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Chapter 3:

The United States Congress met on December 5, 1859, three days after the execution of John Brown. The most intense excitement prevailed throughout the Union, inflamed by Brown's execution and the events that preceded it. The House of Representatives did not succeed in electing a speaker until February 1, 1860, having spent two months in wrangling over the questions of slavery, State rights and secession. A Republican, Pennington of New Jersey, was elected speaker.

On December 1st, the general assembly of Virginia met in regular session, and at the suggestion of Governor Wise proceeded to reorganize the militia of the State, to provide for volunteer military companies, the collection of munitions of war, and in general for putting the State in a condition of defense. The people, although almost unanimously in favor of the Union, seconded the action of the legislature by encouraging home manufactures of every kind and advocating non-intercourse with the North because of its attitude on the vital questions of the day. .On the 16th of December, others of Brown's conspirators were hanged at Charlestown, which was still guarded by a number of volunteer military companies assembled by Governor Wise. This again attracted attention to Virginia, and added to the political excitement which had been somewhat quieted after the execution of Brown.

On January 1, 860, John Letcher, who had been elected, as a decidedly Union man, on May 26, 1859, was inaugurated governor of Virginia. He sent a strong message to the general assembly, recommending the adoption of resolutions for calling a convention of the States of the [33] Union to consider the condition of the country and provide some remedy for the existing state of political affairs, since, in his opinion, there must be a speedy settlement of the slavery controversy if the Union was to be preserved, to which end everything should be done ‘consistent with honor, patriotism and duty.’ At the same time he urged the promotion of the efficiency of the military organizations of the State, the enlargement of the Virginia military institute, and the purchase of munitions of war. The general assembly invited Col. R. E. Lee, of the United States army, who was at Arlington on furlough, to come to Richmond and give advice concerning the organizing of the Virginia militia.

By official reports submitted to this general assembly, it appears that in 1859 the real estate in the commonwealth was valued at $374,989,889; the slaves at $313,--148,275; and all the property of the people, including the preceding, at $1,143,676,088, which, if equally divided among the whites of the State, would give to each $1,005. The debt of Virginia, incurred for public improvements, in most of which the State owned a three-fifths interest, was $29,106,559.

The beginning of 1860, the year for the election of a President and Vice-President of the United States to succeed Buchanan and Breckinridge, found the House of Representatives still unorganized, after a month of effort, and Congress and the general assembly of Virginia, as well as the legislatures of the other States that were in session, engaged in the excited discussion of the questions of slavery, State rights and secession, to the exclusion of nearly all other topics. Upon these issues the people divided and subdivided, until four parties, instead of the usual two, prepared to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President. The Democratic party in Virginia met in convention at Richmond, February 16th, and after a discordant session appointed delegates, with a diversity of opinions upon the vital questions of the day, to a national convention. The Constitutional Union party in Virginia, the one embracing most of the Whigs and all those opposed to disunion and secession, met in Richmond, February 28th, and elected delegates to a national convention.

The Democratic party met in national convention, at Charleston, S. C., April 23d, and, after many ballots and [34] much rancorous debate, instead of nominating candidates, split into two wings, one of which met in Baltimore, on the 23d of June, nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, for President, and Herschel V. Johnson, of Georgia, for Vice-President, and declared in favor of leaving the question of slavery in the Territories to the voters of each Territory, or to the supreme court. The Southern wing of the Democratic party met June 28th, nominated John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for President, and Joseph Lane, of Oregon, for Vice-President, and declared that neither Congress nor a Territorial legislature had the right to prohibit slavery in a Territory, and that it was the duty of the Federal government to protect slavery in the Territories when necessary. The convention of the Constitutional Union party met in Baltimore, May 9th, and nominated John Bell, of Tennessee, for President, and Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, for VicePresi-dent, announcing for its broad platform, ‘the Union, the Constitution and the enforcement of the laws.’ The Republican party held its convention in Chicago, May 18th, and nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois (a son of Kentucky and a grandson of Virginia), for President, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine for Vice-President, and declared itself in favor of the prohibition of slavery in the Territories by congressional action.

The candidates nominated and the platform of each party defined, a fierce political contest was waged throughout the extent of the Union, during the months of July, August, September and October. The election was held on November 6th, with these results: Lincoln and Hamlin received 180 electoral votes, from eighteen States all lying north of Mason and Dixon's line; Breckinridge and Lane received 72 votes, all from Southern States, including Delaware and Maryland; Bell and Everett received the votes, 39 in number, of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee; while Douglas and Johnson received 12 votes, those of the single State of Missouri. Lincoln was declared elected, as he had a majority of the votes in the electoral college, but only 1,857,610 votes of the people, against 2, 804,560 which were divided among the three other candidates.

