The Change of Secession Sentiment in Virginia in 1861

This is an article by James Elliott Walmsley from the American Historical Review, Volume XXXI, No. 1, October, 1925, pages 82-101. It consists of two sets of letters. The first set is from Judge Edward Calohill Burks, of Liberty, Virginia (now Bedford, VA) and Lynchburg, VA, who at this time was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He wrote these letters to Rowland D. Buford, clerk of Bedford County. The second set of letters is from James Hervey Otey, an Episcopal priest and educator, who was the first bishop of Tennessee.

On January 7, 1861, Burks wrote to Buford, “Times are wild and revolutionary here beyond description. A committee has been appointed to bring in a bill for a convention as soon as practicable. I think it will pass almost unanimously. the East under the pressing circumstances will not insist on mixed basis of representation, this seems to be conceded. I fear the Union is irretrievably gone.” [p. 83] In a follow-up on January 11, Burks said, “The House of Delegates have just adjourned after a very exciting session. While we were discussing the Convention Bill, a telegraphic Dispatch was read by a member announcing the firing into the United States “Star of the West” by the Carolinian garrison of Fort Moultrie and her retiring to sea under fire. The announcement was received by clapping of hands and other signs of applause in the galleries and partly upon the floor of the House.” [pp. 83-84] In that same letter, Burks said, “It is said here that the Virginia Resolution against coercion has caused the coercionists at Washington to pause. The House of Delegates adopted a resolution this evening almost unanimously appealing to the President of the United States and the Southern seceding States to pause at the present juncture of affairs and let things remain in statu quo for the present. It will pass the Senate tomorrow I suppose. I trust it will do much good.” [p. 84]

In his January 15 letter to Buford, Burks said, “I regret to say that I cannot see much hope for the Union. Seward’s last speech is, to be sure, somewhat conciliatory, but it falls far below the demands of the occasion. I think, however, this much perhaps may be deduced from it–that if secession becomes general amongst the slave holding states, as anticipated, a peaceful policy will be pursued, unless the seceding states pursue an aggressive policy, which I hope will not be done. … I am myself for secession, rather revolution, if nothing else will do. But I am for exhausting every other measure, first. Revolution is the last resort. We expect to take up the resolutions tomorrow reported yesterday by the Committee on State and Federal relations. I am for the scheme embodied in them as one of the peace measures.” [pp. 85-86]

On January 20, Burks wrote, “We are on the verge of the greatest revolution perhaps the world ever saw. We need not only stout hearts but cool heads also. I tell you in perfect sincerity, that while it may become necessary for Virginia to enter or rather join in the Revolution, and she is ready at this moment, she is as defenceless as a helpless child and the General Government holds possession of her only fortifications and they cannot now be taken if desirable. Vessels of war can come up the York river within 30 miles of this place, and with Fortress Monroe in the possession of the General Government, we cannot now hinder them. Just think of that. Nay more. The state has no arms of modern structure and none to meet a formidable enemy such as we may anticipate in the event of collision. It will take several months, perhaps six, or more to purchase and get at home the arms we are obliged to have, even to commence warfare. Then we have no army fit for service–none–none. If we are to fight (God grant we never may!) it will take a long time to get ready. Virginia needs delay–she must have it, or I fear all is lost. This is my deliberate judgment, and if my will could reach every man in my county, I would thus say to him. Immediate secession therefore in my opinion would be fatal. If come it must (and perhaps it may) let us take time to meet its consequences. Let us nerve ourselves to meet the crisis with patience and firmness. Let us not rush blindly and inconsiderately into the vortex. That is the opinion of some of the coolest and clearest heads here–Democrats too, who acknowledge the right of secession, but look to it as the last resort. No means should be left untried to secure our rights in the Union. When all are exhausted and we are ready to meet the consequences, then if it must come, let it come.” [p. 87]

Burks’ January 24 letter says, in part, “It is said in this morning’s papers, that Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York will probably respond favorably to Virginia’s proposition of a conference. I think perhaps all the middle States, North and South will meet as in Convention. If they fail to accomplish anything satisfactory, the failure will operate almost irresistably to drive us at once into disunion.” [p. 88] On January 31, he wrote, “While I ardently desire the Union to be preserved and reconstructed, I do not wish Virginia by any arrangement to be cut off from the Southern States and fastened irrevocably to a Northern Confederacy. If there must be two confederacies, I would take my chances with Southern.” [p. 89]

As you can see, Burks says a number of contradictory things. While he claims to be “ardently” for preserving the Union, he also seems to be chomping at the bit to secede. So-called “coercion” at this point is not a factor. He’s concerned about “southern rights,” which means protection of slavery. When the letters continue in February, the Virginia Secession Convention has convened.

On February 18, Burks wrote, “It seems to be generally thought , that the Conservative men have a very decided majority in the Convention. I don’t think there can be any doubt about it although no test vote has yet been made. What I most fear is that they will be too conservative. From the manner in which I hear some of them talk, I don’t think secession in any event very probable. Even in the event Congress fails, it will not surprise me if a majority of the body oppose secession or resistance out and out. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think I am. The Commissioners from South[p Carolina and other seceded states are now addressing the Convention.” [p. 90] His February 26 letter reads, “The mob of the city, as I am informed, proposed to burn Sam Moore [Samuel McDowell Moore, a Unionist member of the convention from Rockbridge County] in effigy last night but were dissuaded by Goode [John Goode, Jr., a member from Bedford County] and others from it. They seconded Goode and played the ‘rogue’s March’ for old Sam. They are evidently waking up the ‘sleeping lion’ without knowing it.” [p. 91] The mob action was part of the intimidation conducted by proslavery Virginians who favored immediate secession. They targeted Unionist delegates to the convention to force them to change their vote from union to secession.

