Monday, May 23, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Voters of Fairfax Approve the Ordinance of Secession

As I wrote a few months ago, in February 1861 Virginians elected delegates to a state convention called to consider the issue of secession. They also approved a voter reference clause under which any decision in favor of secession would be submitted to a popular referendum. In Fairfax County, the reference clause passed by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.  Following two months of debate, the Convention finally adopted an Ordinance of Secession on April 17 and voted to send the Ordinance to a statewide referendum.   

Pending the Ordinance, David Hunter Strother (courtesy of Library of Virginia)

On May 23, 1861, Virginians across the state headed to the polls to vote on secession.  (Of course, it goes without saying that in 1860s America, blacks and women were disenfranchised, so the vote was really in the hands of white males.)  In many ways, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, or at least the state government treated it that way.  Virginia began to mobilize immediately after the Convention's decision.  Within a few days, state troops had seized key federal installations at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard. Virginia also offered to join the Confederate States of America, and invited the new government to move its capital to Richmond.  By the time of the May 23 referendum, Rebel forces were amassing in northeastern Virginia, not far from Washington. 

The Results of the Vote in Fairfax County
State-wide, the referendum passed by a vote of 125,950  to 20,373.  (Governor John Letcher estimated that an additional 2,934 voted for secession and 11,761 against.)  In Fairfax County, as in other counties across Northern Virginia,* the vote went overwhelmingly in favor of secession.  According to official returns, out of a total of 1,231 votes, 942, or 77 percent, voted to ratify the Ordinance, and 289, or 23 percent, voted against it.**  Four precincts (Bailiss', Centreville, Ross', and West End) voted unanimously for secession.  Only three of fourteen precincts -- Lewinsville, Lydecker's, and Accotink -- went against the tide and rejected the Ordinance.  All but 49 of the county's "no" votes came from these three precincts.  (The actual voting records can be found here.)

Wartime view of Vienna, Virginia, by A.R. Waud.  Lydecker's Store, where voting took place, is  to the right of the tree in the center of the sketch.  The vote at Lydecker's was 44 to 78 against secession  (courtesy of Library of Congress).
Lydecker's Store today.  This photo was taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011, almost 150 years to the day that the vote was held in Vienna.

On May 21, 2011, Historic Vienna, Inc. sponsored a 150th anniversary reenactment of the secession vote at the Freeman Store (Lydecker's) in Vienna.  Here, a tobacco farmer casts his vote for the Ordinance.  I will feature some thoughts about the reenactment in a future post.

Possible Explanations for the Outcome in Fairfax
The vote, both state-wide and in Fairfax, represented a significant change of heart.  After all, Virginia had elected a moderate Unionist majority to the Convention.  In Fairfax County, pro-Union candidate William Dulany defeated the secessionist Alfred Moss by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent.  But April had been a turbulent month, and the political landscape looked considerably different than a few months before. 

Voters may have changed their views on secession for a number of reasons.  All hope for compromise disappeared after the attack on Ft. Sumter, and many saw President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers as a coercive use of federal power against fellow slave states.  Pro-secession voters also sought to demonstrate loyalty by rallying behind their native state, which for all intents and purposes, had already left the Union.  Even Dulany, who voted against the Ordinance on April 17, decided that his allegiance to Virginia was paramount.   He became the first person to vote for secession in Sangster's precinct on May 23. 

A few factors may explain the "no" votes in Fairfax. The county had seen an influx of Northern migrants prior to the war.  These transplants may have remained loyal to the Union and opposed the Ordinance. One notable migrant, Abram Lydecker from New Jersey, voted against secession at the polling place located in his Vienna store.  Some Fairfax residents, who depended on trade with nearby Washington, may have considered secession as against their economic interest.  Perhaps other voters feared that secession would bring war to their very doorstep.  Dulany himself had given this concern as a reason for his initial vote against secession.  Fairfax, particularly around Accotink, was also home to Quakers, whose pacifism may have led them to vote against secession out of a desire to avoid civil war.

Intimidation and Irregularities
Intimidation and voting irregularities also played an unfortunate role in the referendum's outcome.  Because voice voting was the practice in Virginia at the time, everyone in a precinct would know how their neighbors voted on the referendum.  Such an atmosphere at the polls was conducive to peer pressure and intimidation.  The Southern Claims Commission (SCC) files of approved claims for Fairfax County contain numerous references to threats and harassment used to intimidate voters.  John Lynch of Falls Church, for instance, headed to the polls on May 23, but he and several others left without voting when one of the election officials told Lynch that if he voted against the Ordinance he "would be regarded as a traitor."  John Hart of Centreville did not even go to the polls "because of threats."  Josiah Bowman of Vienna also recalled that he did not vote on the Ordinance "because we were threatened."

