Tag Archives: Richmond

The End of 1863

December 31, 1863 – With the coming of a new year, morale among southerners fell to an all-time low as prospects for a Federal victory seemed brighter than ever.

This year had begun inauspiciously for the Federals with defeats at Galveston, Charleston Harbor, and Chancellorsville, but they rebounded with historic victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Tullahoma, Little Rock, and Knoxville. And although the Federals had suffered a resounding defeat at Chickamauga, they reversed the setback by driving most Confederate forces out of Tennessee.

U.S. Navy Secy Gideon Welles | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “The year closes more satisfactorily than it commenced. The war has been waged with success, although there have been in some instances errors and misfortunes. But the heart of the nation is sounder and its hopes higher.”

Southerners did not share this sentiment. An article in the Richmond Examiner, published on New Year’s Eve, spoke for most in the Confederacy when it declared:

“To-day closes the gloomiest year of our struggle. No sanguine hope of intervention buoys up the spirits of the confederate public as at the end of 1861. No brilliant victory like that of Fredericksburgh encourages us to look forward to a speedy and successful termination of the war, as in the last weeks of 1862.”

The writer discounted the recent minor Confederate victories at Mine Run and Bean’s Station: “(George G.) Meade’s advance was hardly meant in earnest, and Bean’s Station is a poor set-off to the loss of the gallant men who fell in the murderous assault on Knoxville.”

One of the most startling military transformations this year involved the improvement of the Federal cavalry, which now nearly matched its declining Confederate counterpart. The article maintained that with the “deficiencies of our cavalry service, Lincoln’s squadrons of horses threaten to be as universal a terror, as pervasive a nuisance, as his squadrons of gun-boats were some months since.” The writer continued:

“The advantages gained at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga have had heavy counterpoises. The one victory led to the fall of (Thomas “Stonewall”) Jackson and the deposition of (Joseph) Hooker, the other led first to nothing and then to the indelible disgrace of Lookout Mountain. The Confederacy has been cut in twain along the line of the Mississippi, and our enemies are steadily pushing forward their plans for bisecting the eastern moiety.”

Regarding the southern way of life, “poverty has become penury, penury is lapsing into pauperism,” and there had been a “complete upturning of our social relations, the only happy people are those who have black hearts or black skins.” The editorial then lashed out at politicians, whose corruption was courting disaster:

“There is no forgiveness for political sins, and the results will as certainly follow as if there had been no repentance. As all sins are, in a higher sense, intellectual blunders, we must strain every fibre of the brain and every sinew of the will if we wish to repair the mischief which our folly and our corruption have wrought.”

Noting the constant sacrifices the people were making:

“We can no more avoid the loss of property than we can the shedding of blood. There is no family in the Confederacy that has not to mourn the fall of some member or some connection, and there is no family in the Confederacy which ought to expect to escape scathless in estate. The attempt is as useless, in most cases, as it is ignoble in all.”

The editorial concluded:

“We all have a heavy score to pay, and we know it. This may depress us, but our enemies need not be jubilant at our depression, for we are determined to meet our liabilities. Whatever number of men, or whatever amount of money shall be really wanting will be forthcoming. Whatever economy the straightening of our resources may require, we shall learn to exercise. We could only wish that Congress was not in such a feverish mood, and that the government would do something toward the establishment of a statistical bureau, or some other agency, by which we could approximately ascertain what we have to contribute, and to what extent we must husband our resources. Wise, cool, decided, prompt action would put us in good condition for the spring campaign of 1864, and the close of next year would furnish a more agreeable retrospect than the annus mirabilis of blunders which we now consign to the dead past.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 355; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 386-87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 450; Perseus: The Richmond Examiner, 31 Dec 1863

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The Richmond Bread Riot

April 2, 1863 – A mob of mostly women stormed the business district of the Confederate capital demanding relief from the epidemic of shortages plaguing the Confederacy.

The winter of 1862-63 had been the worst ever for the new Confederacy. Dwindling supplies increased demand, resulting in soaring prices and civil unrest in various southern cities. This was especially true in Richmond, where the population had doubled since the war started and the armies had ravaged much of the food producing area in the state. The rising cost of necessities left many to go hungry.

