Virginia

1861

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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...governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it... - Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit." Abraham Lincoln (from a speech in Congress January 1848)

Regarding the legality of secession: "We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that, universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood. And, if it justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861." - The New York Daily Tribune, December 17, 1860

 

How did Virginia, though initially reluctant, come to the point of secession and self defense?

An Historical Timeline.

Background:

Virginia, known as "The Old Dominion," was the first established of the thirteen colonies (1607) and birthplace to four of the first five Presidents of the United States. She was in many regards America's leader during the Colonial era, the American Revolution and long after Independence was won. In 1788 Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution with the specific caveat that she was reserving the right - if at any time she deemed it necessary - to resume at any time all powers delegated to the federal government and thus withdraw from the Union. Others states including New York and Rhode Island did the same and the legal right of secession was commonly asserted by both northern and southern states, political leaders and legal scholars right up to the point of the War Between the States. In 1803 certain northern states threatened to secede, in 1814 the New England states very nearly did secede and in the 1840s several northern states were threatening secession again. In fact Abraham Lincoln himself had argued strenuously in FAVOR of the right of states to secede while a member of Congress in 1848.

In 1859 John Brown and his gang of what today would be regarded as terrorists launch a planned, armed assault upon the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia and the United States military arsenal located there. Brown's background includes having those he disagrees with hacked to death and his stated objective is to foment a slave rebellion that will kill every white person in The South. Ironically, the first person murdered by his band of thugs during his invasion of Virginia is a free black man. Brown's gang is overcome in combat by United States Marines and Brown himself is brought to trial, convicted and hung for treason. But it is widely known that he was financed, helped with planning and aided by wealthy, politically active people in the New England states ... people who are never brought to justice. Most people in the North are revolted by Brown's actions. But a very vocal minority, including some newspaper editors and even preachers, proclaim Brown a hero and martyr, even compare him to Christ and cry out for more blood. Psychologically this pushes many in the Deep South to a firm view that the North (which they see as dominated by the "Radical Republicans" of New England) is committed to a course intent on terror and tyranny against them. Once Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) is elected president in November 1860 they are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that they have no choice but to exercise the right of secession to escape the oppression they are certain is to come. Thus South Carolina secedes on December 20th, 1860 to be followed shortly thereafter by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. These seven organize a government known as the Confederate States of America.

Though most people are aware that these seven states of the Deep South seceded between December 1860 and February 1861, few are aware that the states of the "Upper South" remained in the Union until federal coercion forced them to choose between taking part in actions they regarded as  unconstitutional, including participating in armed invasion ... or being invaded themselves. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland would all find themselves at this crossroads. Virginia and North Carolina would both be blockaded while still in the Union and Virginia soil would be occupied by federal troops prior to secession. Tennessee and Arkansas would secede in the face of a threat of aggression. Missouri would attempt to stay in the Union - though neutral - but would be quickly invaded, suffering a massacre of civilians in St. Louis before finally seceding. Kentucky would also attempt neutrality but would end up having two state governments (one pro-Union and the other pro-Confederate) and be fought over by both sides. Maryland's officials would be arrested and imprisoned before they could assemble and decide upon a course of action.

The following chronology tracks events influencing Virginia as well as her course of action through the Spring of 1861.

 
February 4th: Called and led by Virginia, a "Peace Convention" made up of 131 prominent persons from 21 states convenes in Washington DC in hopes of finding compromise and preventing war. Virginian and former president John Tyler is among the many experienced leaders but their efforts are in vain, their proposals ultimately being voted down by a Republican dominated congress.

February 4th: Virginia voters elect delegates to a Convention to discuss and make recommendations regarding the question of secession and Virginia's relationship to the Federal government. The great majority of those elected are known as "moderate" and level in their views. Voters also overwhelmingly approved a popular referendum on any decision reached by the convention, thus further guaranteeing that no rash action could be taken. Any decision that departed from the status quo would have to be ratified by popular vote (not by committee, convention or legislature) to take effect. Virginians have made it clear that while serious problems need to be addressed yet the desire of most is to remain in the Union.

March 4th: Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the 16th president of the United States. (He had been elected in November 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote (the lowest percentage in US history) and as a purely sectional candidate did not appear on the ballot or receive a single vote in ten southern states.)

 
April 4th: The Virginia Convention votes against recommending secession by a vote of 89 to 45, a 2 to 1 margin. Virginia remains firmly in the Union.
 
April 12th: After several failed attempts at diplomacy and compromise by persons from both sides as well as the middle, the longstanding crisis at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor comes to blows. With relief ships in sight, South Carolina forces fire on Fort Sumter which surrenders the next day on the 13th. Ironically, there is not a single combat related casualty on either side though no one yet knows what a precipice is about to be plunged over.

April 15th: President Lincoln demands that the remaining states supply 75,000 troops to invade the seven states he deems to be in a state of "insurrection" (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas) which had formed a Confederate government in February and ratified a constitution on March 11th. A letter to Governor Letcher demands a quota of 8,000 soldiers from Virginia for this purpose. Though Letcher had been a Unionist he refuses to accede to the demand as do a number of other governors as the action is held by many to be both unconstitutional and an act of war.

 
April 17th: In light of new developments, the Virginia Secession Convention reverses its earlier position and votes to recommend secession. The question will now be passed on to Virginia voters for the people to decide. A public vote is scheduled for May 23rd.
 
April 19th: Massachusetts troops move by train into Baltimore, Maryland. Maryland is widely regarded as a sister state to Virginia with a great deal of historic, family and economic connection. A conflict breaks out with numerous casualties both among the troops and the civilian populace, the former in defense of the Union, the latter in defense of their state. This is the first combat bloodshed of the Civil War and interestingly occurs on the anniversary of the first combat bloodshed of the American Revolution at Lexington, also a conflict between government soldiers and local citizens. Shockwaves resound across both North and South. There is much more of such to come.

April 20th: Governor Letcher of Virginia makes a call for volunteers to assemble for the defense of Virginia. The next day he issues a proclamation ordering every "armed and equipped volunteer company of artillery, infantry and riflemen in the counties between Richmond and the Blue Ridge, and in the Valley from Rockbridge County to the Tennessee line, to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders."

 
April 27th: President Lincoln extends the Federal naval blockade to include Virginia and North Carolina.
(Note that both Virginia and North Carolina are still in the Union at this time. Though a Virginia convention had recommended secession on April 17th, the people will not vote on the issue until May 23rd. In the case of North Carolina, that state will not even elect delegates to discuss secession until May 13th and will not secede until May 20th.)
 
May 3rd: Federal troops cross the Potomac and occupy Arlington Heights in Virginia.
 
May 23rd: The people of Virginia go to the polls and vote in favor of secession by a wide margin.
(At this time Virginia had 147 counties/cities. For all but 14 of these the voting tallies of May 23rd, 1861 are still extent. These tallies reveal 124,896 votes in favor of secession and 20,390 votes against, a margin of over 6 to 1. In 49 counties the vote in favor of secession was unanimous with not a single vote against. Sentiment had changed dramatically since February when most Virginians had clearly hoped to remain in the Union.)
 
May 24th: Federal forces invade Virginia, seizing the city of Alexandria.
At 2:00 A.M., just hours after Virginia voters had approved secession, 11 regiments of Union soldiers invaded Virginia and began occupying the countryside across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Two Union forces converged on the town of Alexandria. Col. Orlando B. Wilcox and his 1st Michigan Regiment marched down from Arlington and Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth and his 11th New York Zouave Regiment arrived at the Alexandria wharf aboard three river steamers. The Zouaves rushed ashore at daybreak and quickly secured the railroad station and telegraph office. While still early in the morning Ellsworth spied a large Confederate flag flying from atop a small inn called the Marshall House. Ellsworth rushed into the inn with four soldiers, climbed the stairs to the top, and cut down the flag. As they were going back down with the flag, innkeeper James W. Jackson emerged from his bedroom, meeting them at the third floor landing with a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. Jackson was killed - shot in the face, bayoneted, and pushed down the steps - but not before he pulled the trigger and killed Ellsworth.
The initial Federal invasion of Virginia (and initial aggression against a civilian home) resulted in two casualties, a Union Colonel and a Virginia civilian.
In the North, Ellsworth was regarded as a hero. Streets and towns were named after him.
In Virginia the result was horror and outrage with even most of those Virginians who had held out in hopes of holding the Union together now stepping up to defend their state.
War had come to Virginia.