A Documentary History
“Anyone who wants to understand Southern secession would do well to consult this illuminating volume. Pitcaithley has deftly curated and contextualized Virginia’s sprawling secession debates, dramatizing how slavery and white supremacy were at the core of secessionism. Especially valuable is his attention to the various proposed constitutional amendments, all geared to preserving slavery, that failed to effect compromise. An invaluable resource for understanding the Civil War and American political polarization.”
—Elizabeth R. Varon, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History, University of Virginia
In January 1861, Virginia possessed the largest population of enslaved people within the United States. The institution of slavery permeated the state’s social, political, economic, and legal systems. While loyalty to the Union was strong in western Virginia as Civil War loomed, the state’s elected officials painted Abraham Lincoln and Republicans as abolitionists and reaffirmed Virginia’s commitment to slavery and white supremacy.
In this annotated volume of primary source documents from Secession Winter, Dwight T. Pitcaithley presents speeches by Virginians from the United States Congress, the Washington Peace Conference called by Virginia’s general assembly, and the state’s secession convention to provide readers a glimpse into Virginia’s ultimate decision to secede from the Union. In his introductory analysis of the trial confronting Virginia’s leadership, Pitcaithley demonstrates that most elected officials wanted Virginia to remain in the Union—but only if Republicans agreed to protect slavery and guarantee its future. While secessionists rightly predicted that the incoming Lincoln administration would refuse to agree to these concessions, Unionists claimed that disunion would ultimately undermine slavery and lead to abolition regardless.
Virginia deliberated longer and proposed more constitutional solutions to avoid secession than any other state. Only after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s request for troops to suppress the “insurrection” did Virginia turn from saving the Union to leaving it.
Throughout Pitcaithley’s collection, one theme remains clear: that slavery and race—not issues over tariffs—were driving Virginia’s debates over secession. Complete with a Secession Winter timeline, an extensive bibliography, and questions for discussion, Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History is an invaluable resource for historians and students alike.
DWIGHT T. PITCAITHLEY worked for the National Park Service for thirty years, the final decade as its chief historian. Following his retirement in 2005, he taught history at New Mexico State University until 2019. He is the author/editor of The U.S. Constitution and Secession: A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy, Tennessee Secedes: A Documentary History, and Kentucky and the Secession Crisis: A Documentary History.