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Prelude to War

On January 7, 1861, at the call of "Honest John" Letcher, governor of the Commonwealth, the General Assembly of Virginia met in special session to consider the position of the Old Dominion amid the alarms and excitements occasioned by the election of Abraham to the presidency and the precipitate secession of South Carolina.1 On January 14th, against the recommendation of the Governor, this body enacted a statute that provided for the election of a constituent convention of the people of Virginia to deal with the crisis posed by secession.2 It was, however, specified in the bill that authorized the convention that any decision affecting Virginia-Federal relations should be legally valid only if ratified by the voters of the State.3

The election of convention members took place on February 4, 1861, and on February 13th the successful candidates assembled in Richmond, and the convention was called to order.4 Since a heavy majority of the members was regarded as Union men, there was much rejoicing throughout the North in the general belief that Virginia was safe from secession.5 In early test votes the Union majority seemed to have firm control of the convention, but as the weeks passed the unfolding sequence of events caused a shifting of opinion within the convention, and, consequently, a reduction of Union strength.6 As major links in this fateful chain of circumstances might be listed Lincoln's inaugural address, the failure of the Peace Conference, and the firing on Fort Sumter. The denouement of the series was the presidential call for seventy-five thousand volunteers, an act that is generally regarded as being the immediate cause of Virginia's secession.7

The attrition of Union strength within the convention had been in progress for weeks before the final hysterical scenes were enacted. By mid-April the mounting pressure of pro-Southern sentiment in Richmond had won over all but the most uncompromising Union men in the convention. On April 16th, the convention met behind closed doors, and the members were sworn [End Page 39] to secrecy.8 On the same day an extra-legal "Spontaneous People's Convention" assembled in Richmond at the call of Henry A. Wise. This body, which met in a hall some distance from that sheltering the legal convention, became a nucleus for secessionist agitation and a menace to the deliberations of the authorized body.9 On this same eventful day, ex-Governor Henry A. Wise set in motion plans for the seizure of the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and the Navy Yard at Norfolk.10

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Portrait of Governor Henry A. Wise; courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, WVU Libraries

On April 17th, after a wild harangue by Wise on the convention floor, and amid scenes of the greatest disorder and confusion, the secession ordinance was passed by a vote of eighty-eight to fifty-five. Of the fifty-five negative votes, forty-two came from members representing the trans-Allegheny section [End Page 40] of the State and the lower Valley.11 These Union members who represented western Virginia's constituencies were dumbfounded by the turn of events, but were generally determined to resist secession with all their strength. In order to outline a cooperative strategy for future action, several of them set in the room of Sherrard Clemens in the Powhatan Hotel. At this conference, it was agreed that the most effective course would be the immediate return of the delegates to western Virginia, and the launching there of an all-out drive to defeat secession at the polls on May 23rd when the referendum on the ordinance was to be held.12

As a result of this decision and of the efforts made to implement it, numerous mass meetings were held throughout western Virginia and countless resolutions condemning secession were enacted.13 The most important of these assemblages was undoubtedly that held in Clarksburg on April 22, 1861. Under the leadership of John S. Carlile, this body prepared an "Address to the People" and issued a call to the northwestern counties to send delegates to...


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