This election of sectional candidates by purely sectional votes produced the most intense excitement throughout the Southern States and among all the people without [35] respect to their previous party associations. A number of these States promptly called conventions to take action as to their future policy. Congress met on December 3, 1860, and heard a message from President Buchanan, in which he argued against the right of secession but expressed doubt as to the right of Congress to coerce the States to obedience to its mandates by military force. On the 6th the House of Representatives appointed a select committee of thirty-three, to take measures for the perpetuity of the Union; on the 10th, Howell Cobb, of Georgia, resigned as secretary of the treasury; on the 12th, Lieut.-Gen. Winfield Scott, of Virginia, commanding the army of the United States, arrived in Washington, by order of the President, to advise in reference to military affairs; on the 14th, Lewis Cass, of Michigan, resigned as secretary of state; on the 20th, South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession; on the 25th, Maj. Robert Anderson transferred the Federal garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor; on the 27th, South Carolina occupied Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie, captured the United States revenue cutter William Aiken, and her three commissioners arrived in Washington to treat, as representatives of an independent State, with the Federal executive. On the 29th, John B. Floyd, of Virginia, resigned as secretary of war, because President Buchanan would not order Major Anderson to return to Fort Moultrie. On the 30th, South Carolina took possession of the United States arsenal at Charleston. This rapid succession of disintegrating events marked the close of 1860. Between the 2d and 7th of January, 1861, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida took possession of a number of United States forts and arsenals within their borders, although none of these except South Carolina had as yet seceded. On the 8th, Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, secretary of the interior, resigned from Buchanan's cabinet. Mississippi adopted an ordinance of secession on the 9th, Florida on the 10th, Alabama on the 11th, Georgia on the 19th and Louisiana on the 26th, followed by Texas, February 1st. On the 9th of February, the Star of the West, bringing relief to Fort Sumter, was fired on and driven back from Charleston. The States which seceded quickly seized other United States forts and property, and the United States sent reinforcements to forts within these States [36] still in its possession, the surrender of which had been demanded by authorities of the States in which they were situated.

In the midst of this stirring and rapid sequence of events, Gov. John Letcher, by proclamation, convened the general assembly of Virginia in extra session, on the 7th of January, 1861, to consider the critical political condition of the country. On the 14th that body ordered an election, on the following 4th of February, of delegates to a convention of the State, the people at the same time to vote on the question as to whether any ordinance changing the relations of Virginia to the other States of the Union should be submitted to a popular vote for approval or rejection. On the 19th the general assembly invited the other States of the Union to meet it in a peace conference, at Washington, that should endeavor to heal the dissensions then prevailing, and appointed ex-President John Tyler, Hons. William C. Rives, John W. Brockenbrough, George W. Summers, and James A. Seddon, some of its most distinguished citizens, as delegates to that conference. It also appointed ex-President Tyler a commissioner to the President of the United States, and Judge John Robertson a commissioner to the States that had seceded, to request each of these to abstain from acts likely to bring on a collision of arms pending Virginia's efforts to secure peace. On February 4th this peace conference met in Washington, D. C., with representatives present from thirteen of the free States and seven of the border slave States. On the same day the Southern slave States, with the exception of the seven border States that had not seceded, met in convention at Montgomery Ala. Subsequently, during the conference at Washington, delegates appeared from other States until twenty-one were represented. That conference submitted a plan of reconciliation to Congress which was rejected, and soon thereafter Congress adjourned.

On February 13th the delegates that had been elected to the Virginia convention met at Richmond. On March 4th Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States. On the 6th the Virginia commissioners to the peace convention at Washington submitted a report, through Governor Letcher, to the Virginia convention, setting forth the unsatisfactory results of the conference. On the 8th of April the Virginia [37] convention, still anxiously seeking to secure peace, selected three of its most distinguished members, Alexander H. H. Stuart, William Ballard Preston and George W. Randolph, to visit Washington and confer with President Lincoln in reference to the course he intended to pursue in dealing with the Confederate States. This delegation met Mr. Lincoln on the 12th, and on the next day, by appointment, had a conference with him, during which he read and handed them a paper setting forth his views and declaring his intention to coerce the seceding States into obedience to Federal authority. That same day Fort Sumter surrendered to the Confederate States.

On the 15th of April, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 militia, apportioned among the States, to serve for three months, to suppress combinations against the laws of the United States in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. He also summoned the Congress to meet on the 4th of July, 1861. That there might be no misunderstanding of the object of his call for troops, Lincoln stated in his proclamation: ‘I deem it proper to say that the first service assigned to the forces hereby called forth will probably be to repossess the forts, places and property which have been seized from the Union.’ In pursuance of Lincoln's call, the following letter was sent to Governor Letcher:

War Department, Washington, April 15, 1861.
To His Excellency the Governor of Virginia:
Sir: Under the act of Congress for calling forth ‘militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, repel invasions, etc.,’ approved February 28, 1795. I have the honor to request your Excellency to cause to be immediately detached from the militia of your State the quota designated in the table below, to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged.

