The Commonwealth of Virginia was a slave state and a prominent part of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. As a slave-holding state, Virginia convened a state convention to deal with the secession crisis opened on February 13, 1861, only a week after seven seceding states had formed the Confederacy. The convention deliberated for several weeks, with Unionist delegates dominant, and defeated a motion to secede on April 4. Opinion shifted after April 15, when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from all states still in the Union in response to the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter. On April 17, the Virginia convention voted to declare secession from the Union, pending ratification of the decision by the voters.
With the entry of Virginia into the Confederacy, a decision was made in May to move the Confederate capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, in part because the defense of Virginia’s capital was deemed strategically vital to the Confederacy’s survival regardless of its political status. Virginia ratified the articles of secession on May 23. The following day, the U.S. Army moved into northern Virginia and captured Alexandria without a fight.
Most of the battles in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War took place in Virginia because the Confederacy had to defend its national capital at Richmond, and public opinion in the North demanded that the Union move “On to Richmond!” The successes of Robert E. Lee in defending Richmond is a central theme of the military history of the war. The White House of the Confederacy, located a few blocks north of the State Capitol, was home to the family of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.
On October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in a raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. U.S. troops, led by Robert E. Lee, responded and quelled the raid. Subsequently, John Brown was tried and executed by hanging in Charles Town on December 2, 1859.
In 1860 the Democratic Party split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery in the territories and Stephen Douglas’ support for popular sovereignty: after failing in both Charleston and Baltimore to nominate a single candidate acceptable to the South, Southern Democrats held their convention in Richmond, Virginia on June 26, 1860 and nominated John C. Breckinridge as their party candidate for President.
When Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected as U.S. president, Virginians were concerned about the implications for their state. While a majority of the state would look for compromises to the sectional differences, most people also opposed any restrictions on slaveholders’ rights. As the state watched to see what South Carolina would do, many Unionists felt that the greatest danger to the state came not from the North but from “rash secession” by the lower South.
Call for secession convention
On November 15, 1860 Virginia Governor John Letcher called for a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to consider, among other issues, the creation of a secession convention. The legislature convened on January 7 and approved the convention on January 14. On January 19 the General Assembly called for a national Peace Conference, led by Virginia’s former President of the United States, John Tyler, to be held in Washington on February 4, the same date that elections were scheduled for delegates to the secession convention.
The election of convention delegates drew 145,700 voters who elected, by county, 152 representatives. Thirty of these delegates were secessionists, thirty were unionists, and ninety-two were moderates who were not clearly identified with either of the first two groups. Nevertheless, advocates of immediate secession were clearly outnumbered. Simultaneous to this election, six southern slave states formed the Confederate States on February 4.
According to one Virginian teacher, William M. Thompson, who would later become a Confederate cavalryman, the declaring of secession by the slave states was necessary to preserve slavery as well as prevent marriages between freedmen and the white “daughters of the South”, saying that civil war would be more preferable:
Better, far better! Endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar.
— William M. Thompson, letter to Warner A. Thompson, (February 2, 1861)
The convention met on February 13 at the Richmond Mechanics Institute located at Ninth and Main Street in Richmond. One of the convention’s first actions was to create a 21-member Federal Relations Committee charged with reaching a compromise to the sectional differences as they affected Virginia. The committee was made up of 4 secessionists, 10 moderates and 7 unionists. At first there was no urgency to the convention’s deliberations as all sides felt that time only aided their cause. In addition, there were hopes that the Peace Conference of 1861 on January 19, led by Virginia’s former President of the United States, John Tyler, might resolve the crisis by, in historian Edward L. Ayers’s words, “guaranteeing the safety of slavery forever and the right to expand slavery in the territories below the Missouri Compromise line.” With the failure of the Peace Conference at the end of February, moderates in the convention began to waver in their support for unionism. Unionist support by many was further eroded for many Virginians by Lincoln’s March 4 First Inaugural address which they felt was “argumentative, if not defiant.” Throughout the state there was evidence that support for secession was growing.
