With Abraham Lincoln the President-elect and the Deep South seceding, Virginia Governor John Letcher wanted action on the part of the state of Virginia. He called a special session of the legislature to consider the proposed sale of the James River and Kanawha Canal to a private company. While the sale was important to Letcher (it would fund Virginia’s early pro-rebellion activities), it was not the only reason the Legislature was called into session. Secession had begun and many, including Letcher, wanted a course of action for Virginia.
When a special legislative session convened on January 4, 1861 the Virginia House organized a Committee of Fifteen to draft a bill for a convention on the question of secession. A week later the committee returned a bill for the convention, which was approved on the same day. The same special session then proposed the Washington Peace Convention, which would began before, run concurrently with the start of the Virginia Secession Convention and the initial sessions of each would be presided over by the same man – former U. S. President John Tyler.
The election of a convention to consider the question of secession on February 7, 1861 sent Virginia on a two-month odyssey that would only end after the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter. Virginia was considered to be a pro-Union state at the outset of the Virginia Secession Convention because of the large number of Unionists in the Washington D. C. area and in Western Virginia.
Its first session in Richmond, Virginia on February 13 had former U. S. President John Tyler presiding. John Janney of Loudoun County, a strong Unionist and former Whig, was elected president of the convention. Surprisingly, most of the Convention’s 152 representatives had supported the Constitutional Union party and its candidate, John Bell. 35 supported Stephen A. Douglas and 32 supported John Breckinridge. One of the convention-goers would later claim that the delegates were 25% pro-Union, 25% for immediate secession and the rest in favor of avoiding “dis-union.”
In addition to electing delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention the ballot contained a second question, commonly called “Reference,” or should the resolution of the convention be referred to the people of the state to vote upon. On February 20, 1861 convention delegates found out the people of Virginia had claimed the right to reference. This was viewed as being pro-Union at the time.
Through March the Convention tried to come to terms with the wide variation of the beliefs of the delegates. Western Virginian John Carlile tried tirelessly to convince the convention that disunion was illegal. On March 7 he admonished the delegates, explaining the United States had the legal right to collect duties and tariffs in the seceded states. By late March nearly everyone in the country agreed there were only two courses of action left to the President. He could hold the forts and collect revenue, which almost certainly would push more states into revolt or he could leave everything alone and hope for a voluntary reunion later.
Unknown to the convention at the time Secretary of State William Seward was in contact with William Summers, asking his presence “most urgently.” Summers thought the ploy was a secessionist trick but when Seward sent a Washington lawyer who was a friend of Summers, he realized the plea was genuine. After meeting with a group of Unionists, the men decided that with an upcoming vote on secession it would be wiser to send John Baldwin instead. Only one account exists of the meeting (Baldwin’s) because Lincoln uncharacteristically did not write it down in his notes.
That a meeting did occur between John Baldwin and Abraham Lincoln on the morning of April 4, 1861 is generally accepted, because Lincoln later spoke of it to Summers and others. According to Summers, Lincoln claimed to have offered to withdraw from Sumter if the Virginia Secession Convention disbanded. According to Baldwin no such offer was made at the meeting.
As the situation between the Union and the Confederacy worsened tempers at the Virginia Secession Convention flared. A test vote on April 3 and a binding vote on April 4 showed the convention was still 2-1 against referring the Articles of Secession to the people. With the vote the convention decided to send a delegation to ask President Lincoln what his intentions were towards the seceded states.
George Randolph (later Confederate Secretary of War), William Preston and Alexander “Sandie” Stuart met with Lincoln on April 13, the day after Fort Sumter was first fired upon. Using his inaugural speech as a basis for his discussion with the Virginians, Lincoln told them his power would be used to “hold, occupy and possess property and places belonging to the government and to collect the duties on imports…but there will be no invasion, no use of force against…the people anywhere.” Two days later Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 three-month volunteers.
Earlier that April some of the Virginia Secession Convention delegates issued a public invitation for a meeting at Richmond’s Metropolitan Hall. Delegates to this meeting began arriving about the time Sumter was being attacked, so by the time the meeting was held on April 16, a good deal of disunion sentiment had been aroused. The next day the convention approved the wording of a referendum to be put before the people on the ratification of the Secession Ordinance to be held on May 23, 1861.
By the middle of April Virginia’s pro-secession faction had grown to the point that most people considered the May election to be a moot point. They were right. The people passed the articles of secession, 132,201 to 37,451.
And the state of Virginia joined her family in the GREAT CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA!