Please welcome guest author Lawrence M. Denton. Denton, an authority on the secession crisis, is the author of “A Southern Star for Maryland: Maryland and the Secession Crisis,” and “William Henry Seward and the Secession Crisis: The Effort to Prevent Civil War.” He held several academic administrative posts at the university level from 1968 to 1978. In 1978 he accepted an appointment to serve as special assistant to the associate administrator of NOAA, a presidential appointee. He ended his career representing the Weather Channel in Washington, and his new book “Unionists in Virginia: Politics, Secession and Their Plan to Prevent Civil War” is now available from the History Press. He will be speaking and signing books on Saturday, December 6 from 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. at the Tredegar Visitor Center located at the Richmond National Battlefield Park (3215 E Broad St, Richmond, VA).
During the thirty-plus years that I have been writing and lecturing about the secession crisis, two fundamental themes have emerged that make studying the antebellum era so complex for the modern researcher. First is the primitive nature of the social and behavioral sciences during that period of time, which led to society being downright primitive as well. Medicine was in its very early stage of modernization; head or abdominal wounds were considered fatal because physicians simply did not know how to treat them. Pasteur was just publishing his research on the “germ theory,” but it was not widely known and certainly not practiced. Psychology was in its infancy. Mary Todd Lincoln was put in an asylum for her bipolar disorder in May 1875, but nobody knew quite what to do with her other than isolation. 1
Sociology was in its infancy, too. It was thought that to educate a woman would do her physical harm. Slavery, yet another cruel beast of the era, was still practiced throughout the world. The social mores of the antebellum were downright crude.
A rather strict social “pecking order” was still in vogue. The vast majority of Americans, from both the North and South, were treated with near contempt by the “upper crust.” Punishment for crimes, some quite trivial, was often cruel and even inhumane (whipping was still practiced). Basic cleanliness and simple clothing necessities were often neglected. Folks usually bathed once a week, if that. Bruce Catton described the young recruits from what was then called the Northwest (today’s Midwest) being handed underwear and, never seeing it before, laughing and placing it on their heads. 2
Malnutrition was widespread, and common diseases of today often proved fatal. Infant mortality, especially among poor whites and free blacks, was exceedingly high. Dirty water was everywhere; it was claimed that Lincoln’s son, Willie, died from drinking polluted water in the White House. Mid-nineteenth-century America was, indeed, very primitive. For the twenty-first-century researcher, this crude nature of society must constantly be kept in mind; otherwise, very little makes much sense.
Second is the issue of the “slows,” the phrase Lincoln used to describe General McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. News traveled slowly. In the big cities, most papers were printed weekly, as only a handful of daily papers existed. While scientific work was in play, no radio, no telephone and certainly no television existed. Mail moved so slowly that often it took weeks for letters and newspapers to reach folks in rural areas.
While the telegraph, the revolutionary new means of communication, was available, it only reached cities and towns serviced by railroads (as the lines ran alongside railroad tracks). It was often unreliable and never secure. And railroads, the other revolutionary nineteenth-century invention, were considered rapid for running fifteen to twenty miles per hour. Most folks, in fact, walked or rode horses or wagons from place to place. Thus, the “slows” made it unbelievably difficult to control or influence rapidly changing events, much less keep track of them. Again, the modern researcher must keep the “slows” in mind when trying to understand the movement of events and the oftentimes haphazard way they transpired.
Richmond, Virginia, as seen from the south bank of the James River. Richmond was arguably the most magnificent city in the South in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
The primitive nature of antebellum society would produce scenes of a truly barbaric nature, as events in the upcoming war would so aptly demonstrate. Young boys would stand a few yards apart and shoot at one another from point-blank range. The “slows” would produce scenes from a tragic-comic opera. The right hand so often did not know what the left hand was doing that events often controlled the leaders, as Lincoln so poignantly observed late in the war. These two fundamental themes of antebellum America added an enormous complexity to an already complex setting.
“Wait for Virginia. See what she does.”
—William Wilkens Glenn, editor, Baltimore Daily Exchange, April 1861
Virginia was the most populous and wealthiest state in the South during the antebellum years. Geographically, it bordered two lower Northern states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and two Southern border states, Maryland and Kentucky. From its shore across the Potomac, one could see the White House. But Virginia was much more than statistics and geographic happenstance. The state had a special aura about it—it was the cradle of the nation’s first settlements, the birthplace of the “father of the country” and the incubator of the American form of republican government. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe added a luster that was unmatched by any other state.