On March 6, after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, Burks said, “The resistance fever is evidently largely on the increase since Lincoln’s Inaugural, both here and, as I learn, generally over the State. It is thought that the Convention this week will adopt strong resistance resolutions. I am informed that the Committee on “Federal Relations” will make a full report tomorrow on coercion and other matters. Many members of the Convention hitherto hesitating, are ripe now for resistance and for an ordinance of secession. If they don’t move now, I can hardly imagine circumstances which will move them. I consider myself that the argument for union is exhausted and that the old Dominion should speak with one voice from the Ohio to the Chesapeake in tones of defiance to Lincoln and all his cohorts resolving to resist this policy and organize the forces of the State to carry out their resolution.” [p. 92] In that same letter, he said, “My kind regards to all friends, and say to them and all the good people of my county to rouse up to the emergency and stand as one man for Virginia and the entire South against any and all attempts by Lincoln or any of his abettors to make war upon any of the Southern States. It is our only hope. I see no prospect of adjustment immediately in view, and war, in my candid opinion, is at our very doors. I am constantly in expectation of news of a warlike demonstration by the Southern States, and while I deprecate it with all my heart as a great calamity, I cannot see how the Southern seceded states can longer forbear after Lincoln’s tender of submission on their part or war on his part. I think we may reasonably expect it very soon. Perhaps it is progressing while I write. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were so. Lincoln hasn’t one element of a statesman in him, or he never would have thus foolishly, unnecessarily, and wickedly have jeopardized the peace and safety of the country. If war begins, like Davis and wise, I would be for gathering the Southern forces and marching arms in hand to the Federal Capitol and seizing the old stars and stripes I would drive the usurper from the seat of Washington and run up the flag of our revolutionary fathers upon the State house and bid all patriots North and South to rally around it.” [p. 93]

In his March 11 letter, Burks referred to a majority report from the Virginia Secession Convention’s Committee on Federal State relations. “You will observe, that it declares that Virginia would ‘expect as an indispensable condition’ etc., that the Southern forts should not be re-inforced, that the Federal Government should not re-take the forts now in possession of the Seceded States, nor collect the revenue, nor do anything justly calculated to provoke hostilities. That is the substance. I quote from memory. You will perceive, that it does not, as I think it should do, pledge the State to co-operate with the Southern Seceded States in resisting by force any break of these conditions by the General Government, it will do.” [p. 94]

In his March 14 letter, Burks wrote, “Separation, I think must come, and we had better at once (all of us) look it straight in the face. If we don’t do something at once, I tell you, I believe, the State will become first demoralized and then abolitionized.” [p. 98] We can thus see that while he was writing about so-called “coercion,” Burks’ main concern was always the protection of slavery.

In the second set of letters, James H. Otey wrote to Burks. In his March 12 letter, Otey wrote, “If I could divest myself of a settled conviction which has for years rested upon my mind, namely that there has existed for 25 years in this country, a party that has only sought for a pretext and an opportunity to go out of the Union, or in other words to dismember the government, I should have some confidence in the wise and peaceable measures which many good and patriotic men have proposed as remedies for our existing and coming evils. But those to whom I refer can be satisfied with nothing short of power–they well illustrate the terrible conception of the poet who represents the madness of ambition as preferring to reign in Hell, rather than serve in Heaven. I look upon dissolution of the Union or the organization of two governments North and South, dividing upon the question of slavery, not only as setting the seal to the ruin of both, but especially as settling the destiny of slavery to speedy inevitable extinction, as certainly as the sun’s rays fall upon the Earth when he rises to usher in the day. It will deprive the institution of that moral support which it now derives from its being upheld by a government over 30 millions of people. It will bring Canada into juxtaposition with the slaveholding States. The same causes which are now in operation to disturb the institution will then exist in ten-fold vigor.” [p. 99] Otey is clear as to what the disagreement is about–slavery.

Otey’s next letter in the article is from July 17, well after the war began. “Since Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation, and the attitude assumed, and the purposes proclaimed by the North, I have had no sympathy with the U.S. Government–no respect for its rulers–very little regard for the Northern people. Our duty is clearly and unequivocally to repel force by force, and to make every sacrifice rather than to submit to an administration that tramples down every barrier raised by our Forefathers for the protection of personal, social and public rights.” [p. 100]

I didn’t notice any real change in secession sentiment in these letters. Burks was in favor of secession all the way through, even though he claimed at times to favor preserving the Union. He would see it preserved only on his terms, which meant protection of slavery. Otey was clear slavery was what divided the secessionists from the rest of the country. While he was sorry to see it, it happened and he was on board. So-called “coercion” played a minor role for these two, more as an added reason than as the primary reason for action.

One comment

  1. I’m glad you made a post that more directly touches on this. People love to erroneously point out the upper south’s late participation, and particularly VA, to use the “coercion” argument. But where were the complaints about “coercion” when the Northern states were being forcibly coerced because of their opposition to the fugitive laws? I don’t see any secession threats when it was Northern states that were being ‘coerced’ by the South. Upper Southern states didn’t threaten to secede when the Confederacy called up 100,000 troops before Lincoln’s call which were to be used to coerce the legal federal power and Unionist Southern citizens, steal federal property and attack its installations and rob them.

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