Teaching Virginia’s “Reluctant Decision”

Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes.  We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede.  This is not an easy task.  While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult.  Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.

Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.  In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia.  In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861.  What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee.  The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery.  As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation.  In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it.  And that brings us to the final problem:  We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South.  It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.

This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.  For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement.  Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages.  The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion.  I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.  The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues.  In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union.  Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present.  The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves.  The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter.  Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.

I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.

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45 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Jan 5, 2011 @ 9:48

    When last we visited the Virginia State Capital, the docent pointed out where Lee stood and sat when he was presented to the Convention. They failed to mention that Lee was not the primary attraction on April 23, 1861. The guest speaker was Alexander Stephens, making one of his half dozen or so repetitions of the Cornerstone Speech.

    George H Reese, editor, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13 — May 1; In Four Volumes, Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1865, 4: 370-390

  • Sara B. Bearss Jan 4, 2011 @ 13:36

    You may also wish to direct students to the Library of Virginia’s Web site, “Union or Secession: Virginians Decide,” which contains forty biographies and about 220 documents related to the secession winter in Virginia. http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/union_or_secession/

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2011 @ 13:39

      Absolutely. Thanks for the link, Sara. You guys are doing amazing work.

  • Ole Roy Jan 4, 2011 @ 12:46

    Read the County of Jones in Mississippi ! It is Great.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2011 @ 12:50

      I’ve read Vikki Bynum’s excellent study as well as the more recent book by Stauffer and Jenkins.

  • Craig Jan 3, 2011 @ 3:32

    Even in the deep south, secession was not a forgone conclusion. As I mention in a post today, if voting irregularities are taken into account, voting in Georgia demonstrated a very small majority in favor of secession. And even at the convention, the first secession-leaning resolution only passed by a 30 delegate margin. A lot of lobbying, deal-making, and posturing occurred to sway those final votes.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 3:41

      Thanks for the comment, Craig. I agree. I didn’t mean to suggest that secession in the Deep South was inevitable, but that it seems easier pinpointing the root issue that did, in fact, drive those states out of the Union in the wake of Lincoln’s election. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the Upper South.

      • Craig Jan 3, 2011 @ 5:35

        Oh, I don’t think you made such a suggestion, and wasn’t implying that. I also agree that the motives for secession in the deep South are easier to identify. I think that has a lot to do with the lobbying, deal-making, and posturing mentioned in my earlier comment.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 4:50

      That became more evident toward the end of the War as the anti-Confederate forces within the Southern states became more powerful. Every Confederate state but one contributed at least one all-white regiment to the Union Army. (That is not to imply that the all-white regiments were better then the all-black regiments. It merely hi-lites a much over-looked aspect of the War Between the States.) While it is true that a lot of Northerners “went South”, it is also true that many Southerners “went North”.

      It is often pointed out that on a national scale, this was not a “Civil War”. On the state level (especially in the Ozarks) it was very much a civil war.

  • Dick Stanley Jan 2, 2011 @ 21:33

    It is telling that secession took so long in Virginia. Although it took even longer in Tennessee which had a similar dynamic about slavery and Union sympathy. The Tennessee Secesh lost their first try and didn’t win out until June.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 4:34

      My understanding (based only on a small amount of reading) is that Tennessee was the only Confederate State that did not secede. They were never able to get a majority, and instead of seceding they simply declared war on the United States. The irony is that as things played out, the Union Army controlled the pro-secession half of the state, and the Confederate Army controlled the pro-Union half of the state.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jan 3, 2011 @ 6:49

      What the people of a state actually wanted did not appear to be of much concern to secessionists. Missouri Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson secretly plotted with Confederate authorities to turn his state over the Confederacy, including using his authority over the Missouri State Militia in what was ultimately an unsuccessful plot to seize the US St. Louis Arsenal, even after “March 21 The Missouri State Convention adjourns after voting against secession, stating “no adequate cause [existed] to impel Missouri to dissolve her connections with the Federal Union.” The final vote was 98-1.” http://www.mcwm.org/history_militaryoperation1861.html. Jackson was ultimately forced into exile in the Confederacy. It will never be known what action, if any, the US government would have taken against him post-war since Jackson died of cancer in 1862.

      • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 7:29

        When discussing any part of the War Between the States, there is a lot of room for “spin”. When talking about the Kansas/Missouri War, the Ozark Civil War, and especially the Camp Jackson Affair it is all spin. Like a tornado, things spun around so fast that even at this late date it is impossible to seperate fact from spin. I make no pretense of knowing exactly what happened in St Louis. I do know that a number of cousins of my ancestors were in the Missouri Home Guard and were federalized into the Union regiments that took part in the affair.

        I remeber a few years ago talking to some of the folks who were working to organize the Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks. I lost track of what was going on, but I am glad to see that they are making good progress. It is a fitting place since it is where Jefferson Davis and Robert Anderson delivered Blackhawk early in their careers. I doubt that either of them could have imagined that they would one day be confronting each other across Charleston Harbor.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 7:39

          I’m not sure what you mean by “spin”. Historians must interpret/analyze any event in history in order to better understand it. One hopes that the “spin” is based on a careful reading of the evidence.

          • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 9:12

            I think (but am often wrong) that you feel that some of those more egregious folks who write about Black Confederates are using “spin”. The only account of what happened in St Louis that made sense to me was the one written by Cump Sherman. (Actually, I probably only read a small snippet of what he said.)

            • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 9:14

              Well, I wouldn’t describe it as “spin” as much as I would say that they don’t understand how to apply the historical method.

              • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 11:02


        • Margaret D. Blough Jan 3, 2011 @ 20:00

          Arleigh-I highly recommend “Wilson’s Creek” by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher. The opening chapters do an excellent job of setting forth the extreme complexities and the very colorful players on both sides of the struggle over the course Missouri would chart in the Civil War.

          • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2011 @ 2:24

            Excellent book, Margaret.

          • Arleigh Birchler Jan 4, 2011 @ 4:53

            Sounds like a very good book. One that I enjoyed was Civil War In The Ozarks by Phillip W. Steele & Steve Cottrell. A number of years ago I did a lot of reading on the War Between the States. My focus was on the War in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas, since that is where my ancestors on both sides of the conflict lived and fought. Currently I spend most of my time studying Carolina Native Plants. I am starting to read a bit more again, and I will see if this book is available in a local library. (I save my money for plants, seeds, and trips to natural plant habitats.)

  • Francis Hamit Jan 2, 2011 @ 16:14

    Kevin: In my research for “The Shenandoah Spy” I came across two factors you might want to consider. The concept of political loyalty was often lodged at the state level. Had Virginia gone the other way, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson would have fought just as hard on the Union side. Public perceptions of the issues were managed by those in favor of secession shouting down anyone who favored the Union view and/or using hired thugs to suppress descent. Virginians who went to the Union side, such as David Hunter Strother and Ward Hill Lamon (Lincoln’s law partner, bodyguard and political operative) had moved away and been exposed to other points of view. Loyalty at the state level may partialy account for the “Black Confederate” phenomena. Belle Boyd relied upon Black servants, (her own and those of others) to gather information and do other tasks such as carry messages). These same servants may have also been part of the Underground Railroad networks, Loyalty is usually personal and not some political abstraction.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2011 @ 16:44

      Thanks for the comment. You said: “Had Virginia gone the other way, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson would have fought just as hard on the Union side.” Well, a very large section of Virginia did “go the other way”. Actually, the pro-Union voice was very influential right up until the very end of the debate. In fact, the votes during the secession debates were decidedly in favor of remaining in the Union until the end. I don’t know what “hired thugs” you are referring to in your comment.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 2, 2011 @ 23:39

        Kevin-One very noteworthy Virginia (later West Virginia) Unionist was Laura Jackson Arnold, Stonewall Jackson’s beloved younger sister. The two were very close but they split over secession. Laura was such a staunch Unionist that she was honored during and after the war for it and it led to her split and ultimate divorce from her pro-secessionist husband. While she appears to have remained in contact with her sister-in-law, the siblings stopped communicating after Stonewall Jackson went with the Confederacy. Gen. Jackson’s death did not appear to soften his sister’s position. The Civil War Women blog states (http://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/2010/11/laura-jackson-arnold.html), “a Pennsylvania Cavalry officer recorded her reaction in a letter home. When she “heard of her brother’s death, she seemed much depressed, but said she would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army.” I do love the quote from that blog about Laura Jackson’s husband, Jonathan Arnold, “In a May 1863 letter to his wife, in which he discusses the fighting near Beverly, local attorney Mortimer Johnson wrote: “Mrs. J. Arnold – sister of Gen. Jackson – went off with the Yankees. Arnold stayed at home, says he is a good southern man, that his wife is crazy, but Hell he says, could not govern a Jackson.” “

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 2:50

          Thanks for reminding us of Jackson’s own sister. Great story.

        • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 4:29

          I had wondered why Thomas J Jackson would become a Confederate General. It never seemed to fit.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jan 2, 2011 @ 18:42

      Actually, Lee had made it clear that he would sit out a civil war absent Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy. He made that quite clear in his correspondence.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 2:51

        Thanks for the reminder, Brooks.

      • Arleigh Birchler Jan 3, 2011 @ 4:36

        That rather negates a lot of the popular thougt about Lee and his role.

        • Andy Hall Jan 3, 2011 @ 6:21

          Remember — American Experience biography of Lee, tonight on PBS at 9 pm eastern.

          • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 6:29

            Definitely worth watching. PBS sent me a preview a few weeks back. I’ve been meaning to write up a review. I know that Harry Smeltzer posted on a few days ago.

  • Katherine Gotthardt Jan 2, 2011 @ 16:06

    This is such a wonderful, educational blog! So glad I stumbled upon it.

    I was struck by the fact that VA “did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.” Dates slip through my memory too easily, so this is a detail I never would have noticed had you not pointed it out.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2011 @ 16:44

      Thanks for the kind words, Katherine.

      • Katherine Gotthardt Jan 3, 2011 @ 3:04

        I hope you don’t mind if I steal some facts and post them on my blog—with a link back to you, of course.

        It has been so long since I’ve studied history in any formal manner that I had forgotten about Jackson’s sister. Thank you, Margaret!

        BTW I do hope I can add more than thank-yous to the conversation at some point 🙂

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2011 @ 3:39

          That’s the idea of blogging. Go right ahead.

  • Leonard Lanier Jan 2, 2011 @ 14:55

    Another helpful tool, both for the scholar and the novice, is the new digital version of the Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia created by the University of Richmond. The database allows for keyword searches. Located at the following link,


    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2011 @ 14:57

      Thanks Leonard. They are doing some great work down at UofR.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 2, 2011 @ 17:03

      I tried it. I like the map that shades each county by the number of times the word or phrase shows up.

  • Marc Ferguson Jan 2, 2011 @ 14:09

    This really is a fine book, and a very useful one! Yes, the politics surrounding the secession debate in Virginia were quite complex, and Lincoln calling for militia was certainly the final event that allowed the secessionists to prevail, but the speeches excerpted here should leave no doubt that issues surrounding slavery were at the heart of the debate in Virginia over secession.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 2, 2011 @ 12:06

    I enjoyed Stephen B Oats “The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861”. I realize that it would not be appropriate for an academic class. I read it while continually reminding myself that it is a fictionalized book. Perhaps students who want “something else” would enjoy the book, also.

    The debate in North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia was never an open and shut decision. Even in those states that did secede there were strong areas of Unionists who continued to oppose the Confederacy. North Carolina, including the Governor, had a strong anti-Confederate streak. Yet the Old North State provided a very large number of men to the Confederate Army. Soldiers do not necessarily agree with the folks in high postions who call the shots for the government that they serve.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2011 @ 12:11

      I read that one as well and thought it was a creative approach to understanding the period. Unfortunately, the other books weren’t as good. Thanks for the comment.

  • Mike Gorman Jan 2, 2011 @ 11:42

    Wouldn’t be terribly hard to do – maybe we should become dramatists!

  • Mike Gorman Jan 2, 2011 @ 10:59

    “I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.” Actually, since the papers covered the conventions word by word as well, you could really easily create a three act play out of the thing – I’ve been tempted more than once.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2011 @ 11:05


      That’s exactly what I had in mind.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 2, 2011 @ 11:44

        Then the knock-down drag out fight will be for who plays former (not that he paid any attention to his change of status) Gov. Wise, who is definitely the juiciest role.

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