History, History Column

The South Secedes!

by Sarah Becker ©2018


The South Secedes!


            More Civil War battles were fought in Virginia than in any other state. The majority of the clashes occurred between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, an interesting fact given Virginia’s initial reluctance to secede.

“In spite of all excitement, rash conduct, and reckless language indulged in by the ultras at the South, we plainly perceive that the calm attitude and conservative course of Virginia, so far, is exercising its influence in several of the States around South Carolina,” the Alexandria Gazette reported on November 16, 1860. “Enough is known now to satisfy every body that Virginia will not favor ‘precipitate action…that she does not consider the election of Lincoln, as, of itself, ground for an attempt to break up and dissolve the Union….”

“What is secession?” The New York Times then asked. “The Southern Disunionist journals are laying great stress on their assumed right to secede.” Said James Madison father of the Constitution in 1832, “It is high time that the [nullifiers] claim to secede at will should be put down by public opinion, and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.”

After much political pondering—on April 17, 1861—delegates to Virginia’s secession convention voted 88-55 to depart the Union. The vote came only two weeks after the convention roundly rejected an April 4 secession proposal. What changed the delegates and, in turn, the public’s mind?

Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln took his Presidential oath of office approximately three weeks after Virginia’s secession convention began. The 1860 Republican platform was clear: “That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is freedom.” Lawyer Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural message was also clear: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Still the Union was dissolving; seven states had seceded. “The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of these States, fully justified the State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union,” South Carolina’s December 24, 1860 Declaration of Secession said. “But in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore, at that time, to exercise this right.” In 1852 businessmen from eleven southern states met in New Orleans to discuss the South’s economic dilemma.

“In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American colonies [The Stamp Act],” South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession continued. “A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the colonies, ‘that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES’…They further solemnly declared that whenever any ‘form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.’”

“The [constitutional] right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights,” South Carolina’s secession conventioneers explained. “We affirm that these ends for which Government was instituted have been defeated…the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

“On the 4th day of March, 1861, this [Republican] party will take possession of the Government,” South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession concluded. “It has announced that…war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States…The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government.”

“The cumulative force of the secession movement in the South is as much a matter of surprise to friends and foes as was that of the Republican movement in the North,” The New York Times noted in January 1861.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” Mississippi’s January 9, 1861 Declaration of Secession stated. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun…[A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization…Our decision is made.”

One month later former US Senator Jefferson Davis [D-MS] was elected President of the Confederate States of America. Virginia then was involved in a Washington Peace initiative, ongoing meetings at the city of Washington’s Willard Hotel.

“The Sumter question of Charleston is evidently on the eve of crisis,” the Alexandria Gazette reported on April 8, 1861. “The excessive state pride and warlike spirit of the Carolinians have been excited to the highest pitch by the incomprehensible course of the present Administration.” Virginia’s predicament became sure on April 12, 1861 with the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter.

Sumter’s Union commander, lacking adequate supplies, surrendered on April 13. Two days later President Lincoln declared a state of insurrection and requested that 75,000 troops be sent to provision the South Carolina Fort. On the same day, April 15, 1861 Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Virginia to contribute her sons to the federal cause.

“I have received your communication, mailed [April 15] in which I am requested to detach from the Militia of the State of Virginia ‘the quota designated in a table,’ which you append, ‘to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged,’” Governor John Letcher replied.

“[T]he Militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington,” Letcher said. “Your object is to subjugate the Southern states, and a requisition made upon me for such an object—an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the Act of 1795, will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war….”

Virginia became the eighth state to secede from the Union. “The Governor of the State has put forth his counter Proclamation,” the Alexandria Gazette reported. “And the Convention has passed an Ordinance of SECESSION. The madmen at the Federal Capital—urged on by the sectionalists at the North, who, we believe have been secretly working to effect permanent dissolution of the government—have struck a fatal blow, at Peace and Union…”

“If the Union is to be dissolved for any existing causes,” Senator Henry Clay (Whig-KY) said in 1850, “it will be dissolved because slavery is interdicted or not allowed to be introduced into the ceded Territories; because slavery is threatened to be abolished in the District of Columbia, and because fugitive slaves are not returned to their master….”

One week before Virginia’s May 23, 1861 referendum vote President Lincoln, “accompanied by Secretary [of State] Seward and [New York publisher] Thurlow Weed, made a tour of observation down the Potomac. “The secession flag floated over the city of Alexandria,” but Lincoln “did not think it would wave there long.”

“The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and for ever,” James Madison claimed in 1788. Alexandria, a transportation hub, was the first, federally occupied, southern city.

“Alexandria is loyal today,” The New York Herald wrote. “Indeed, the honest people are rejoiced at their occupation.” The Alexandria Gazette shut down its presses rather than publish a Union declaration of martial law.

“Many hamlets and towns have been destroyed during the war,” The New York Herald noted in 1863. “But of all that in some form survive, Alexandria has most suffered…Its streets, its docks, its warehouses, its dwellings, and its suburbs, have been absorbed to the thousand uses of war.”


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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