As South Carolina and states of the Deep South left the Union in the winter of 1860-61, the Virginia General Assembly called a Convention to consider the question of secession. This Friday marks the 150th anniversary of Virginia's state-wide election of delegates to the Convention. (I blogged briefly about the election in Fairfax a few months ago.) Voters were also asked to decide whether the Convention's ultimate decision on secession should be submitted to them for ratification.
|Map of Virginia Showing the Distribution of its Slave Population from the Census of 1860 (courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch). Despite the prevalence of slaveholding in Virginia, the majority of delegates elected to the state Convention were initially opposed to joining the slave states of the Deep South in leaving the Union.|
A closer examination of the candidates' positions in the run-up to the election indicates that some pro-Union winners hedged their bets, like all good politicians. Loudoun candidate John Janney, a Leesburg lawyer, was opposed to secession, but did not rule it out in the event that all other options were exhausted. Robert Scott, a Fauquier planter and lawyer who was elected delegate, wrote to a friend that:
I am strongly attached to the Union. . . . But I think the slaveholding states ought not, cannot, and will not submit to any party, policy or power that denies to the interests that spring from slave labor the same consideration and respect that is extended by the government to the interests that spring from free labor. In this there must be strict equity.John Quincy Marr, a militia officer elected from Fauquier, favored the Union, but informed voters in a letter published January 26, 1861 that he would vote for secession if Virginia's honor and safety demanded as much. (Marr later became the first Confederate officer killed in battle.) The Fairfax News even considered that William Dulany, the pro-Union Commonwealth's Attorney elected from Fairfax, would not purchase peace and unity "at the price of the honor and interests of Virginia." The paper concluded, "hence we infer that Mr. D. is not opposed to secession as a dernier resort."
|John Quincy Marr, delegate from Fauquier County and later captain of the Warrenton Rifles, which officially became Co. K, 17th Virginia after Marr's death (courtesy of the Fairfax Rifles)|
The Convention convened in Richmond on February 13. A vote on secession was still a few months away, and the delegates would have plenty of time to refine their positions further as events unfolded.
*In 1861, the City of Alexandria was part of Alexandria County. In 1870, the city became independent of the county, and it was not until 1920 that Alexandria County became Arlington County.
Note on sources:
"Secessionist Sentiment in Northern Virginia: December 1860 to May, 1861" by James Neale Stirewalt, published in Vol. 10 (1969) of the Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, contains a thorough account on the February 1861 elections and includes quotations from many primary sources. For a more recent overall account, see Brent Tarter, "Virginians Initially Opposed Secession from Union," Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 28, 2010.