A convention had been formed in Virginia to consider seceding from the Union, but the delegates had opted to wait and see how President Abraham Lincoln would deal with the new Confederacy before acting. Virginia was the largest and wealthiest state in the South, and as such, Lincoln had been quietly working to keep Virginia in the Union. On the 3rd, he sent agent Allan B. Magruder to Richmond to explore the potential for negotiations between the 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. Lincoln and Seward both knew that the delegates would approve secession if an armed clash took place over Sumter; to avoid this, they hoped to negotiate a deal through Baldwin.
In a long, secret conference, Baldwin asserted that Virginia would secede if Lincoln made any effort to hold Forts Sumter or Pickens by force. Lincoln asked Baldwin whether Virginia would secede if Lincoln merely tried to resupply Fort Sumter. Baldwin said that she most likely would. Lincoln then reportedly discussed the possibility of 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 close the convention or to tell the other delegates how to vote. Besides, if they adjourned, they could simply form a new convention and approve secession. A little more time was bought when the delegates voted against seceding that day, 89 to 45. But they also resolved to stay in session in case the Lincoln administration showed aggression toward the Confederacy or infringed on states’ rights. A few days later, Lincoln met with former U.S. congressman and Virginia Unionist John M. Botts, 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 of Fort Sumter’s fall, along with Lincoln’s call for Virginia militia to oppose the Confederacy, produced a tidal wave of secessionism that swept over the state. Citizens led by former Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise formed a separate “Spontaneous Southern Rights Convention” in a different Richmond hall and declared “that we rejoice with high, exultant, heartfelt joy at the triumph of the Southern Confederacy over the accursed government at Washington.” When word came that the Lincoln administration was now calling on Virginia to help destroy the Confederacy, they demanded that the Virginia convention approve secession.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch condemned Lincoln as a “false prophet” and warned Virginians of what he would bring to their state: “We are to be invaded with fire and sword, the horrors of servile war, if possible, are to be added to those of civil war; our fields are to be laid waste, our houses destroyed, and if we resist, we are to be shot down or hung as rebels and traitors.”
The recent turn of events and the “spontaneous” convention’s demands prompted many Unionist delegates to switch loyalties and either support secession or some form of neutrality in the coming conflict. Virginia took the lead among the states still considering secession when Governor John Letcher sent an official message to Secretary of War Simon Cameron:
“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 Wise met with state militia officers on the night of the 16th, and they agreed that the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry needed to be seized. They informed current Governor Letcher of their plan and requested that Letcher call out the militia to execute it. Though Letcher supported secession, he had no legal power to act until the state actually seceded.
The next day, Wise delivered an impassioned speech to the state convention delegates, in which he said that state troops had begun moving to secure the military bases at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. Wise, who had been working with the “spontaneous” group to get this convention to act, electrified the hall and helped tilt many undecided delegates toward secession.
In a secret ballot, the delegates voted 88 to 55 in favor of adopting an ordinance of secession. They also approved holding a popular vote to ratify the ordinance on the fourth Thursday in May (the 23rd), but the fact that Virginians would vote for seceding was a foregone conclusion. The crucial southern state of Virginia was essentially out of the Union.
Former U.S. President John Tyler, who had headed the National Peace Conference in February, supported the ordinance: “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’s presidential campaign in Virginia, now condemned him for working with President Lincoln to preserve the Union: “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 the nine counties in the state’s Shenandoah Valley region, and only five others came from the state’s northwestern counties. But while Valley residents largely supported secession, the northwesterners had strong economic ties to the Ohio River Valley and the northern states, so most of them remained Unionists.
With Virginia now technically out of the Union, Governor Letcher was free to call out the militia to seize Harpers Ferry. He issued a proclamation declaring “the people of this Commonwealth are free men, not slaves.” Letcher asserted that Lincoln’s call for volunteers to destroy the Confederacy posed a grave threat to Virginia’s security, and therefore the militia was to be mobilized to defend the state from possible invasion. Former Governor Wise had about 1,000 militiamen ready to act when ordered.
Celebrations broke out throughout the Confederacy when news came that the largest and most prosperous slaveholding state would soon be joining the new nation. 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.”
Orators gave speeches as surrounding houses had burning candles forming the Southern Cross in their 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 yelled back: “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 the governor telegraphed the Confederate government in Montgomery seeking a military alliance. President Jefferson Davis, who wanted Virginia in the Confederacy before Federal troops could suppress her, promptly responded on the 18th: “Resolution for alliance received. Proposition cordially accepted. Commissioner will be sent by next train.” The commissioner would be Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.
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