Virginia Divided and Occupied

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Virginia in 1860The Commonwealth of Virginia was the Southern state that saw the majority of the fighting in the Eastern Theater. Many of its citizens and their property were subjected to the constant ebbs and flows of various armies. As an example the Shenandoah Valley was burned from end to end over the four years of the war.

What we’ll be looking at in this post is how Virginia came to be divided and then partially occupied by Union forces. It is not the purview of this post to discuss the numerous major battles on the soil of the Old Dominion. Those can be found at other places on this blog and would require a book-length presentation to do them justice. Rather we’ll first look at the creation of West Virginia and then the Union occupation of northern and eastern Virginia.

Virginia in 1860 was the most populous of the Southern states. With almost half a million enslaved people, it had the highest number of residents living in slavery. Virginia also had probably the most varied geography, the most diversified economy, and the third-largest land area of any slave state.

Not only was Virginia a Mid-Atlantic state but because of its long Ohio River border it was also a Mid-Western state. Virginia bordered on five slave states: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, and two free states: Pennsylvania and Ohio. Thus, it would be a key state in any conflict between North and South.

By 1860 Virginia’s economy was different than the other Southern states. Industrialization was growing across the state. The once-vibrant plantation economy was no longer as widespread. Many slaves were either being sold south for use on cotton, rice or tobacco plantations or rented to industrial enterprises.

As the calls for secession increased there was no way to gauge the sentiment of Virginia citizens if a Republican presidential candidate who was opposed to slavery won the election in November that year. The mood in the mountains of western Virginia was primarily anti-secession while other parts of the state were ambivalent.

John Brown’s Raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 inflamed public opinion in the state. Many Southern slave owners feared that other abolitionists would also incite an insurrection of enslaved people and spread violence and bloodshed throughout the South. Those in Virginia were no exception. 

The Presidential election of 1860 would set the stage for the secession and division of Virginia. Four candidates took part. Two were Democrats: Stephen Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. John Bell who ran under the banner of the Constitutional Union Party was from Tennessee. Finally, Abraham Lincoln was the nominee of the new Republican Party.

In Virginia, the presidential election of 1860 was the closest in history. Constitutional Union candidate John Bell very narrowly won the state’s fifteen electoral votes, in addition to those of Kentucky and Tennessee. He received 74,701 votes, as reported in the Richmond Daily Enquirer of December 24, 1860; John C. Breckinridge received 74,379; Stephen A. Douglas received 16,292; and Abraham Lincoln received 1,929. 

As a measure of the division throughout the country Lincoln was not even on the ballot in nine southern states. South Carolina had no popular vote nor did they cast any electoral votes.

On December 18, 1860, Senator John Jordan Crittenden, of Kentucky, introduced compromise proposals that he hoped would be agreeable to enough Northern and Southern leaders that the crisis could be ended peacefully and the Union preserved. The Senate tabled Crittenden’s proposals late in December 1860, and the House of Representatives never took a final vote on any of the elements of Crittenden’s plan.

Two days after Crittenden introduced his compromise South Carolina seceded from the Union. Within weeks six other states followed them out of the Union On January 19, 1861, the General Assembly of Virginia issued a call for a national peace conference to meet in Washington to seek a compromise to end the crisis. Their efforts were for naught for like the Crittenden proposals, the Peace Conference’s proposals were unacceptable to many leaders in both sections.

In mid-January 1861, the General Assembly of Virginia ordered an election of delegates to a convention to consider the question of secession. The Assembly asked voters to decide whether the convention, if it chose to secede, had to submit its decision to the voters for ratification or rejection in a popular referendum.

The convention that met in Richmond from February 13 through May 1, 1861, is known in Virginia’s history as the Secession Convention, but for its first two months it was a Union convention. Unlike state conventions in the lower South that met and speedily voted to secede, the Virginia convention remained in session for two and a half months and kept Virginia in the Union until mid-April 1861.

At the same time, the delegates attempted to enlist the other upper South slave states that also remained in the Union in finding a compromise that would allow the states that had seceded to return and restore the Union. The electorate voted to hold a popular referendum on the issue if the convention decided that Virginia should secede from the Union. Overall, about two-thirds of Virginia’s voters favored requiring the referendum, suggesting the relative weakness of secession sentiment in the state at that time.

The pro-secession editor of an Abingdon Democratic newspaper wrote, “the immediate secession candidates have been badly whipped—in fact, have been almost annihilated,—and the gentlemen representing the ‘wait-a-bit‘ ticket triumphantly elected.”

On April 4, 1861, when the question faced by the delegates was whether secession was wise or desirable, 63 delegates from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where there were very few slaves, voted to remain a part of the United States while only 15 delegates voted for secession.

In the counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the vote was almost equally divided, with 30 delegates voting for secession and 27 voting against it. Most of the opponents of secession in this region resided in north-central Virginia and in and around the cities of Richmond, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, where slavery was relatively less important than elsewhere.

The stage was set for the division of the state. Following the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops the convention met again and voted 88 to 55 to submit an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification or rejection in a May referendum.

The Ordinance of Secession that the convention adopted on April 17, 1861, and that voters in the state ratified in a referendum conducted on May 23, 1861, repealed Virginia’s 1788 ratification of the Constitution of the United States and also repealed all of the General Assembly’s votes to ratify amendments to the Constitution.

The western Unionists returned home and called for a convention to meet in Wheeling in order to consider their next moves. They met during the summer of 1861 and voted to separate from Virginia. In August 1861, a third convention in Wheeling issued the call for election of a constitutional convention to create a new state consisting of western and northwestern counties of old Virginia. Initially called Kanawha and later called West Virginia, it was admitted to the Union as a free state in June 1863.

Over the next two years pieces of Virginia were captured and occupied by various Union armies. Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula always remained under the authority of the Federal government. Across from Fortress Monroe was the city of Norfolk and the Gosport Shipyard.

Almost immediately after Virginia seceded it was captured by Confederate forces. But President Lincoln realizing the importance of the naval base directed its recapture by Union troops. For the rest of the war Norfolk and the surrounding area was occupied and under martial law.

The war in the Shenandoah Valley was a constant ebb and flow of battle from north to south. As an example, the town of Winchester in the northern Valley was a strategic prize for both sides. Sitting just south of the Potomac River, Winchester lay on the only route between the east and western United States with direct connections to Washington, D.C. Passing through or nearby Winchester are major transportation and communications routes.

There were three major battles at Winchester in addition to its use as a Confederate base of operations for five major campaigns. It is claimed that Winchester changed hands as many as 72 times during the course of the war, and 13 times in one day. Battles raged all along Main Street at different points in the war. 

With barely 100 miles separating the two capital cities, Northern Virginia found itself in the center of much of the conflict. The Union army occupied large swathes of northern Virginia continually throughout the war. The city of Alexandria across the Potomac from Washington was occupied throughout the war. The Union Army used it as a base of operations to occupy a number of counties in the area.

Many of the early battles that were fought in the state were fought across the northern tier of counties stretching from Prince William County to Fairfax. In addition, much of the partisan activities carried out by both sides took place in this area.

Eventually, Union troops subdued the are and a hard border was established along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers with the Union Army holding everything to the north. A number of significant battles were fought to the south of this line, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. In fact, it could be said that the inevitable defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia began in this area.







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