Upper South Stalemate

After scoring unending Lower South victories during the three months after Lincoln’s election, disunionists suffered unending Upper South routs during the next two and a half months. The disparity demonstrated again that the more northern and southern Souths were different worlds, defying efforts to forge a single civilization.

– 1 –

Against any possibility for a united southern revolution stood the facts that almost half of Maryland’s blacks were free as well as 90 percent of Delaware’s, that Missouri’s percentage of enslaved peoples had drooped under 10 percent, and that Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky harbored plantation sections that sustained slavery, severed from mountainous sections that considered the institution perhaps disposable and more surely regrettable. A solid South would have had to transcend the social fact that 47 percent of the Lower South’s peoples were slaves compared to 32 percent of the Middle South’s and 13 percent of the Border South’s, the political fact that ex-Whigs (later Americans or Know-Nothings and yet later Oppositionists and still later Constitutional Unionists) had remained very competitive in the Upper South while becoming largely unelectable in the Lower South, and the latest electoral fact that John Breckinridge had received 56 percent of the Lower South’s 1860 popular presidential vote compared to 32 percent in the Border South. A willo’-the-wisp southern monolith would have had to rise above the political fact that the Lower South departed the Charleston Democratic Party National Convention and the Upper South (except Arkansas) stayed, the economic fact that the Border South traded far more with the Border North than with the Lower South, the demographic fact that Upper South slaves were slowly draining down to the Lower South and especially seeping away from the Border South’s tier of most northern counties, and the urban fact that cities (and their industries) had a far larger presence and importance in the Upper South lands of grains, livestock, and tobacco than in Lower South domains of cotton, sugar, and rice.

The Upper South surprise was not its majority’s initial opposition to a southern confederacy but its minority’s initial enthusiasm for a third confederacy. “I fear that our county is destined to be cut up” like “bread,” regretted Baltimore’s ex-congressman Benjamin C. Howard. If so, “our slice should be” the Upper South plus Pennsylvania.1

If the Union sadly fails, declared John P. Kennedy, our slice should more widely include all “the Middle States, on both sides of Mason and Dixon’s line.” Kennedy, the Maryland novelist, ex-congressman, and ex–secretary of the navy, derided the Lower South as “one vast cotton field,” with an eventual “swarm of reinforcements from the shores of Africa” and an “expansive policy of annexation and conquest.” The Upper South, in contrast, enjoyed “the most diversified” economy, including grain farms, cities, and mechanical arts. Immigration to the northern South also impelled “the increase of free labor, … the gradual diminution of slave labor,” and the “final condition—remote but certain—of free labor communities.” The Border North, having already made that creeping transition, would be the Upper South’s natural partner in a Central Confederacy.2

While Maryland’s Kennedy led the Border South wing of Central Confederacy fanciers, Virginia’s ex-congressman William C. Rives and his family led the Middle South wing. “The great Central States of the Confederacy,” wrote Rives’s son, must not “be divided from each other.” Virginia’s “temporary … concern with slavery” belies “our permanent … interests” with “Maryland & Pennsylvania.” If we enter a “Central Confederacy,” the more “extreme States, North and South,” fearing being “left out in the cold,” may yet save the Union. If not, we can thrive in a third nation, peopled exclusively with our own kind. Another Central Confederate fancier, Virginia’s Governor John Letcher, added that the border states must “make their own arrangements.” Then “the Cotton States are bound to come to them.” Cotton snobs “know this, and hence the extraordinary effort to coerce the Border states into their plans.”3

Resentment of Lower South coercion spread beyond Central Confederacy enthusiasts to most Upper South citizens. Outrage particularly focused on South Carolina, “that crazy state,” as the Wilmington (North Carolina) Herald called it. Those “crack brained fire-eaters,” exploded Kentucky’s Samuel Smith Nicholas, have “not had a single patriotic sensation for the last thirty years.” Because of their “arrogant, dictatorial insolence,” they forget that despite “our large interest in slavery,” their master interest is not as “transcendently important” as our other “great interests and natural feelings.”4

The “brunt of” their conflict, regretted a Virginian, “must be borne” by us. Our lands will become their battlefields, while “gentlemen from the cotton states,” having driven “us to this catastrophe,” will “sit securely in their homes, far from these scenes of turmoil and strife.” And why would these tyrants force us out of our beloved Union? Because Lincoln might commit an overt act! Well, “if the Devil himself were President,” emphasized a Kentuckian, “I would stand by the Union until he should begin to play the Devil.”5

