February 13–April 11
When the convention met on February 13 in the Mechanics Institute at the foot of Capitol Square in Richmond, all of the factions favored delay. Radical secession men, small in number, were content to let the Confederates organize their infant republic in Montgomery, Alabama, before acting. Adamant Unionists, also a minority, bided their time as well. The great majority of delegates were conservatives who loved the Union, mistrusted Lincoln, but accepted his election and inauguration. They hoped that, like their predecessors in constitutional disputes of years past, they could cobble together some grand Union-saving compromise, persuade the convention to endorse it, and then adjourn.
The Confederacy sent emissaries to the slave states of the Upper South to urge them to join the republic created in Montgomery. The Virginia convention permitted these representatives to address its members, though most delegates were immune to their strident demands. On the floor of the convention, constitutional theory became personal and ugly as delegates denounced one another in heated terms. Jubal A. Early, a future Confederate general who was then a staunch Unionist from Franklin County, ridiculed the radical minority for wanting to subvert the national government. He almost came to blows with John Goode, a hot-blooded secessionist delegate, for presuming to know the minds of Early's constituents back home.
John Baldwin of Staunton, a lawyer and slave owner, was representative of the conservative majority of delegates when he challenged anyone to deny that the national government had always supported Southern property rights, including slaves. The Lincoln administration did not represent an assault on Southern liberties, he argued, and even if it did, the U.S. Constitution protected them. Surely, Baldwin asserted, the Founding Fathers did not expect Americans to abandon those constitutional protections at the first sign of trouble. He compared Virginia to a lighthouse that could withstand "the breasting and surging waves of Northern fanaticism and of Southern violence."
Henry A. Wise, who had been governor during the 1859 assault on Harpers Ferry by the abolitionist John Brown, was the most influential delegate. Distrusted on all sides at first, he gradually won the confidence of the radical secessionists and became their champion. He was a vain, mercurial, vituperative partisan whose long hair and angular, gaunt features gave him the look of a dangerous man. He was on his feet speaking more frequently and at greater length than any other delegate.
After more than a month of long-winded speeches, parliamentary delay, and posturing by delegates on all sides, the convention put secession to a vote on April 4. Secessionists rightly concluded that sentiment had moved more in their direction since February, but by believing their own overheated rhetoric and reading too much into the strength of secessionist demonstrations outside the convention, they overestimated their power within it. They were stunned by overwhelming defeat; the vote was 90 to 45 against secession. John Janney, a prominent former Whig Party member from Loudoun County and the president of the convention, exulted in a letter to his wife that the secessionists were now "without the slightest hope of success." The convention, however, did not adjourn but continued to deliberate. Ominously for the Unionists, the vote came a week after Lincoln ended his vacillation over what to do and resolved to send a naval expedition to resupply Fort Sumter with food and water.
That was how matters stood when the convention reopened its debates on the day of Fort Sumter's surrender. At first there was confusion over which side had started the fight. Robert Conrad, a delegate from Frederick County, asserted that Virginians "will not consent to have the Union dissolved either by Mr. Lincoln or the Southern disunionists, at their pleasure." Though initiative had passed to other actors beyond the borders of the state, Virginia could still influence the course of events, now that some sort of wider clash seemed unstoppable.
On April 15, the convention heard from a three-man delegation it had sent to negotiate with Lincoln directly. Their futile meeting at the White House occurred on the day Lincoln announced his response to the surrender of Fort Sumter—a proclamation calling for all loyal states to send their militias to put down the Confederate rebellion. The news sent shock waves throughout the country that engendered a mass outpouring of patriotic demonstrations in the North and defiance in the Confederate States. Alexander H. H. Stuart of Staunton, Baldwin's brother-in-law and law partner and the sole Unionist among the Virginia trio sent to Washington, admitted that Lincoln's proclamation was provocative. But he echoed the fervent hopes of Unionists in the Upper South that they still could prevent civil war and, if not, could somehow shield their region from the fighting. "Secession is not only war," he warned his colleagues, "but it is emancipation; it is bankruptcy; it is repudiation; it is widespread ruin to our people."
