Great drama at Virginia secession convention
A book with a rather ordinary, academic title—“Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union”—turns out to be a great read. Historians William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson researched the four volumes of official convention records from the 1861 meeting as well as newspaper stories to create a 200-page account of the two-month battle between the unionists and secessionists. There is magnificent oratory, fiery debates, intrigue, a near duel and the abrupt walkout by delegates from the northwestern counties.
The authors have brought life to what is usually seen as just one more state voting to secede from the Union. The process was torturous with a mid-convention vote favoring the unionists, 88-45. In the end, it was reversed. The vote to secede was 88-55.
The switch was not brought on by the Confederates firing on Ft. Sumter, as is generally believed, but rather by President Lincoln’s call on April 15, 1861 for 75,000 volunteer troops to protect the capital and put down the rebellion. Even then, there was a continuing interest at the convention in finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis but on May 23, a huge majority of Virginians voted to affirm the ordinance of secession.
Freehling and Simpson also delve into the still debated issue of why Virginians, and Southerners in general, who did not own slaves were willing to fight a war to maintain slavery. Many had lived as neighbors to slave owners and had not objected to the “peculiar institution” but when they saw the federal government as coercing them, in effect making white men slaves without their consent, that action could be tolerated.
During the convention, there were several curious twists on the long road to a decision. On the day that Ft. Sumter surrendered, it was Jubal Early, later to become an army general fighting for the Confederacy, who spoke out for the unionists. He was appalled that Virginians would celebrate the outbreak of violence in South Carolina when it involved his former comrade, Major Robert Anderson, who was defending "a handful of starving men" and had been compelled, "at the cannon's mouth, to lower the flag of his country." His words almost led to a duel with secessionist delegate Thomas F. Goode.
The paperback edition, published in 2010, is available for about $23 from the University of Virginia Press as well as other online sources.
| February 23, 2011; 6:47 PM ET
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