Upper South folk revered the Union despite potential devils inside, for their American nationalism remained a devout religion. The “inestimable blessings” of Union, wrote Kentucky’s Robert I. Breckinridge, combine “the complete possession of freedom” and “irresistible national force, and all directed to the glory of God and the good of man.” A native Tennessean would “fight” and “die for my Country—my whole Country, from the Center all round to the sea.” Tennessee’s Henry Cooper exclaimed that when “my country … goes down,” so will “all hope of human liberty on earth” and all “hope that man is capable of governing himself.”6

Cooper added that “a dissolution of this Union is the death knell of African slavery.” Disunion will yield civil war. Then “in much blood,” our Peculiar Institution will “be swept from the face of the Earth.” Even if our “soil should not be drenched with fraternal gore,” exclaimed a Baltimore newspaper, slavery in our “midst would be inevitably doomed.” Without federal fugitive slave commissioners to police a 2000-mile border, explained a Kentuckian, “the Border States will soon be free states, and so on until there would be no slave states.”7

Thus a vast Upper South majority considered the folly of disunion boundless. The stupidity would turn Upper South lovers of liberty into Lower South oligarchs’ slaves. The tyrants would force the southern majority out of the earth’s most glorious republic. The fiends would turn the Upper South into the Lower South’s savaged battlefield. The madmen would sweep slavery into the dustbin of history. The blunderers would mutilate the natural economic interests of the great middle of the nation. Against their bungled statecraft, the Upper South’s two-thirds of white Southerners must declare holy war.

– 2 –

The ensuing Upper South political warfare diverged from late Lower South battles. The very name of the anti-Separatist movement differed. In the Lower South, Separatists’ foes almost always dubbed themselves Cooperationists, not Unionists. They almost always pledged to cooperate in destroying the Union, if Northerners coerced seceded states or rejected major concessions.

In contrast, Upper South opponents of Separatists called themselves Unionists. Many ridiculers of disunion, especially in the Border South, remained unconditional Unionists. Even if civil war ensued, they would support their old nation. Other more conditional Upper South Unionists, especially in the Middle South, often dropped Lower South Cooperationists’ condition that Northerners must grant concessions to slaveholders. When Middle South Unionists did demand concessions, they sought bait to lure Lower South reconstructionists toward reunion. If war could be avoided, these conditional Unionists would delay disunion for months, even for years, in hopes that negotiations would finally restore the grand old Union.

But below the Border South, Lower South Cooperationists’ other condition for Union—no coercion of departed brethren—ran wide and deep. Middle South conditional Unionists ever insisted that according to the Declaration of Independence, a state’s people’s right to withdraw their consent to be governed must never be violated. Here state’s rights ideology showed its force, in the making of a viable southern nation. The first secessionists had merely used the ideology to justify their revolution, designed to keep blacks ground under. But if war ensued, the state’s rights faith would bring the Middle South (but not the Border South) sprinting to disunionists’ rescue, to keep white consent to be governed from being ground under.

Upper South voters, unlike Lower South citizens, could decide on the expediency of revolution before the right of revolution clouded their decision. Lower South states, because blacker with slaves, scheduled secession conventions months sooner than Upper South conclaves. In January, while Lower South voters and convention delegates deliberated on secession’s expediency, the Star of the West provocation and the fort seizures exploded, changing the issue to secession’s legitimacy. Separatists greatly benefited.

Upper South initial decisions on disunion came a month or more later. By then, the first military crisis had dissipated. After Lower South governors seized Buchanan’s forts and his Star of the West retreated, truces prevented further hostilities. Unless and until Lincoln ended these respites, the Upper South issue could remain the desirability of disunion, not the right of the people of a state to use the remedy.

During the three months between President Buchanan’s truces and President Lincoln’s coercion, Upper South conditional unionism thrived. Where Separatist lynch mobs often cowed Lower South Cooperationists, scant physical or psychological intimidation afflicted Upper South Unionists. Where Lower South Separatists’ pamphlets came in torrents compared to Lower South Cooperationists’ trickle of sheets, Upper South Unionists’ publications outmatched secessionists’ publications.

