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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 01/24/2011

Dennis Frye: Did the seceding states believe they could leave peacefully without provoking a war?

By Dennis Frye

Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park


Virginia feared war. A principal reason, in fact, that Virginia sequestered itself from the secessionist frenzy focused on the prospect of war.

Virginians understood that the Old Dominion would become the dominion of war. Virginia’s geography -- located so near the nation’s capital and the Mason-Dixon Line -- invited battle. The dagger of civil war would pierce Virginia’s heart.

Following the initial rush to secession in the Deep South, the upper South delayed. Seven slave states seceded; eight slave states stayed. Time passed. Momentum stalled. Virginia and others adhered to the edict, “Peace rules the day when reason rules the mind.”

To send a clear message of its intention to avoid war, Virginia elected a Quaker (John Janney from Loudoun County) and a confirmed unionist as chairman of its secession convention. Janney urged his fellow delegates to proceed cautiously. “It is our duty on an occasion like this to elevate ourselves into an atmosphere, in which party passion and prejudice cannot exist.” Aware that Virginia’s secession decision could lead to war, Janney warned members “to conduct all our deliberations with calmness and wisdom, and to maintain, with inflexible firmness, whatever position we may find it necessary to assume.”

Virginia’s moderation jarred the slave oligarchy that had created the Confederacy. Many Virginians viewed the Confederacy as a calamity. Southerners began to ponder--can the secessionists survive without Virginia?

“The feeling almost universally being to leave S[outh] C[arolina] to herself,” declared Tarheel diarist Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston. “Give her her Fort if she required it, but deny her all the benefits of the Government.” Edmondston predicted that “if Mr. Lincoln’s government should be an impartial one,” South Carolina would “petition to return to the Union” in one year.

The question then should be: Did the secessionist need war to succeed?

By Dennis Frye  | January 24, 2011; 10:22 AM ET
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