"How Virginia Was Voted Out of the Union," Harper's Weekly, June 15, 1861 (courtesy of
Others refused to be intimidated.  John W. Devers went to vote at Accotink, where "the Rebels had thrown old Mr. Plaskett out of the door."  A man by the name of Willis Henderson told Devers that "if I did not vote for secession I would be taken in the woods and hung."  Devers replied that "I would die in a good cause," and then voted against the Ordinance.  Of course, some voters may not have been as brave in the face of intimidation.  And in such small communities, news about threats must surely have traveled quickly and could have dampened pro-Union turnout.  We may never know how many voters stayed away that day due to intimidation.

There is also at least one episode of possible intimidation by pro-secession military units.  According to a contemporary account in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, the vote against secession in Accotink would have been even larger "'if there had not been a Company of Virginia Cavalry marched into the village the night preceding the election.'"  The cavalrymen "'hung out a secession flag on one side of the street, and the Union men immediately flung the Stars and Stripes to the breeze from a window immediately opposite.'"  The Tribune implies that at least 40 voters may have stayed away from the polls in Accotink on May 23 due to the presence of secessionist forces. William Smith, a witness in the SCC case of John Devers, also mentions the "rebel cavalry" at Accotink.  When he went to vote, Smith was told "by a rebel that if I voted against the Ordinance, I would lose my property and perhaps get greased before I got home."  The results for Accotink reveal that Smith never cast his vote.

Other records raise questions about possible voting irregularities. The results for Bailiss' precinct show four names crossed out (one of which is crossed out twice) in the "for rejection" column and moved to the "for ratification" column. The voting returns indicate that "[b]y desire of the voters. . . their votes have been changed." Nothing explains what motivated these men to switch their votes, but such a change after the fact calls into question the legitimacy of the four votes. Incidentally, Bailiss' precinct went unanimously for the Ordinance. A separate document among the Fairfax voting returns shows the Fairfax Cavalry as casting 27 votes for, and 1 against, the referendum. The election officials noted that they received these votes "under protest" given that the Fairfax Cavalryhad allegedly voted on the Ordinance in Alexandria on May 21.

We may never know the full impact of intimdation and voting irregularities. As the SCC files show us, at least some voters in Fairfax stayed away from the polls due to threats. However, without more evidence, we cannot conclude that ratification of the Ordinance was mostly attributable to improper means. In any event, intimidation and threats cast a pall on the voting that day. And the fact that Virginia was already in rebellion against the United States made the referendum seem like a rubber stamp exercise in popular sovereignty. Interesting to ponder what would have happened if the vote had gone the other way 150 years ago.

* Other counties in Northern Virginia voted as follows:
Alexandria 958 for, 106 against (some accounts say 48 against)
Fauquier 1809 for, 4 against
Loudoun 1621 for, 726 against
Prince William 841 for, 38 against

**The total number of "yes" votes listed on the official returns appears not to be accurate.  Each precinct numbered the votes for and against the referendum sequentially next to each voter's name, so that the total "yes" and "no" vote for each precinct was dervived by looking at the number written next to the individuals who cast the last "yes" and "no" vote.  When reviewing the original returns online, I noticed that due to numbering errors, 4 votes were not counted, and 1 vote was added accidentially, meaning that there were 945 in favor (gain of +3).  Regardless, such errors do not alter the overall ratio of "yes" to "no" votes in the county in any meaningful way.

Note on Sources

The following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Thomas P. Chapman, Jr., "The Secession Election in Fairfax County--May 23, 1861," Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, Vol. 5 (1955); Brian A. Conley, Fractured Land: Fairfax County's Role in the Vote for Secession, May 23, 1861 (2001) (contains many primary source documents on the vote); Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide (2011) (online resource); Charles V. Mauro, The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers (2006); Southern Claims Commission, Approved Claims for Fairfax County, Virginia, available on;  James Neale Stirewalt, "Secessionist Sentiment in Northern Virginia: December 1860 to May, 1861," Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County. Vol. 10 (1969); "The Vote for Secession in Virginia," New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, May 31, 1861.

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