- Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union
Secession continues to excite historians and intrigue the public mind 149 years after the first shots of the Civil War were fired. The war supposedly settled the legal issue of secession, but professional and amateur historians alike continue to debate the justifications and reasons for the rift that tore our nation apart. The debates continue because of the complexity of secession. Much like the proverbial description of an elephant by a group of the blind, secession and its history depends upon the perspectives of its students. Somewhere in the combination of these perspectives lies the truth.
William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson contribute to these perspectives with their new book, Showdown in Virginia. This new work essentially condenses the four volumes of Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, edited by George H. Reese in 1965, and annotates the selected speeches. This digest is a truly phenomenal task that doubtless will benefit scholars who seek a reference work that is handier than the four-volume set. Showdown in Virginia delves into arguably the most complicated secession story of any state. Virginia wrestled with the pressures from its position between the North and South, its role as a symbolic leader among states in the founding of the country, its mixed economy that made its position on slavery ambivalent, and its own sectional strife. Freehling and Simpson provide a look at the way in which Virginia, during its convention in the late winter and early spring of 1861, underwent self-examination as it contemplated its place in the Secession Crisis. The reader certainly will come away with a greater understanding of secession as a whole and in Virginia in particular. [End Page 84]
Nevertheless, except for brief annotations, the book adds nothing new that the primary work, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, does not already provide. Reese's work is available to those who wish to research the subject, and that creates problems for Freehling and Simpson's book. It is too in depth for a cursory study of secession in Virginia but not deep enough for the serious student, who would benefit more from Reese's proceedings. A thorough, analytical work might have been more useful to scholars.
In terms of content, slavery overshadows other issues in the annotations, particularly with notes of the percentage of "enslaved" population in each convention delegate's county. Slavery was the tip of the iceberg in debates that hinged upon sectionalism. While slavery played a crucial role in the Secession Crisis in the state, notations of the slave population in each county might have fit better in an appendix. Another appendix that provided biographical sketches of key convention speakers and an index also would have been useful. Freehling and Simpson are undisputed experts on secession, but factual errors in any book can cause the reader to begin to scrutinize. The pity is that the book then can begin to unravel for the reader. An example in Showdown in Virginia is the editors' identification of John S. Carlile as a senator from West Virginia. Carlile in fact represented Virginia's pro-union "restored" government in the U.S. Senate.
Showdown in Virginia is an interesting addition to the works on Virginia and West Virginia history in the Civil War era, and its value lies in the demand for any new insight on the subject. Beyond an initial reading, however, one might be tempted to seek a more in-depth treatment or to go back to the old standby, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861. [End Page 85]