The View From Virginia in 1861
I am putting the finishing touches on my Crisis at Fort Sumter simulation, which my students will work on throughout this week and present next Tuesday. Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions on primary and secondary sources. One of the documents that I am including comes from William Freehling and Craig Simpson’s edited collection of speeches from the Virginia State Convention that met in early 1861 to discuss the secession crisis. I want my class to reflect on the importance of maintaining Virginia in the Union along with the rest of the Upper South. On April 4 the Virginia convention voted 88 – 45 to remain in the Union.
Included in their documents is an excerpt from a speech given by Representative Chapman Stuart of
Augusta County Tyler and Doddridge counties on April 5. What I like about this document is that it first reminds us that slavery was central to the concerns of this group. Most convention members would certainly have disagreed with folks today who deny the centrality of slavery in the deliberations of Virginians in the wake of Lincoln’s election and inauguration and in contrast with those states that viewed the Republican Party as an immediate threat. What they miss is the fact that many conditional and unconditional Unionists believed that the institution of slavery was safer in the Union.
Chapman owned no slaves and yet he puts forth a vigorous defense of the institution and a commitment to working with colleagues from the Tidewater who owned the majority of Virginia’s slaves. I hope my students are able to use this document to reinforce a line of argument that cautions Lincoln not to threaten the loyalty of those who up to this point have prevented Virginia from seceding. Stuart references the strong desire of his constituents, who hope to maintain ties with the North. Of course, that could easily be challenged depending on how the situation develops in Charleston and the types of choices white Southerners are forced to confront as a result.