At the Virginian secession convention in February 1861, Georgian Henry Lewis Benning, who would later go on to join the Confederate army as an officer, delivered a speech in which he gave his reasoning for the urging of secession from the Union, appealing to ethnic prejudices and pro-slavery sentiments to present his case, saying that were the slave states to remain in the Union, their slaves would ultimately end up being freed by the anti-slavery Republican Party. He stated that he would rather be stricken with illness and starvation than to see African Americans liberated from slavery and be given equality as citizens:
What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North-was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. … If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished. By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case … war will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth, and it is probable that the white race, being superior in every respect, may push the other back. … we will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth; and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. That is the fate which abolition will bring upon the white race. … We will be completely exterminated, and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa… Suppose they elevated Charles Sumner to the presidency? Suppose they elevated Fred Douglass, your escaped slave, to the presidency? What would be your position in such an event? I say give me pestilence and famine sooner than that.
— Henry Lewis Benning, speech to the Virginia Convention, February 18, 1861
The Federal Relations Committee made its report to the convention on March 9. The fourteen proposals defended both slavery and states’ rights while calling for a meeting of the eight slave states still in the Union to present a united front for compromise. From March 15 through April 14 the convention debated these proposals one by one. During the debate on the resolutions, the sixth resolution calling for a peaceful solution and maintenance of the Union came up for discussion on April 4. Lewis Edwin Harvie of Amelia County offered a substitute resolution calling for immediate secession. This was voted down by 88 to 45 and the next day the convention continued its debate. Approval of the last proposal came on April 12. The goal of the unionist faction after this approval was to adjourn the convention until October, allowing time for both the convention of the slave states and Virginia’s congressional elections in May which, they hoped, would produce a stronger mandate for compromise.
One delegate reiterated the state’s cause of secession and the purpose of the convention:
Sir, the great question which is now uprooting this Government to its foundation – the great question which underlies all our deliberations here, is the question of African slavery.
— Thomas F. Goode, speech to the Virginia Secession Convention, (March 28, 1861)
Ultimately, the convention declared that slavery should continue, and that it should be extended into U.S. territories:
Proposals Adopted by the Virginia Convention of 1861
The first resolution asserted states’ rights per se; the second was for retention of slavery; the third opposed sectional parties; the fourth called for equal recognition of slavery in both territories and non-slave states; the fifth demanded the removal of federal forts and troops from seceded states; the sixth hoped for a peaceable adjustment of grievances and maintaining the Union; the seventh called for Constitutional amendments to remedy federal and state disputes; the eighth recognized the right of secession; the ninth said the federal government had no authority over seceded states since it refused to recognize their withdrawal; the tenth said the federal government was empowered to recognize the Confederate States; the eleventh was an appeal to Virginia’s sister states; the twelfth asserted Virginia’s willingness to wait a reasonable period of time for an answer to its propositions, providing no one resorted to force against the seceded states; the thirteenth asked United States and Confederate States governments to remain peaceful; and the fourteenth asked the border slave states to meet in conference to consider Virginia’s resolutions and to join in Virginia’s appeal to the North.
At the same time, Unionists were concerned about the continued presence of U.S. forces at Fort Sumter despite assurances communicated informally to them by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward that it would be abandoned. Lincoln and Seward were also concerned that the Virginia convention was still in session as of the first of April while secession sentiment was growing. At Lincoln’s invitation, unionist John B. Baldwin of Augusta County, met with Lincoln on April 4. Baldwin explained that the unionists needed the evacuation of Fort Sumter, a national convention to debate the sectional differences, and a commitment by Lincoln to support constitutional protections for southern rights. Over Lincoln’s skepticism, Baldwin argued that Virginia would be out of the Union within forty-eight hours if either side fired a shot at the fort. By some accounts, Lincoln offered to evacuate Fort Sumter if the Virginia convention would adjourn.
On April 6, amid rumors that the North was preparing for war, the convention voted by a narrow 63-57 to send a three-man delegation to Washington to determine from Lincoln what his intentions were. However, due to bad weather the delegation did not arrive in Washington until April 12. They learned of the attack on Fort Sumter from Lincoln, and the President advised them of his intent to hold the fort and respond to force with force. Reading from a prepared text to prevent any misinterpretations of his intent, Lincoln told them that he had made it clear in his inaugural address that the forts and arsenals in the South were government property and “if … an unprovoked assault has been made upon Fort Sumter, I shall hold myself at liberty to re-possess, if I can, like places which have been seized before the Government was devolved upon me.”