Virginia truly occupied a unique position at this crucial moment in the nation’s history. In light of continuing scholarship regarding the secession crisis, is it fair to ask again: Could Virginians, with their rising Unionism, and with their rising anti–Slave Power sentiment, have led the nation from the brink of civil war during the winter and spring of 1861? 3
John Brown Baldwin, the rising young star of the Virginia Unionists, came from a distinguished family of Augusta County. He would serve on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia early in his career. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
William Henry Seward, “Mr. Republican” and secretary of state-designate during the Secession Winter, clearly saw the possibility and worked tirelessly to encourage the Unionists of Virginia to defeat the secessionists of the state. Abraham Lincoln, because of his lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the key players at the national level, was more reluctant than Seward to reach out to the Unionists. When he arrived in Washington, exhausted from his arduous trip from Springfield, he was badgered by men from all sides of the political spectrum, and he had virtually no close friends to lean on for advice.
A rarely told, but exceedingly important, story of the Civil War era is the effort anti-secession Virginians, dubbed Unionists by the press, played in trying to save the nation from war during the Secession Winter. These Virginians included such prominent men as John Brown Baldwin, George W. Summers, John Janney and Jubal Early, some of whom would end up becoming prominent Confederates.
These Unionists won an incredible victory over the Southern Rights Democratic Party, the party of the secessionists, in the election for delegates to the Virginia State Convention (the Secession Convention), on February 4, 1861 garnering 63% of the votes across the state. They immediately began to negotiate with William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, to find a way to preserve the peace. Exactly two months to the day later, they delivered an equally incredible victory to the Lincoln Administration (and the nation) in defeating an Ordinance of Secession. This just eight days before the firing on Fort Sumter.
The efforts of Virginia Unionists to defeat secession are reviewed in the new book, Unionists in Virginia. The volume documents how close they came to being true heroes by preventing Virginia from seceding. Several passages from Unionists in Virginia are cited below to illustrate the story:
John Letcher, governor of Virginia in 1861, was a Unionist who bitterly opposed former governor
Wise and his radical Southern Rights followers.
Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
Speaking of the Unionists victory, “It was in the Democratic stronghold counties of the Northwest region – those counties just to the south of the Panhandle where Breckinridge and the Southern Rights Democrats rolled to an impressive victory in the November election – that a political sea change occurred. Lifelong Democrats – again, those who had just voted for Breckinridge in November – now deserted the Democratic Party in astounding numbers and joined the Unionist movement, the movement sponsored by and controlled by Constitutional Unionists, most of whom were former Whigs, the lifelong opponents of these Democrats.”
Summing up the scene Virginia Unionists faced at the end of March, 1861, “So March ended in Richmond with the Unionists remaining in solid control of the Virginia State Convention – and with public support in the state solidly in their favor. Ominously for the peace of the nation, March ended in the nation’s capital with the president, his cabinet, the military high command and all their subordinates in a state of extreme turmoil and confusion. It was a scene from a tragic-comic opera, as the first days of April will attest.”
Referring to the defeat of the first Ordinance of Secession, “In a stunning victory for the Unionists, Harvie’s Ordinance of Secession was defeated by a vote of ninety to forty-five. Of the forty-five votes for the Ordinance of Secession, 70 per cent came from the black belt counties of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of the state (representing the Slave Power), a handful came from heavily enslaved pockets in the Southwest Region and, as previously noted, three votes came from the Northwest region, where those three delegates were clearly not representing the wishes of their constituents.”
Finally, a summary comment regarding these men who risked their political careers, indeed for some their lives, to save the nation from war, “In hindsight, it is easy to see the reasoning of many Virginians in relation to their Unionism. In mid-April 1861, looking forward, and not knowing that war would soon envelope them, these men were loyal, patriotic Americans who believed the leadership of the country would not desert them. In the end, the heroic Unionists of Virginia were betrayed by the politicians in Washington – and be the aristocrats in their very own state.”
To their enduring credit, “The Unionists of Virginia felt there was a better way than that of total war.”
1 In his recent book The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), Jason Emerson documents the travails of Mrs. Lincoln during her confinement.
2 Catton, Reflections on the Civil War.
3 The works of many secession crisis experts will be cited throughout this book, especially works by the leaders of this movement, Daniel W. Crofts and William W. Freehling. A lesser-known source, but one of particular note, is the doctoral dissertation of Patricia E. Hickin, “Antislavery in Virginia, 1831–1861,” presented in June 1968 to the graduate faculty of the University of Virginia. Although modern social historians have downplayed her work, the 832-page, two-volume study is still the most detailed reference on the subject and should not be dismissed.