Richmond Bread Riot | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hundreds of angry citizens, mostly women, gathered at the Oregon Hill Baptist Church on Holy Thursday to express their rage. They then stormed Richmond’s business district, shouting, “Bread! Bread!” A witness recalled talking to a young woman involved in the protest:

“As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet, her loose calico sleeve slipped up, and revealed a mere skeleton of an arm. She perceived my expression as I looked at it, and hastily pulled down her sleeve with a short laugh. ‘This is all that’s left of me!’ she said. ‘It seems real funny don’t it? We are starving. We are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.’”

Some men and boys joined the mob until it grew to about 1,000 people. Governor John Letcher and the mayor of Richmond came out to calm the protestors to no avail. They smashed store windows and doors on Main and Cary, seizing items such as flour, meal, and clothing. Ruffians and emboldened protestors soon joined forces to begin looting stores for luxury items such as jewelry, furniture, and other fineries.

Letcher dispatched state militia to restore order, and the Richmond mayor threatened to order the militia to open fire if the crowd did not disperse. The mob refused to comply, possibly because the militia consisted of acquaintances or even husbands of the rioters. President Jefferson Davis then appeared and climbed atop a wagon to be seen in the crowd. According to a witness:

“He urged them to return to their houses, so that the bayonets there menacing them might be sent against the common enemy. He told them that such acts would bring famine upon them… as it would deter people from bringing food to the city. He said he was willing to share his last loaf with the suffering people… and he trusted we would… continue united against the Northern invaders, who were the authors of all our sufferings.”

Davis yelled, “You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.” He threw all the money from his pockets into the crowd. He then pulled out his pocket watch and said, “We do not desire to injure anyone, but this lawlessness must stop. I will give you five minutes to disperse. Otherwise you will be fired on.”

When a large crowd remained after four minutes, Davis held up his pocket watch and announced, “My friends, you have one minute more.” The rioters finally disbanded. Davis directed the police to arrest the most prominent members of the mob; they were tried and briefly jailed.

Davis unofficially asked the Richmond press to “avoid all reference directly or indirectly to the affair,” and he instructed the telegraph companies to “permit nothing relative to the unfortunate disturbance… to be sent over the telegraph lines in any direction for any purpose.” Davis feared that reports of incidents such as these would embolden Federal troops and demoralize Confederates.

Secretary of War James A. Seddon directed military authorities to order the Richmond newspapers to print no articles about the rioting because it would serve “to embarrass our cause (or) to encourage our enemies.” The lead editorial in the April 3 Richmond Dispatch was titled, “Sufferings in the North.” Meanwhile, women and other “non-draftables” continued gathering to beg for food until the City Battalion drove them off.

The Richmond Enquirer broke the press silence on the 4th, but in support of the administration. The Enquirer reported that rumors of the riot were unnecessarily harming morale because the rioters were merely “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows birds from all lands but our own… (they broke into) half a dozen shoe stores, hat stores and tobacco houses and robbed them of everything but bread, which was just the thing they wanted least.”

The Richmond city council approved a motion stating that the incident had been “in reality instigated by devilish and selfish motives,” but a week later the council members quietly approved allocating $24,000 to feed the citizens. This helped quiet the growing unrest. However, similar outbreaks occurred in Augusta, Columbus and Milledgeville in Georgia, in Salisbury, North Carolina, and in Mobile, Alabama.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 134-36; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 103-04; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 163-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 277; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 334; 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), p. 617-18; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 199

The Official Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

February 22, 1862 – Jefferson Davis took the oath of office to become the first official president of the Confederacy.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Davis and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens had been elected to their posts by delegates of the Montgomery convention the previous February on a provisional basis only, pending a general election. That general election had officially elected Davis and Stephens as Confederate president and vice president in November. Under the Confederate Constitution, they were to serve one six-year term and were ineligible for reelection.

Confederate officials selected February 22, George Washington’s Birthday, as the presidential inauguration day at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Thousands of people attended the ceremonies, which began in the Virginia Hall of Delegates and then moved outside to a canopied platform beside the statue of Washington in the Capitol Square. Davis was escorted to the platform by his black footmen; they all wore black because, as one of them said, “This… is the way we always does in Richmond at funerals and sichlike.”

On the platform, Davis took the chief executive’s oath, kissed the Bible, and delivered his inaugural address. He declared: “Whatever of hope some may have entertained that a returning sense of justice would remove the danger with which our rights were threatened, and render it possible to preserve the Union of the Constitution, must have been dispelled by the malignity and barbarity of the Northern States in the prosecution of the existing war.” He cited as evidence:

“Bastilles filled with prisoners, arrested without civil process or indictment duly found; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by Executive mandate; a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of members whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal Executive that there might be another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of a military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens, and gentle-women incarcerated for opinion’s sake–proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer a Government as free, liberal, and humane as that established for our common use.”

Davis contrasted these Federal actions to those of his administration, stating that “through all the necessities of an unequal struggle there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty or the freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press.”

Noting the financial troubles in the North, Davis predicted a Federal economic collapse: “The period is near at hand when our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred, a debt which in their effort to subjugate us has already attained such fearful dimensions as will subject them to burdens which must continue to oppress them for generations to come.”

Davis expressed his view that the war was a test of what the southern people were willing to endure to defend their freedom: “It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price which we pay for them.”

Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Davis cited unexpected benefits from European powers adhering to the Federal blockade:

“If the acquiescence of foreign nations in a pretended blockade has deprived us of our commerce with them, it is fast making us a self-supporting and an independent people. The blockade, if effectual and permanent, could only serve to divert our industry from the production of articles for export and employ it in supplying the commodities for domestic use.”

However, he also acknowledged the recent defeats in the Western Theater and North Carolina:

“After a series of successes and victories, which covered our arms with glory, we have recently met with serious disasters. But in the heart of a people resolved to be free these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the patriots of the Revolution, we must emulate that heroic devotion which made reverse to them but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined.”

Davis concluded:

“With humble gratitude and adoration, acknowledging the Providence which has so visibly protected the Confederacy during its brief but eventful career, to thee, O God, I trustingly commit myself, and prayerfully invoke thy blessing on my country and its cause.”

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References

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 217-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 84-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174; 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), p. 402-03, 433; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 265-67; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

The Confederate Capital Relocation

May 20, 1861 – The Provisional Confederate Congress approved a measure relocating the national capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia.

The new Confederate Capitol at Richmond | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The new Confederate Capitol at Richmond | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Legislators hoped that moving to Richmond would strengthen Virginia’s support for the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis had initially opposed such a move because Richmond was much closer to the U.S. than Montgomery. However, he acknowledged that Virginians had made a tremendous sacrifice to join the Confederacy, knowing their state would be a prime invasion target. Thus, Davis endorsed the bill.

The next day the Provisional Congress approved a resolution “that this Congress will adjourn on Tuesday next, to meet again on the 20th day of July, at Richmond, Virginia.” Davis was authorized to move his executive department from Montgomery to Richmond at any time before July 20, and if any change in the war should “render it impolitic to meet in Richmond,” Davis could call Congress into session at any other place of his choosing.

Most members of Congress agreed that placing the Confederate government in Richmond would gain them a military and psychological advantage. However, it would also place them within near the mounting conflict in northern Virginia, and protecting Richmond would become a key military strategy that left the Confederacy vulnerable in other military theaters.

On May 27, President Davis and other Confederate officials boarded the rear coach of a train to move the executive department from Montgomery to Richmond. Fellow passengers did not know Davis was on the train until people cheered him from station platforms along the journey, hailing him as “Jeff Davis” and “the old Hero.”

Davis arrived to a two-gun salute on the 29th, and Richmond became inundated with government officials soon thereafter. Prominent Virginians such as Governor John Letcher and other dignitaries greeted Davis at the station with a carriage drawn by four white horses.

Letcher and the Richmond mayor traveled with Davis to the Spotswood Hotel, where the president delivered a speech from the hotel balcony. Davis later inspected troops at the fairgrounds and delivered another speech. He called his audience “the last best hope of liberty… The country relies on you. Upon you rest the hopes of our people; and I have only to say, my friends, that to the last breath of my life I am wholly your own.” The Richmond Daily Enquirer reported, “The mantel of (George) Washington falls gracefully upon his shoulders. Never were a people more enraptured with their Chief Magistrate than ours are with President Davis.”

Shortly after arriving in Richmond, Davis received a briefing on the state’s military situation. Currently three armies guarded the three most important (and vulnerable) regions:

  • General Joseph E. Johnston guarded the Shenandoah Valley from Harpers Ferry
  • General P.G.T. Beauregard guarded northern Virginia from Manassas
  • Generals Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder guarded the seaward approach to Richmond from Norfolk and the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers

The Blue Ridge Mountains separated Johnston and Beauregard, the two commanders closest to Washington. However, their troops were close enough to each other to join forces if needed.