The pro-Union sentiment in Virginia was further weakened after the April 12 Confederate attack upon Fort Sumter. Richmond reacted with large public demonstrations in support of the Confederacy on April 13 when it first received the news of the attack. A Richmond newspaper described the scene in Richmond on the 13th:
“Saturday night the offices of the Dispatch, Enquirer and Examiner, the banking house of Enders, Sutton & Co., the Edgemont House, and sundry other public and private places, testified to the general joy by brilliant illuminations.
Hardly less than ten thousand persons were on Main street, between 8th and 14th, at one time. Speeches were delivered at the Spottswood House, at the Dispatch corner, in front of the Enquirer office, at the Exchange Hotel, and other places. Bonfires were lighted at nearly every corner of every principal street in the city, and the light of beacon fires could be seen burning on Union and Church Hills. The effect of the illumination was grand and imposing. The triumph of truth and justice over wrong and attempted insult was never more heartily appreciated by a spontaneous uprising of the people. Soon the Southern wind will sweep away with the resistless force of a tornado, all vestige of sympathy or desire of co-operation with a tyrant who, under false pretences, in the name of a once glorious, but now broken and destroyed Union, attempts to rivet on us the chains of a despicable and ignoble vassalage. Virginia is moving.” The convention reconvened on April 13 to reconsider Virginia’s position, given the outbreak of hostilities. With Virginia still in a delicate balance, with no firm determination yet to secede, sentiment turned more strongly toward secession on April 15, following President Abraham Lincoln’s call to all states that had not declared a secession, including Virginia, for troops to assist in halting the insurrection and recovering the captured forts.
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 rifleman 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 for Virginia attached called for three regiments of 2,340 men to rendezvous at Staunton, Wheeling and Gordonsville. Governor Letcher and the recently reconvened Virginia Secession Convention considered this request from Lincoln “for troops to invade and coerce” lacking in constitutional authority, and out of scope of the Act of 1795. Governor Letcher’s “reply to that call wrought an immediate change in the current of public opinion in Virginia”., whereupon he issued the following reply:
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.
— Respectfully, John Letcher
Thereafter, the secession convention voted on April 17, provisionally, to secede, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum. That same day, the convention adopted an ordinance of secession, in which it stated the immediate cause of Virginia’s declaring of secession, “the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States”.
E.L. Ayers, who felt that “even Fort Sumter might have passed, however, had Lincoln not called for the arming of volunteers”, wrote of the convention’s final decision:
The decision came from what seemed to many white Virginians the unavoidable logic of the situation: Virginia was a slave state; the Republicans had announced their intention of limiting slavery; slavery was protected by the sovereignty of the state; an attack on that sovereignty by military force was an assault on the freedom of property and political representation that sovereignty embodied. When the federal government protected the freedom and future of slavery by recognizing the sovereignty of the states, Virginia’s Unionists could tolerate the insult the Republicans represented; when the federal government rejected that sovereignty, the threat could no longer be denied even by those who loved the Union.
The Governor of Virginia immediately began mobilizing the Virginia State Militia to strategic points around the state. Former Governor Henry Wise had arranged with militia officers on April 16, before the final vote, to seize the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. On April 17 in the debate over secession Wise announced to the convention that these events were already in motion. On April 18 the arsenal was captured and most of the machinery was moved to Richmond. At Gosport, the Union Navy, believing that several thousand militia were headed their way, evacuated and abandoned Norfolk, Virginia and the navy yard, burning and torching as many of the ships and facilities as possible.
Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission, turning down an offer of command of the Union army. He would ultimately join the Confederate army instead.
Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified in a referendum held on May 23, 1861, by a vote of 132,201 to 37,451.
