The Old Dominion Mobilizes

Once Virginia seceded from the Union, state forces mobilized to defend against the Federal invasion that was sure to come. Governor John Letcher ordered the cadets from the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington to come to the state capital of Richmond to become drillmasters for the Virginia militia. The cadets were led by the Institute’s senior military officer, Major Thomas J. Jackson. On Sunday the 21st, the pious Jackson held a church service for the cadets before leading them to Staunton, from which they took the train to Richmond. They arrived at the capital the next day, and Jackson turned his students over to state officials.

The V.M.I. cadets conducted a review on Richmond’s Capitol Square on the 23rd that was attended by the governor and other top officials. A spectator noted that the cadets “came prepared for war, are fully armed and equipped,” and they “do not flinch from any duty, and herein they set a noble example—one worthy of all emulation.” Even with the V.M.I. troops there to keep order among all the militiamen pouring into the capital, the Richmond city council ordered early closures of all liquor stores and saloons.

Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis directed Confederate forces to help with Virginia’s defense. He wired Governor Letcher that he had sent a brigade of South Carolinians and made requisitions for 13 more regiments (eight for Lynchburg, four for Richmond, and one for Harpers Ferry). The Davis administration already anticipated that the majority of military activity in case of war would take place on Virginia soil. Davis also addressed a request from Baltimore officials for Virginia to aid the city: “Sustain Baltimore if practicable. We will reenforce you.”

Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens came up from Montgomery to meet with Virginia officials at Richmond. Confederate officials feared that Virginia would lead the other border states in forming a nation of their own, so Davis had sent Stephens to discuss a possible military alliance with Virginia or even the possibility of that state joining the Confederacy. When Stephens intimated to the state officials that the Confederate government may be willing to move its capital from Montgomery to Richmond, they agreed to the alliance.

Stephens then met with Major General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Virginia militia, at the Ballard House in Richmond’s “sporting” district. Stephens explained that if the alliance became official, the Confederates could by law offer Lee no higher rank than brigadier general, even though the Virginians had already made Lee a major general. Stephens also noted that an alliance would empower the Confederate commander to have control over Lee’s operations. Lee said that he cared nothing for titles, and he expressed full support for an alliance. Stephens recalled that Lee “did not wish anything connected with himself individually, or his official rank or personal position, to interfere in the slightest.”

On the 24th, Stephens and former U.S. President John Tyler, leading the Virginia committee on behalf of Governor Letcher, signed the alliance agreement placing Virginia’s military “under the chief control and direction of the President of the Confederate States.” Delegates to the Virginia State Convention approved the alliance, even though the secession ordinance they had adopted was still subject to a popular vote to be held in May.

The delegates, hoping to quickly join the Confederacy and address current emergencies, agreed that “the whole military force and military operations, offensive and defensive, of said Commonwealth, in the impending conflict with the United States, shall be under the chief control and direction of the President of the said Confederate States.” The Confederates created the Department of Alexandria, which covered most of northern Virginia along the Potomac River from the Blue Ridge Mountains east to Alexandria, then south to Chesapeake Bay. Colonel Philip St. George Cocke was given command of the new department. The delegates followed up by formally inviting the Confederacy to move her capital to Richmond, one of the South’s wealthiest cities.

During this time, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston, a Virginian, met with U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron at Washington and submitted his resignation from the U.S. Army. He told Cameron, “I must go with the South… I owe all that I am to the government of the United States. It has educated me, clothed me in honor. To leave the service is a hard necessity, but I must go.” Johnston was the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to defect to the South.

Johnston arrived at Richmond on the 25th and offered his services to the Commonwealth. Governor Letcher granted him a major generalship in the state militia, and General Lee placed him in command of the troops in and around the capital. Major General Walter Gwynn was given command of the forces around Norfolk. In western Virginia, Major Alonzo Loring was to organize forces in the Wheeling area, and Major Francis W. Boykin was to do the same around Grafton. The vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad connected these towns to Harpers Ferry, and Lee instructed both Loring and Boykin to protect the trains as they passed through.

Meanwhile, now that Major Jackson no longer commanded the V.M.I. cadets, he was given a commission as major of topographical engineers. Jackson resented this desk job, considering his West Point education, Mexican War experience, and expertise in military training at the Institute. J.M. Bennett, an influential friend of Jackson’s, met with Governor Letcher and persuaded him that such a rank was a waste of Jackson’s talents. Letcher agreed and instead appointed Jackson colonel in the Virginia militia, in charge of defenses at Harpers Ferry and in the Shenandoah Valley.

Jackson arrived at Harpers Ferry on the 30th, and the troops there were not impressed. One noted that “the Old Dominion must be woefully deficient in military men… if this was the best she could do.” Jackson was not wearing an officer’s uniform and therefore seemed out of place among the other officers in formal military attire. Jackson quickly demoted every militia officer ranked above captain, ordered the stores of alcohol dumped into the Potomac River, and established a strict schedule of marching and drilling. This made him even less popular among the troops. But the foundations of Virginia’s defenses were now in place, and they would only get stronger.


  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
  • Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
  • Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
  • Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
  • Kallmann, John D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Leave a Reply