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.
I was hoping that yesterday’s post would not turn into another round of the same old back and forth over the cause of the war, but that is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, most of what is usually offered in such discussions lacks any serious analysis and/or context. I was hoping to encourage readers to share those books that have informed their understanding of the coming of secession and war. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorites, though I could just as easily have chosen five others.
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.
Congratulations to John Hennessy of the NPS and Sara Poore of the Fredericksburg Area Museum for organizing a wonderful event yesterday that included a rare opportunity to tour the grounds of Brompton as well as listen to historians George Rable and William Freehling. More than 600 people attended the event at the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church, which is quite an accomplishment given the beautiful weather as well as the subject. Read John’s thoughts about the day’s proceedings at Fredericksburg Remembered. John and Sara are two of the hardest working public historians in the business and I hope that the people of Fredericksburg appreciate their commitment to organizing programs for the local community that are both entertaining and educational.
One of the more interesting moments took place during the Q&A following John’s talk on the secession debate that took place in Fredericksburg. A member of the audience suggested that the lack of slave rebellions during the antebellum period suggested to him that slaves may have, in fact been content. No surprise that John handled the question directly and with the sensitivity that it deserved. What surprised me, however, was that after John finished with his response a large percentage of the audience clapped. The response suggests that these questions are no longer appropriate to ask. Yes, we can have serious discussions about the complexity of the master-slave relationship, but thankfully we seem to have moved beyond being able to suggest that people were content being slaves.
Thanks to everyone involved for organizing this event.