The 55th Virginia was raised in area of the Tidewater bordering the Rappahannock River. Nine of its twelve companies came from just two counties, Essex and Middlesex; the remainder came from Lancaster, Spotsylvania and Westmoreland. The first two companies were formed in 1860 in response to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and six more volunteered within weeks of the fall of Fort Sumter. The unit was formally designated as the 55th Virginia Infantry Regiment in September 1861. Three further companies of ex-militiamen and men 'volunteering' to avoid conscription were added in the spring of 1862 and a fourth joined in June 1862. The Regiment served in a brigade of Virginians which earned a solid reputation as part of A.P. Hill's famous 'Light Division'.

The Regiment saw action in many of the great battles of Robert E. Lee's famous Army of Northern Virginia including the Seven Days, Second Battle of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the Defence of Petersburg and Richmond. It participated gallantly in the breakthrough at Frayser's Farm and sustained heavy casualties on numerous occasions.

The 55th also saw service in a number of little known campaigns and battles, including the defence of the lower Rappahannock during the first year of the war, the rearguard action at Falling Waters during the retreat from Gettysburg, the fight on the Plank Road at Mine Run, the campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during the winter of 1863-4, the fight for the Weldon Railroad in August 1864 and the battle for the Squirrel Level Line. It was virtually destroyed, as a fighting unit, at the battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6th 1865, leaving only twenty-one men to surrender with General Lee, at Appomattox Court House, three days later.