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Be Careful What You Wish For

01/12/2011

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

On January 10, 2011, we marked the 150th anniversary of a singular decision by the  Virginia General Assembly. It would scarcely merit notice today except that it set in motion events of enormous, unanticipated consequence for the commonwealth. What that vote did was call for the election of delegates to a state convention to address the crisis that beset the nation in early 1861. What motivated legislators to take action was the thunderclap of secession detonated by South Carolina the previous month. That defiant rejection of Abraham Lincoln’s election threatened to sever the Union that Americans had inherited from their Revolutionary forebears.

Richmond, Va. Front view of Capitol

"Richmond, Va. Front view of Capitol" (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpb-02891)

Following South Carolina’s stroke, disunion sentiment swept the Deep South. Seven of those states formed a new republic, the Confederate States of America. In stark contrast, Virginia, the most populous southern state, elected an overwhelmingly unionist majority among delegates to its convention. For the moment, the Virginia elections, and others across the Upper South, stopped secession in its tracks. With the election results, Virginia seemed to reassert its allegiance to the nation and set an example for other Upper South slave states. Optimists even thought the commonwealth’s action might lead the wayward Deep South states to dissolve the Confederacy.

When 152 convention delegates assembled in February 1861 at the Mechanics Institute in Richmond, none of them knew what lay in their future any more than we can know what lies ahead in our own time. Rancor over slavery and states’ rights had vexed the state of the Union to a dangerous degree. Maybe by that point armed conflict could not have been avoided. But it was not preordained. And it would be the actions of individuals—like those legislators who called Virginians into convention to discuss their future—rather than irresistible, impersonal historical forces that would determine Virginia’s fate over the course of the following months.

(Note: for insight into northern attitudes in the same week as the fateful vote in the Virginia legislature, see
“A Baptism of Blood?” by Daniel Crofts. Dr. Crofts will deliver a Banner Lecture at the VHS on Thursday, March 3. More information)

Nelson D. Lankford is vice president for programs at the Virginia Historical Society.

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