The Upper South had always more forcefully opposed proslavery extremism. In the less enslaved half of the South, the cry of disloyalty to slavery carried less weight, alliance with suspect Northerners brought less notoriety, and emphasis on nonslavery issues attracted more voters. Lower South Whiggery had thus collapsed sooner than Upper South Whiggery. Southern Whigs’ successors—the American, Know-Nothing, Opposition, and Constitutional Union parties—had secured more votes northward in the South than southward, making successive Whiggish parties fully competitive with the Democracy in the Upper South but not in the Lower South.

In the secession crisis, these trends empowered Upper South Unionists. A lesser stake in slavery generated less desperation about Lincoln’s supposed immediate menace; and stronger Whiggish parties provided more powerful partisan organizations to sustain unionism.8 So long as Lincoln honored those Buchanan truces, Unionists’ disproportionately Whiggish power base gave Upper South disunionists more than they could handle.

Still, after the Lower South departed, Upper South Unionists faced newly provocative demonstrations of the northern majority’s augmented power. Lower South Cooperationists had urged that the Republican Party, lacking a congressional majority, could pass no antislavery acts. But the secession of the seven Lower South states destroyed that argument. With fourteen Lower South senators departed, Republicans for the first time wielded a senatorial majority, to match the North’s longtime (and now expanded) House majority.

Congressional Republicans pounced on their opportunity. On January 29, 1861, within days of Lower South senators’ exodus from Washington, Republicans admitted Kansas into the Union as a free labor state. The admission gave the North thirty-six senators to the South’s sixteen (compared to the northern advantage of but thirty-four to thirty, before the Lower South seceded).

With their new congressional majority, Republicans swiftly reversed the South’s favorite U.S. trend, toward lower tariffs. In the so-called Morrill Tariff, passed in early March, Congress doubled the immediate tax rate on imports to 37 percent and scheduled future advances to 47 percent. The routs on both tariffs and Kansas, before Lincoln could even be inaugurated, signaled that southern states now squirmed under the thumb of a permanent northern majority.

Lower South secessionists welcomed these indications of Upper South slavery’s doom in an eviscerated Union. Now Upper South dawdlers would surely speed toward disunion! Southern Confederacy stalwarts needed only to demonstrate, so they thought, that they would never rejoin the old republic and that their new republic would serve Upper South no less than Lower South interests.

The demonstrations took center stage when six Lower South states met in Montgomery on February 4, to form a provisional government of the Confederate States of America. (Texas missed the festivities because its popular referendum on disunion remained more than two weeks away.) The Lower South representatives ridiculed reconstruction. They also elevated the two most prominent late stallers on disunion, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, to be the Confederacy’s president and vice president respectively. Furthermore, their provisional constitution, largely a copy of the U.S. Constitution, permanently outlawed the African slave trade. Choose ye between us, Lower South patriots said in effect to Upper South citizens. You can suffer northern tyranny in a lopsided Union. Or you can enjoy southern moderation in a slaveholders’ republic.9

An angry extremist enhanced the demonstration that moderates controlled the Confederacy. South Carolina’s Leondias Spratt called the permanent closure of the African slave trade a slaveholder’s disaster. The founding father of that extremist crusade urged South Carolina to reject the Confederacy. “Another revolution may be painful,” cried Spratt, “but we must make it.”10

Only a handful of South Carolina ultras fancied Spratt’s next revolution.11 But huge Upper South majorities still rejected the secessionists’ first revolution. In Maryland, Kentucky, and Delaware, state legislatures refused even to call a state convention, even to consider secession. These borderland margins against state conventions ranged from two to one up to four to one. Only in Missouri did a Border South legislature summon a state convention. That body turned down secession on March 19, 89–1.12

Middle South secessionists suffered a less overwhelming rejection. The Virginia legislature ordered a state convention, and the North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas legislatures let the people decide whether to call such conclaves. In mid-February popular referendums, North Carolina’s voters barely defeated a convention (50.3 to 49.7 percent), while Tennessee citizens turned down a convention by a more comfortable margin (59 to 41 percent). In both North Carolina and Tennessee, mid-February electorates also voted for delegates, in case they approved a convention. In both Middle South states, Unionists won over two-thirds of citizens’ votes.13

Arkansas, the third Middle South state that held a mid-February popular referendum, gave secessionists only slightly more hope. Arkansas, alone in the Upper South, had joined the Lower South’s departure from the National Democratic Party’s Charleston convention. The state grew Lower South–style crops, including much cotton. Arkansas also contained a Lower South–style percentage of slaves in 1860, 45 percent (compared to 38 percent in Virginia, 34 percent in North Carolina, and 25 percent in Tennessee).

