Wednesday, February 2, 2011

February 4, 1861: Northern Virginians Head to the Polls

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.
On February 4, 1861, Virginians (or at least, white male Virginians) headed to the polls and elected all 152 delegates to the Convention.  Unionists candidates dominated by a margin of around two-to-one. Virginians also approved the ratification measure.  Results in Northern Virginia reflected the state-wide outcome.  Alexandria, Fairfax, Fauquier, and Loudoun Counties all elected delegates who were generally opposed to secession.*  Prince William County was alone in choosing a secessionist candidate.  Northern Virginians also voted two-to-one in favor of the voter reference clause.  Prince William County again stood alone.

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)
Some winning candidates were unquestionable in their stance for or against secession.  John A. Carter of Loudoun and George William Brent of Alexandria were strong Unionists who viewed secession as an abomination.  Carter considered the act to be unconstitutional.  Brent, at a public meeting on February 2, 1861, exclaimed that "while he was a submissionist to the constitution of his country, he was no submissionist to the precipitators of revolution" (as quoted in Feb. 4, 1861 edition of the Alexandria Gazette).  Delegate Eppa Hunton, a Commonwealth's Attorney from Prince William, was an unabashed secessionist who thought that the United States should allow the Southern states to leave the Union in peace.

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.


Kara Hoag said...

I really like this blog. I'll be back for more of it and hopefully have more entertaining comments next time I stop by.

visions unto myself

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. Glad you like the blog! I look forward to hearing from you again.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ron! I carry-on the discussion about the vote, and pressure from disunionists (in Va and SC), in two posts covering thoughts from my neck of the woods in this post here, and another post, here.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Robert. And great post regarding SC. The link to the other is broken, but I think you mean your most recent one, which is also fascinating:

It is always the extremsits that drag everyone else down! And in the Civil War era, this led to a national tragedy.

Steve Wolfsberger said...

I appreciate that you give the Fairfax Rifles credit for the John Quincy Marr image and links to our web site. I find your blog very interesting and hope your readers find additional items of interest on our site.

Keep up the good work.
Steve Wolfsberger
Webmaster, Fairfax Rifles

Ron Baumgarten said...

My pleasure, and glad you are enjoying the site. The Fairfax Rifles site contains many interesting items, including photos, and I would counsel all readers to check it out. (Click on Steve's name.)

I hope to meet you and members of your unit at some upcoming events during the 150th!