Another Bite At The Apple

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Another Bite At The Apple

One hundred-sixty years ago, April 17, 1861, the Virginia Convention of 1861 voted to leave the United States of America.

In January 1861 Virginia voters ‒ including presentday West Virginia ‒ picked delegates to that convention. To the dismay of secessionists in Virginia and the South, a solid majority of the 152 delegates were Unionist.

The convention convened Feb. 13, 1861. Secessionists tried twice to pass an ordinance of secession. In March it failed on procedural grounds. On April 4, the convention voted secession down 90-45.

Most of the delegates from what became West Virginia voted against secession. So did most of the delegates from the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest Virginia, and even plantation-heavy Southside and the Northern Neck.

Many Virginians saw Virginia as a broker between the North and the South. John Baldwin, a Staunton lawyer at the convention, compared Virginia to a lighthouse that could withstand “the breasting and surging waves of Northern fanaticism and of Southern violence.”

The April 4 vote against secession emboldened the unionists. John Janney, the president of the convention, exulted in a letter to his wife that the secessionists were now “without the slightest hope of success.”

Circumstances would quickly overtake Unionist hopes.

South Carolina was calling for the abandonment of Fort Sumter, a Federal installation at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. In 1836, South Carolina had officially ceded all “right, title and, claim” to Fort Sumter to the United States. Now the state wanted it back.

States’ Rights have always been a fickle position.

Events moved quickly. Abraham Lincoln refused to turn over the Federal property and notified South Carolina that the fort would be resupplied.

That precipitated the attack by the South Carolina militia on Fort Sumter on April 12. After a 34-hour bombardment the garrison surrendered.

On April 15, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for all loyal states to contribute militiamen to put down the secession. Virginia balked.

With the threat of force against the seceding states and the call for Virginia and the remaining states to send portions of their militias to suppress the secession, on April 17 the secessionists in Virginia prevailed. The convention voted 88 to 45 to leave the Union. A statewide referendum on May 23 passed overwhelmingly and made secession official.

Governor John Letcher, a Lexington native, who had resisted the radicals’ overtures, wrote the U.S. Secretary of War following his call for troops from Virginia, “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war and having done so we will meet you.”

Jubal Early, a staunch Unionist delegate to the convention from Franklin County, accepted defeat and threw his support behind the efforts to prepare Virginia for war. He went on to be a Confederate general and an unrepentant proponent of the “Lost Cause” after the war.

Robert E. Lee declined an appointment to lead the Union army and wrote his letter of resignation from the army to fellow Virginian and General of the Army, Winfield Scott, saying he could not draw his sword against Virginia.

Winfield Scott, born on a plantation in Dinwiddie County, stayed with the Union.

General George Thomas, born on a plantation in Southampton County and hid in the woods from the Nat Turner Rebellion, stayed in the U.S. Army. His stout defense at Chickamauga in 1863 saved the Union Army from being completely routed, earning him the nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga.”

Virginia was not as completely in the Confederacy as I was taught in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of my great-great-grandfathers from Bath County served in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. Bath County, as did Allegheny, where my grandfather grew up, voted both times to stay in the Union. In that first vote, 19 of the 29 counties west of the Blue Ridge that stayed in Virginia voted Union. Rockbridge County voted Union the first time and split on the last one.

In that last vote 4 counties split and only 15 voted for Union. One was Jubal Early’s Franklin. The other was Fairfax, where I got my Virginia history.

So, where were my forbearers on the issue of secession and slavery?

I have no family history that would indicate some inherited allegiance to secession. I don’t know if any of my family owned slaves.

In Bath County slaves were 25.74 percent of the population. Slaveholders were just 4.22 percent. In Rockbridge 4.3 percent of the county owned 23.11 percent.

Those figures are fairly consistent throughout modern day western Virginia, but even east of the Blue Ridge, it was mostly single digits owning double digits, meaning the vast majority of enfranchised Virginians owned nobody! Why did they vote for secession? Merely to resist “foreign” invasion?

How many of us Virginians, with today’s values, would have voted for secession, knowing that success would extend slavery?

We’re not at the end of history. We’re in the middle of history. We have more than one bite at the apple. Each time we see injustice, we have another bite. Each time we see suffering, we have another bite.

If we aren’t motivated by altruism, we must understand that wrongdoing, unchallenged, will be free to visit us and those we love.

Are we going to let the single-digits continue to decide for us?

The News-Gazette

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