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Sources

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5952, 5962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 45-46; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2580; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 76-77, 79; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 630-32; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261

Robert E. Lee Goes South

April 18, 1861 – U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee met with influential statesman Francis P. Blair and received an offer to command the Federal army.

Blair, former editor of The Congressional Globe, traveled from his plantation at Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington on the 16th to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s secretary, the men discussed potential commanders for the Federal forces.

U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was too old for active field command, and his strategy for defeating the Confederacy lacked aggression. Lincoln agreed with Blair’s idea to promote Colonel Lee, whom Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln directed Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” and make him an offer. Scott sent Lee a letter requesting an interview on the 18th. The letter included a message from Lee’s cousin, John Lee, stating that Blair also requested a meeting with Lee on the same day.

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the afternoon of the 18th, Lee left his home at Arlington to meet with Blair at the statesman’s townhouse across the street from the White House. Blair explained that the Lincoln administration would field an army of 75 to 100,000 troops, and he had been authorized by Lincoln to offer Lee overall command. This was the highest rank a president could bestow upon a military officer.

Lee told Blair, “I look upon secession as anarchy,” and if he had power over every slave, he would “sacrifice them all to the Union.” However, Lee later recalled telling Blair “as candidly and courteously as I could that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Moreover, considering that the Virginia Convention had just voted to secede (pending a popular vote), Lee asked, “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

After the meeting, Lee went to Scott’s office to visit with the general-in-chief. Lee described his meeting with Blair and Lee’s decision. Scott said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Lee hoped to stay in the army until the referendum on Virginia’s secession took place on May 23, but Scott advised, “If you propose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal.”

With that, Lee returned to Arlington House, where he would “share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.”

The next day, delegates to the Virginia Convention approved authorizing appointment of a “commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia.” The commander would have the rank of major-general and authority to lead military operations and troop organization under the governor’s overall authority. The convention committee in charge of the decision recommended Colonel Robert E. Lee for the position.

Meanwhile Lee learned of Virginia’s secession, and while friends and family gathered at the Arlington House to discuss the matter, Lee retired alone to the garden to consider what he would do. He later returned home and paced in his room for several hours. Early next morning, Lee wrote his letter of resignation to General-in-Chief Scott, after 32 years of service in the U.S. army: “Sir–I have the honour to tender the resignation of my Commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt of Cavalry.” Lee explained:

“Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed…”

The decision had to be made quickly before Lee received orders from his superiors in the Federal government to act against the Confederacy. Lee’s decision was made not because he supported either slavery or secession, but because he believed his first duty was to his home state of Virginia, which had opted for secession.

Virginia Governor John Letcher dispatched Judge John Robertson to formally offer a major-general commission to Robert E. Lee in accordance with the ordinance passed on the 19th. Lee accepted and left Arlington on the morning of April 22. He took a train from Alexandria to Gordonsville and then completed his journey to the state capital on the Virginia Central Railroad.

After checking into the Spotswood Hotel, Lee met with Letcher and officially accepted the governor’s appointment. That evening, delegates to the Virginia Convention unanimously approved Letcher’s choice of Lee as “Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth” of Virginia.

Major General Lee opened a temporary office in Richmond on the 23rd. Before he could assemble a staff, he issued General Order No. 1 announcing that he now commanded all Virginia forces. A committee from the Virginia Convention escorted Lee to the convention hall, where Marmaduke Johnson introduced him: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you, and to the Convention, Major General Lee.”

Lee was welcomed into the hall, “in which we may almost yet hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.” Convention President John Janney delivered a speech:

“Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our conviction that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, ‘first in war.’ We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you, that you are ‘first in peace,’ and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen…'”

Lee rose and addressed the delegation: “Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality… Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.”

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Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 224-25, 231-32
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5759
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-28
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 36-37
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2214-38, 2282, 2367-78, 2390
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 349-50
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 61, 63-65
  • Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261

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: Wikispaces.com

Virginia State Flag | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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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Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 230-31
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5270-82, 7226-38
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 15-17
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 32-33, 35-36
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6109
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 46, 51-52
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 349
  • Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 479
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 53-54, 59-61
  • 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), p. 270, 278-79, 298
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 66
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Virginia in the American Civil War