boy gangs several times throughout the war, so expect to hear more from the likes of the Butchertown Cats as our sesquicentennial coverage continues, including an incident involving none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the meantime, stay out of trouble and try not to throw rocks at people from other neighborhoods.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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