The Confederate Congress proclaimed Richmond to be new capital of the Confederacy and Confederate troops moved into northern Virginia before the referendum was held. The actual number of votes for or against secession are unknown since votes in many counties in northwestern and eastern Virginia (where most of Virginia’s unionists lived) were “discarded or lost.” Governor Letcher “estimated” the vote for these areas. Many unionists feared retaliation if they voted against secession because it wasn’t a secret ballot and Virginia’s pro-confederate government would have a record of their votes. Unionists who did attempt to vote were threatened with violence and even death on some occasions. Voting in Virginia was restricted to white males 21 years of age and above.
The reaction to the referendum was swift on both sides. Confederate troops shut down the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, one of Washington City’s two rail links to Ohio and points west. The next day, the U.S. Army moved into northern Virginia. With both armies now in northern Virginia, the stage was set for war. In June, Virginian unionists met at the Wheeling Convention to set up the Restored Government of Virginia. Francis Pierpont was elected governor. The restored government raised troops to defend the Union and appointed two Senators to the United States Senate. It resided in Wheeling until August 1863 when it moved to Alexandria with West Virginia’s admittance to the Union. During the summer of 1861, parts of the northern, western and eastern Virginia, including the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, were returned to Union control. Norfolk returned to union control in May 1862. These areas would be administered by the Restored Government of Virginia, with the northwestern counties later becoming the new state of West Virginia. In April 1865, Francis Pierpont and the Restored Government of Virginia moved to Richmond.
In 1894, Virginian and former Confederate soldier John S. Mosby, reflecting back on his role in the war, stated in a letter to friend that “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I’ve never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.”
Virginia’s strategic resources played a key role in dictating the objectives of the war there. Its agricultural and industrial capacity, and the means of transporting this production, were major strategic targets for attack by Union forces and defense by Confederate forces throughout the war.
The Confederate need for war materiel played a very significant role in its decision to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond in May 1861, despite its dangerous northern location 100 miles south of the United States capital in Washington, DC. It was mainly for this industrial reason that the Confederates fought so hard to defend the city. The capital of the Confederacy could easily be moved again if necessary, but Richmond’s industry and factories could not be moved.
Richmond was the only large-scale industrial city controlled by the Confederacy during most of the Civil War. The city’s warehouses were the supply and logistical center for Confederate forces. The city’s Tredegar Iron Works, the 3rd largest foundry in the United States at the start of the war, produced most of the Confederate artillery, including a number of giant rail-mounted siege cannons. The company also manufactured railroad locomotives, boxcars and rails, as well as steam propulsion plants and iron plating for warships. Richmond’s factories also produced guns, bullets, tents, uniforms, harnesses, leather goods, swords, bayonets, and other war materiel. A number of textile plants, flour mills, brick factories, newspapers and book publishers were located in Richmond. Richmond had shipyards too, although they were smaller than the shipyards controlled by the Union in Norfolk, Virginia.
The city’s loss to the Union army in April 1865 made a Union victory in the Civil War inevitable. With Virginia firmly under Union control, including the industrial centers of Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk, the mostly rural and agricultural deep south lacked the industry needed to supply the Confederate war effort.
At the outbreak of the war, Petersburg Virginia was second only to Richmond among Virginia cities in terms of population and industrialization. The juncture of five railroads, it provided the only continuous rail link to the Deep South. Located 20 miles (32 km) south of Richmond, its defense was a top priority; the day that Petersburg fell, Richmond fell with it.
In the western portion of the state (as defined today), the Shenandoah Valley was considered the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”. The valley was connected to Richmond via the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River and Kanawha Canal.
The Blue Ridge Mountains and similar sites had long been mined for iron, and (though as the war progressed, shortages in manpower limited their production). In southwest Virginia, the large salt works at Saltville provided a key source of salt to the Confederacy, essential in preserving food for use by the army. It was the target of two battles.
Virginia during the war
The first and last significant battles of the war were held in Virginia, the first being the First Battle of Bull Run and the last being the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. From May 1861 to April 1865, Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. The White House of the Confederacy, located a few blocks north of the State Capital, was home to the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The first major battle of the Civil War occurred on July 21, 1861. Union forces attempted to take control of the railroad junction at Manassas for use as a supply line, but the Confederate Army had moved its forces by train to meet the Union. The Confederates won the First Battle of Bull Run (known as “First Battle of Manassas” in southern naming convention) and the year went on without a major fight.
