The Virginia Secession

April 17, 1861 – Delegates to the Virginia Convention at Richmond approved an ordinance of secession in a secret ballot, 88 to 55.

Virginia State Flag | Image Credit:
Virginia State Flag | Image Credit:

President Abraham Lincoln had been quietly working to keep Virginia in the Union since early April. On the 3rd, Lincoln dispatched agent Allan B. Magruder to Richmond to explore the potential for negotiations between the Lincoln administration and Virginia Unionists.

The next day Secretary of State William H. Seward, hoping to salvage his credibility after breaking his pledge to the Confederate envoys to evacuate Fort Sumter, persuaded Lincoln to meet with John B. Baldwin, a Unionist delegate to the Virginia Convention debating secession. Knowing the convention would approve secession if a clash occurred over Fort Sumter, Lincoln and Seward hoped to negotiate a deal through Baldwin.

In a long, secret conference, Lincoln reportedly discussed possibly evacuating Sumter in exchange for Virginia’s guarantee not to secede by adjourning the convention sine die. Lincoln said, “If you will guarantee to me the State of Virginia I shall remove the troops. A state for a fort is no bad business.”

Baldwin replied that he had no authority to tell the other convention delegates how to vote. Nevertheless, on that same day the delegates rejected a secession ordinance by a vote of 89 to 45. But the delegates also resolved to stay in session in case the Lincoln administration showed aggression toward the Confederacy or infringed on states’ rights. Lincoln also met with former U.S. congressman and Virginia Unionist John M. Botts to discuss keeping in Virginia in the Union, but apparently nothing came of this meeting. Lincoln soon grew more pessimistic about keeping Virginia in the Union.

That pessimism proved well founded because news that Fort Sumter had been fired upon produced a wave of secessionism that swept Virginia. Citizens formed a separate “Spontaneous Southern Rights Convention” in a different Richmond hall and resolved to demand that the Virginia Convention approve secession. The firing on Fort Sumter, combined with Lincoln’s call for Virginia forces to oppose the Confederacy, prompted many Unionist delegates to change their sentiment.

In fact, Virginia took the lead among the states still considering secession when Governor John Letcher refused to comply with the Lincoln administration’s request for volunteers in an official message to Secretary of War Simon Cameron:

“Executive Department, Richmond, Va., April 15, 1861. Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War: Sir: I have received your telegram of the 15th, the genuineness of which I doubted. Since that time I have received your communications mailed the same day, in which I am requested to detach from the militia of the State of Virginia ‘the quota assigned in a table,’ which you append, ‘to serve as infantry or rifleman for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged.’ In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object–an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795–will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South.”

Former Governor Henry Wise delivered an impassioned speech to the state convention delegates on the 17th. He announced that state militia had begun moving to secure the military bases at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. Wise had planned the effort to defend Harpers Ferry without consulting with current Governor Letcher.

Calling on Virginians not to hesitate to defend themselves, Wise’s speech electrified the hall and helped the delegates to vote for secession. They also approved holding a popular vote to ratify the ordinance on the fourth Thursday in May (the 23rd), even though secession was essentially a foregone conclusion.

Former U.S. President John Tyler supported the ordinance, stating, “Generations yet unborn would bless those who had the high privilege of participation in the present struggle.” Thomas Gilmer, who had worked for Stephen A. Douglas in Virginia, now condemned the pro-Union senator: “The period for words is past. The time for war is at hand… God forbid that I may ever live to see the day, when Stephen Douglas can stoop so low as to take by the hand, such… as Abe Lincoln and his Cabinet.”

Of the 88 delegates who approved secession, only five came from Virginia’s northwestern counties. Few slaveholders lived in that mountainous region, and the people there had strong economic ties to the Ohio River Valley and the northern states. Thus residents there remained largely Unionist.

The delegation resolved to call upon Governor Letcher to raise a militia to defend the state. Declaring that “the people of this Commonwealth are free men, not slaves,” Letcher quickly began mobilizing forces. Meanwhile, celebrations took place throughout the Confederacy upon learning that the largest and most prosperous slaveholding state in the Union would soon be joining them.

Mass celebrations also took place in Richmond, including the largest torchlight procession in city history. Former President Tyler and former Governor Wise delivered inspiring speeches, and many compared this event to the rebellion against Great Britain led by Virginia’s first “rebel,” George Washington. Thousands of people paraded down Main, Franklin, and Marshall streets as bands played “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

Various orators gave speeches as lighted candles forming the Southern Cross appeared in surrounding windows. One speaker declared, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, yet I will predict that in less than 60 days the flag of the Confederacy will be waving over the White House.” A spectator replied, “In less than 30 days!” Meanwhile, militia carried out Letcher’s order to seize the U.S. custom-house and post office in Richmond, and President Jefferson Davis pledged Confederate aid to Virginia.



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