On April 16 the delegates voted to go into secret session in order to air their differences more candidly than they could in the presence of reporters and the public. After William Ballard Preston, Unionist-turned-secessionist from Montgomery County, offered the Ordinance of Secession for a vote, every member who wished to speak had his chance. Robert Eden Scott of Fauquier County proposed an alternative to the ordinance's declaration of immediate secession (followed by ratification by the voters): a statewide referendum that would give voters a choice between secession and consultation with the other slave states on the border between the United States and the new Confederacy. Here was the last desperate hope of Virginia Unionists, a chance to form a third way between the extremes of the Confederacy and the United States.
To the anger of secessionists, for five days after the news of Fort Sumter galvanized opinion across America, the convention continued to debate. When Scott's substitute motion finally was put to a vote, it lost, 77 to 64. The Unionist majority had melted away in the heat of both Fort Sumter and Lincoln's proclamation. Everyone in the hall now knew that the Ordinance of Secession would pass. When Wise rose to speak, it was a performance no one would forget. He meant to crush any lingering opposition to secession and gird the state for war.
Even more, he revealed military action already under way—militia units from the Shenandoah Valley, which had secretly pledged their loyalty to Wise personally and not to the state government, were even then en route to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Governor John Letcher was convinced at the last minute to give after-the-fact sanction to this movement, but it had begun as an extralegal act of war against the federal government by Wise and his coconspirators. As Wise rose to speak, he brandished a revolver and shouted that "blood will be flowing at Harper's Ferry before night." "We are here indulging in foolish debates," he said, in an attempt to cow the Unionist delegates, "the only result of which must be delay, and, perhaps, ruin."
Baldwin rose to oppose Wise's threats, questioning the former governor's desire to behave as if Virginia were already seceded and at war. But when Baldwin declared that voters should have the chance to first decide the question of secession, Wise argued that by then it will be too late. The "enemy," as he referred to the United States government, will have pounced. In the end, Baldwin, who would later reluctantly wear a Confederate uniform, was no match for Wise's brutal questioning of his loyalty to Virginia. "The future," he lamented, "looks dark—dark and dreary." After every delegate had his say, Wise called for the vote. Secession passed, 88 to 55. A statewide referendum on May 23 passed overwhelmingly and made secession official.
April 18–May 1
After the Ordinance of Secession passed, Wise strode confidently over to the People's Spontaneous Convention, meeting in the nearby Metropolitan Hall. The delegates there received him with clamorous cheers as he gave voice to the secessionists' dearest hopes. With trembling anticipation, an eyewitness to the sight concluded, "It was now Independence or Death."
John Janney, the staunch Unionist president of the convention, had warned right before the vote that secession would leave the banks of the Potomac River "saturated with blood." Even so, after the fateful vote he remained as president out of a sense of duty when the convention turned from debate to preparations for war. Other Unionists, mainly from the state's northwestern counties, did not resign themselves to defeat as Janney did. Right after the vote, many of them hurriedly returned to their constituencies and plotted to break away from secessionist eastern Virginia. The sectional divide in the state that had pitted east against west for decades now boiled over. "We can look to Richmond for taxes and treason, but for little else," sneered a Wheeling newspaper. While the majority of delegates to the convention, including Unionists like Janney, backed the decision to secede, western delegates set in motion the efforts that would result in the birth of West Virginia.
On April 27, nearly a month before the perfunctory referendum would endorse the Ordinance of Secession, Virginia offered to join the Confederacy and make Richmond its capital. The tragedy of the Unionist majority in the convention was that, though its members loathed the thought of leaving the United States, in the end they could not countenance fighting against fellow white Southerners. In retrospect, their hopes for compromise were unfounded, but in the spring of 1861 they upheld the standard of Upper South unionism as a middle way between the two sides preparing for war.
May 23, 1861 - The Ordinance of Secession is approved by Virginia voters by a vote of 125,950 to 20,373, with many western Virginia votes being discarded from the tally.
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First published: May 28, 2009 | Last modified: June 20, 2014
Contributed by Nelson D. Lankford, director of publications and scholarship at the Virginia Historical Society, where he has edited the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography since 1984. He is the author of, most recently, Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 (2007) and Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital (2002).