Your Excellency will please communicate to me the time, at or about, which your quota will be expected at its rendezvous, as it will be met as soon as practicable by an officer to muster it into the service and pay of the United States.

Simon Cameron, Secretary of War.

The quota of Virginia called for in the table attached to this letter was three regiments, embracing 2,340 men, to rendezvous at Staunton, Wheeling and Gordonsville. To this communication Governor Letcher made prompt reply, as follows: [38]

Executive Department, Richmond, Va., April 15, 1861.
Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War:
Sir: I received your telegram of the 15th, the genuineness of which I doubted. Since that time 1 have received your communication mailed the same day, in which I am requested to detach from the militia of the State of Virginia ‘the quota designated in a table,’ which you append, ‘to serve as infantry or riflemen 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.


Lincoln's call for troops to invade and coerce the newborn Confederacy, and Letcher's reply to that call, wrought an immediate change in the current of public opinion in Virginia, from the mountains to the sea. At the election of delegates to the State convention, held on the 4th of February, the best and ablest men of the commonwealth had been chosen, largely without regard to party affiliation, but because they were for the maintenance of the Union. The citizens of the State further safeguarded their views upon this subject by deciding, by a large majority, at the time of that election that any action of the convention looking to a change of the relations of the States to the Union must be submitted to a popular vote for approval or rejection.

Up to this time the convention had been mainly engaged in efforts to conciliate the discordant sections, urging the general government, which was now entirely Northern in character, to abstain from hostile action toward the seceded States, and at the same time endeavoring to restrain the latter, in the hope that time and reflection would lead to a reconsideration of their, in its opinion, hasty and premature action. The Confederacy had sent its ablest men to urge Virginia to join it, satisfied that unless she did so the effort to organize a new and independent nation would be a failure. To these eminent men the convention had given a respectful hearing, but had declined the proffered alliance, satisfied that if she joined the Southern Confederacy, almost her entire territory would become the scene of a fierce and long-continued [39] civil war, the brunt and burden of which would fall upon her more heavily than upon any other State. But as the views of the people were changed by Lincoln's call, so were those of a majority of the members of the convention. As soon as the President's call for troops was known, the convention met, with closed doors, and within two days thereafter, on Wednesday, April 17, 1861, adopted an ordinance of secession, in these words:

An ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution:

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whenever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the South or slaveholding States,

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain, That the ordinance adopted by the people of this State in convention, on the twenty-fifth of June, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the general assembly of this State ratifying or adopting amendments to said Constitution are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignity which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.

And they do further declare, That said Constitution of the United States of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this state.

This ordinance shall take effect and be an act of this day when ratified by a majority of the votes of the people of this State, cast at a poll to be taken thereon, on the fourth Thursday in May next, in pursuance of a schedule hereafter to be enacted.

Done in convention in the city of Richmond, on the seventeenth day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the eighty-fifth year of the commonwealth of Virginia.

This ordinance was adopted by a vote of 81 for and 5 against. Subsequently, after the will of the people was made known by a vote taken on May 23d, which by an overwhelming majority ratified the act of the convention, others signed the ordinance, until the signatures of 146 members of the convention were attached to it, leaving but few, mainly from Trans-Appalachian Virginia, who refused to sign. [40]

Gen. J. E. Johnston, in the opening of his Narrative, says:

The composition of the convention assembled in Richmond in the spring of 1861 to consider the question of secession, proved that the people of Virginia did not regard Mr. Lincoln's election as a sufficient cause for that measure, for at least two-thirds of its members were elected as ‘Union men.’ And they and their constituents continued to be so, until the determination to ‘coerce’ the seceded States was proclaimed by the President of the United States, and Virginia required to furnish her quota of the troops to be organized for that purpose. War being then inevitable, and the convention compelled to decide whether the State should aid in the subjugation of the other Southern States, or join them in the defense of the principles which they had professed since 1789—belong to the invading party, or to that standing on the defensive—it chose the latter, and passed its ordinance of secession. The people confirmed that choice by an overwhelming vote.