Union General George B. McClellan was forced to retreat from Richmond by Robert E. Lee’s army. Union General Pope was defeated at the Second Battle of Manassas. Following the one-sided Confederate victory Battle of Fredericksburg.
When fighting resumed in the spring of 1863, Union general Hooker was defeated at Chancellorsville by Lee’s army.
Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign was fought in Virginia. The campaign included battles of attrition at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor and ended with the Siege of Petersburg and Confederate defeat.
In September 1864, the Southern Punch, a newspaper based in Richmond, reiterated the Confederacy’s cause:
… WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE THAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the ground work…
— ”The New Heresy”, Southern Punch, (September 19, 1864)
In April 1865, a fire set in Richmond by the retreating Confederate Army burned 25 percent of the city before being put out by the Union army. It was the Union Army that saved the city from widespread conflagration and ruin. As a result, Richmond emerged from the Civil War as an economic powerhouse, with most of its buildings and factories undamaged.
West Virginia splits
The western counties could not tolerate the Confederacy; they formed a pro Union state government of Virginia in 1861 (recognized by Washington), then with its permission formed the new state of West Virginia in 1863.
At the Richmond secession convention on April 17, 1861, the delegates from western counties were 17 in favor and 30 against secession. From May to August 1861, a series of Unionist conventions met in Wheeling; the Second Wheeling Convention constituted itself as a legislative body called the Restored Government of Virginia. It declared Virginia was still in the Union but that the state offices were vacant and elected a new governor, Francis H. Pierpont, this body gained formal recognition by the Lincoln administration on July 4, but Congress did not seat its elected representatives. On August 20 the Wheeling body passed an ordinance for the creation; it was put to public vote on Oct. 24. The vote was in favor of a new state—West Virginia—which was distinct from the Pierpont government, which persisted until the end of the war. Congress and Lincoln approved, and, after providing for gradual emancipation of slaves in the new state constitution, West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.
During the War, West Virginia contributed about 32,000 soldiers to the Union Army and about 10,000 to the Confederate cause. Richmond of course did not recognize the new state, and Confederates did not vote there. Everyone realized the decision would be made on the battlefield, and Richmond sent in Robert E. Lee. But Lee found little local support and was defeated by Union forces from Ohio. Union victories in 1861 drove the Confederate forces out of the Monongahela and Kanawha valleys, and throughout the remainder of the war the Union held the region west of the Alleghenies and controlled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the north.
Virginians in the Civil War
Virginia’s Confederate government fielded about 150,000 troops in the American Civil War. They came from all economic and social levels, including some Unionists and former Unionists. However, at least 30,000 of these men were actually from other states. Most of these non-Virginians were from Maryland, whose government was controlled by Unionists during the war. Another 20,000 of these troops were from what would become the State of West Virginia in August 1863. Important Confederates from Virginia included General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Stonewall Jackson and General J.E.B. Stuart.
Roughly 50,000 Virginians served in the Union military, including West Virginians and roughly 6,000 Virginians of African ancestry. Some of these men served in Maryland units. Some African Americans, both freedmen and runaway slaves, enlisted in states as far away as Massachusetts. Areas of Virginia that supplied Union soldiers and sent few or no men to fight for the Confederacy had few slaves, a high percentage of poor families, and a history of opposition to secession. These areas were located near northern states and were often under Union control. 40% of Virginia’s officers in the United States military when the war started stayed and fought for the Union. These men included Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Union Army, David G. Farragut, First Admiral of the Union Navy, and General George Henry Thomas.
At least one Virginian actually served in both the Confederate and Union armies. At the beginning of the war, a Confederate soldier from Fairfax County approached the Union soldiers guarding Chain Bridge in his Confederate uniform. Asked what he was doing trying to cross the bridge, he responded that he was travelling to Washington, D.C. to see his uncle. The perplexed Union soldiers asked who his uncle was and the soldier replied his name is Uncle Sam. He was quickly enlisted as a Union scout due to his knowledge of the local terrain.
Numerous battlefields and sites have been partially or fully preserved in Virginia. Those managed by the Federal government include Manassas National Battlefield Park, Richmond National Battlefield Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.