By mid-May 1861, both North and South could readily agree on one thing. Civil War was coming. The only question was when and where that Civil War would commence. Since the fall of Fort Sumter, both regions prepared for war, calling for and then training volunteer regiments from each state. In Virginia, the people of the state were set to vote on a referendum of whether to support the state’s Secession Convention or decide to remain in the Union.
Virginia wasn’t as quick to secede as the rest of the Deep South. Although Virginia was a slave state, there were also Unionists in the western part of the state and around Washington D. C., who hoped a compromise could be reached that would keep the Union whole.
Virginia Governor John Letcher called for a Secession Convention to see where the citizens of the state stood. In February 1861, a vote was taken to remain in the Union. In early April, President Abraham Lincoln met with a delegation from Virginia to discuss his intentions toward the states that had already seceded. Lincoln indicated his intention was to hold, occupy and possess any and all property the government owned. Lincoln also asserted that there would be “no invasion, no use of force against. . . the people anywhere.”
Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the southern insurrection. This was a compelling factor leading to the Virginia Secession Convention. After the vote was taken to secede, Former President John Tyler, who was presiding over the convention said, “Virginia has severed her connection with the Northern hive of abolitionists, and takes her stand as a sovereign and independent State.”
Even with the convention deciding to leave the Union, Virginians still had to vote whether to support the convention’s decision. In the mean time, Letcher ordered Virginia militia to seize Harpers Ferry and the naval yard near Norfolk.
On May 23, 1861, Virginia’s citizens overwhelmingly voted, 132,201 to 37,451, in favor of secession. Most of the votes against secession came from the western part of the state. Eventually, these citizens would vote to secede from the state of Virginia, creating the state of West Virginia.
Virginia’s entry into the Confederacy was significant. It was one of the largest states to join, comprising both Virginia and present day West Virginia. It also was one of the wealthiest southern states and had more industry than the states of the Deep South.
The day after Virginia voters decided to join the Confederacy, Union troops crossed the Potomac River and occupied Alexandria and Arlington, Va. At Alexandria, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and members of the 11th New York advanced on the Marshall House Inn to take down a huge Confederate flag that was flying.
Ellsworth cut the flag down but was killed by owner, James W. Jackson, who fired a shotgun blast at Ellsworth as he descended the stairs. Corporal Francis Brownell immediately killed Jackson. Ellsworth, who was a friend of Lincoln, was taken to the White House where his body lay in state in the East Room. These two deaths were but the first of many thousands of men, from North and South, who would fall in Virginia.
With Virginia casting its lot with the South, the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond, Va. Richmond was more urbane that Montgomery and most government officials were happy to make the move to the new capitol city.
The capitols of the United States and the Confederacy were less than 100 miles apart. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wasn’t worried about the close proximity to Washington D. C. Many of the southern 60,000 volunteers were already in Virginia being trained for combat. Plus, the south had most of the experienced West Point graduates providing crucial leadership for the fledgling army. Davis sought to explain the goal of the Confederacy, “In independence we seek no conquest. All we ask is to be left alone.”
The government in Richmond became a focal point for many in the Union army. In a matter of months, Major General Irwin McDowell would launch a campaign into Virginia with the cry of “On to Richmond.”