Members of the Richmond Grays militia (First Virginia Regiment) on guard duty at Charles Town, Va., (now Charleston, W. Va.), during the trial of John Brown, December 1859. Photo courtesy Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
In January 1861, the United States was coming apart like a ship in a hurricane.
Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 7, the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama seized U.S. military forts and arsenals inside their borders, and two days later, Mississippi seceded from the nation.
Meanwhile the Union ship, the Star of the West, attempted to harbor in South Carolina's Charleston to re-supply Fort Sumter. Cadets from the Citadel, the city's military academy, fired on the ship.
South Carolina Gov. Francis Pickens ordered 1,000 kegs of black powder and 20,000 pounds of shot and shell from Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works. Its president, Joseph Reid Anderson, was pro-South, according to Mark Howell, director of education for the American Civil War Center. But Anderson was also a businessman who recognized opportunity.
"Will make anything you want," Anderson telegraphed to South Carolina, " — work night and day if necessary, and ship by rail."
He said he would charge South Carolina the same amount that he charged the state's opponent — the U.S. government. Howell says, "Anderson kept working both sides of the fence right up to the day Virginia seceded," Howell says.
Richmond, as always, hesitated at the precipice.
"I don't think it's possible to stress how strong was the Unionist sentiment in much of Virginia, including Richmond," says John M. Coski, historian and director of library and research at the Museum of the Confederacy.
Not among the secessionists was Gov. John Letcher from Lexington, Va. But Letcher followed Gov. Henry Wise, a vehement secessionist whose order led to the execution of abolitionist John Brown.
A generational divide existed. Young people were ashamed that Virginia ceded leadership to South Carolina. "They were incredulous and indignant at the state's political leaders' inability and unwillingness to act," Coski says.
Letcher ordered a special session of the General Assembly, and the legislature called for a conference of states in Washington, D.C. to discuss "the present unhappy controversies."
The delegation from 14 free and seven slave states met at the Willard Hotel in February. With former cabinet members, governors, congressmen and sitting state judges, the gathering became known as "The Old Gentlemen's Convention." And it accomplished nothing. On Feb. 4, while the "Old Gentlemen" met, Southern states convened in Montgomery, Ala., and formed a provisional Confederate government.
In Cry Havoc!, Nelson D. Lankford's reconstruction of the eight weeks leading to national rupture, he explains that when Virginia state delegates met in Richmond on Feb. 13, they weren't convening a secessionist conference. Less than a third of them favored immediate separation.
"In the Union lay safety," Lankford summarizes, "the greatest hope for the upper South and for its continued prosperity based on slavery. The region had no common interest with the Cotton Kingdom of the Deep South. The Confederacy's wild course threatened everything the founding fathers had created."
On April 4, Virginia delegates voted 88 to 44 against secession. Meanwhile, a "People's Spontaneous Convention" of 400 members gathered in sight of the Virginia Capitol to pressure the delegates to separate from the Union.
Within two weeks, Southern guns fired upon Fort Sumter, and wild celebrations erupted in Richmond. Then, in a move that pushed delegates to the Confederate side, President Lincoln demanded that 8,000 Virginians join a volunteer force to quash the rebellion. On April 17, state delegates voted 88 to 55 in favor of secession.
The Library of Virginia's Brent Tarter observes, "On April 17, the question was no longer whether the secession of Virginia was legal or wise or prudent or safe or in the interest of Virginia or whether slavery was safer inside the Union or outside; the question on April 17 was simply, ‘Will Virginia fight against the United States of America?' "
The Library of Virginia's exhibition, "Union or Secession: The Virginia People Decide," runs Dec. 6-Oct. 29, 2011, in tandem with "The Struggle to Decide: Virginia's Secession Crisis," opening Dec. 13 at the Virginia State Capitol Visitors Center. Visit virginiamemory.com for details.