The action of the Virginia convention was kept secret for nearly two days in order to give time to take possession of the United States armory and arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and volunteer companies were secretly hurried from the valley for this purpose. These troops reached Halltown, about five miles from Harper's Ferry, late in the afternoon of the 18th of April. Learning of their advance, the small Federal garrison there, at 10 p.m., fired the armory, and crossing into Maryland retreated all night toward the United States barracks at Carlisle. The Virginia troops occupied the town shortly after its evacuation, and proceeded to extinguish the fires. On the nomination of the governor, Gen. William B. Taliaferro was, on the 18th, assigned to the command of Virginia troops ordered to assemble at Norfolk for the purpose of capturing the Gosport navy yard. The same day, at the instance of General Scott, President Lincoln offered to Col. R. E. Lee the command of the United States army intended for the invasion of Virginia. On the 20th Colonel Lee resigned his commission in the United States army, and on the 22d he was elected by the Virginia convention, major-general to command the forces of the State, for which provision had been made to mobilize for its defense. General Lee accepted this appointment, and on the 23d was assigned to the command of the military and naval forces.

On April 20th a Federal expedition from Fort Monroe attempted to destroy the dry dock at the Gosport navy yard,. near Norfolk, but only with partial success, as the Virginia troops arrived and took possession. [41]

The same day Governor Letcher made public the following call for volunteers:

Executive Department, Richmond, April 20, 1861.
In obedience to a resolution of the convention, the injunction of secrecy having been removed, the following section of an ordinance passed by the convention is published for the information of the public:

‘Be it ordained, That the governor of this commonwealth be and is hereby authorized and required to call into the service of the State as many volunteers as may be necessary to repel invasion and protect the citizens of the State in the present emergency, which volunteers we will receive in companies and organize into regiments, brigades and divisions, according to the force required; the governor shall appoint and commission the general, field and staff officers of said volunteers, and proceed to have them organized and instructed. And that he shall immediately invite all efficient and worthy Virginians and residents of Virginia in the army and navy of the United States to retire therefrom, and to enter the service of Virginia, assigning to them such rank as will not reverse the relative rank held by them in the United States service, and will at least be equivalent thereto.’

By order of the Governor.

George W. Munford, Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Immediately after the passage of the ordinance of secession, most of the members of the convention and of the general assembly of Virginia from the Trans-Alleghany section left Richmond, and they presently called a meeting of the citizens of that region who were opposed to secession to assemble at Clarksburg. That meeting issued a call to the Trans-Alleghany counties to send delegates to a convention to meet at Wheeling on the 13th of May, which convened with so-called representatives from 26 of the 140 counties of Virginia, and issued a call for an election, on June 4th, of delegates to a convention of the State of Virginia, to meet in Wheeling on June 11th. It also advised its supporters to vote at the coming May election against the ordinance of secession, and at the same time to elect members to the United States Congress from the three Trans-Alleghany districts of Virginia.

On April 21st the governor of Virginia, in pursuance of his call of the 200th, issued the following proclamation:

By virtue of authority vested in the executive by the convention, I, John Letcher, governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, do hereby order that each volunteer company, equipped and armed, whether infantry, artillery or riflemen, in the counties lying west of the city of Richmond, between Richmond and the Blue ridge, and in the valley of Virginia from the county of Rockbridge to the Tennessee line, establish forthwith on the lines of speedy communication [42] a rendezvous, and hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders; telegraph or send by express to the executive the names of captains, number of men, and description of force. It is further ordered that officers of all grades on the line of the Potomac render obedience to the orders of Gen. Philip St. George Cocke. who has been assigned to the command of that section of the military operations of the State bounded by said river.

Given under my hand as governor, and under the seal of the commonwealth at Richmond, 21st April, 1861, and in the eighty-fifth year of the commonwealth.

By the Governor:

John Letcher. George W. Munford, Secretary of the Commonwealth.

On April 24th the convention appointed commissioners to meet Vice-President A. H. Stephens, the commissioner of the Confederate States, to formulate an agreement for provisional co-operation in the pending conflict between the Confederate States and the United States, and on the 25th it ratified the agreement of these commissioners and conditionally adopted the provisional Constitution of the Confederate States. On the 1st of May the convention adopted an ordinance releasing all officials and citizens of the State from any obligation to support the Constitution of the United States, and absolving them from all obligations arising from oaths to support that Constitution. On the same day Governor Letcher called out the volunteer forces of the State to resist invasion, and on the 3d issued a call for volunteers. On the 4th Col. George A. Porterfield was assigned to the command of the Virginia troops in northwestern Virginia and directed to establish his headquarters at Grafton, where the two branches of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad diverge, the one to Wheeling and the other to Parkersburg. On the 10th Maj.-Gen. R. E. Lee was assigned to the command of all the Confederate forces serving in Virginia.

On the 23d of May the Virginia ordinance of secession was ratified, by a popular vote, by a majority of about 130,000. On the 24th the Federal army at Washington advanced into Virginia and occupied Arlington heights and Alexandria, and on the 26th the Federal forces tender General McClellan advanced into northwestern Virginia and occupied Grafton. [43]

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