As befit a Cotton South state, the Arkansas electorate called a state convention in mid-February. But in the simultaneous election for delegates, disunionists secured only 43 percent of the popular vote. Arkansas’s convention, meeting on March 4, swiftly rejected a proposed May popular referendum on a secession ordinance, 39–35. Secessionists then swore that Arkansas’s southeastern black belts would secede from its northwestern white belts and join the Southern Confederacy, unless the convention scheduled some popular referendum on disunion. Compromise ensued. The day after Unionists killed a May popular referendum, they approved an August referendum. The Arkansas convention then disbanded, having apparently stalled off secession for at least five months.14

– 3 –

After Arkansas’s convention dispersed, only in Virginia did an Upper South convention continue to deliberate. This most historic American convention since the Virginia Dynasty’s reign (or so Virginians thought) held the fate of democracy, slavery, and the Union in its hands (or so Virginians conceived). “The eyes of the Country are now resting on Virginia,” soared Lexington’s James Davidson. “What a fearful responsibility.” The “Old Mother … will be heard and heeded when she calls to her surrounding Family—Peace—Be Still!”15

Despite Davidson’s widely believed (in Virginia) hyperbole, the state long since had ceased to be heard, much less heeded. The nineteenth-century consequences of Virginia’s geographically separated cultures had especially caused the declension. In this one state, all three tiers of Souths collided, ultimately leaving an indecisive 1861 state convention at the mercy of decision makers beyond the state.

Once upon a time, a decisive Virginia had commenced east of the Blue Ridge. Since the late eighteenth century, the two parts of eastern Virginia, the piedmont and tidewater, had exuded a Lower South presence, with roughly half of the inhabitants enslaved. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, two parts of western Virginia, the valley and the trans-Allegheny, faced in other directions, both geographically and culturally. The Valley of Virginia, located between the easternmost Blue Ridge and the westernmost trans-Allegheny ranges, had a Middle South air, with one in six of its inhabitants enslaved. The trans-Allegheny region, situated west of both ranges, had a Border South presence, with one in twenty of its peoples a slave.

White-belt western Virginians, like slaveless Yankees, resented slaveholders’ imposition on white democracy. In the famous 1829 state convention, egalitarian (for whites) western Virginians demanded that Virginia’s legislature be apportioned on a one-white-man, one-vote basis. Eastern reactionaries instead successfully insisted that the rich must retain extra legislative seats, to save aristocratic republicanism (and slavery) from the poor (and the western nonslaveholders).16



In the equally famous Virginia legislative slavery debate of 1832, western Virginians warned that unless they could have (white) egalitarianism, eastern Virginians could not have (black) slavery. Easterners in the legislature warded off that threat. Yet restrictions on egalitarian democracy for whites had clearly become a two-edged sword, augmenting slaveholders’ protections but swelling nonslaveholders’ antagonisms.

At the Virginia state convention of 1851, eastern Virginians agreed to soften slaveholders’ protection, in order to dull nonslaveholders’ antagonisms. The ensuing state constitution gave western Virginians their treasured one-man, one-vote legislative apportionment. But the settlement, true to Virginia’s irresolution, traded one nonslaveholder resentment for another. No tax, decreed the new constitution, could be imposed on human property under twelve years of age. Nor could slaves aged twelve or over be assessed at over $300. With other property assessed at its actual value and with slave prices skyrocketing in the 1850s, yeomen insisted that an iniquitous tax ceiling filled slaveholders’ wallets with nonslaveholders’ dollars.17

Just as the 1832 legislative slavery debate had offered offended nonslaveholders an opportunity to revenge the alleged 1829 thievery, so the 1861 Virginia convention could give yeomen the opportunity to retaliate for the supposed 1851 robbery. Westerners meant to use the state convention to demolish slaveholders’ tax breaks and to thwart disunion. Secession, western Virginia nonslaveholders raged, would be the worst example yet of slaveholders’ confiscation of white men’s egalitarian rights, in order to preserve black men’s enslavement.

Inflamed sectional antagonisms dominated Virginia’s February 4 election for state convention delegates. The legislature empowered the voters to decide whether the convention could finalize secession, without ratification in a subsequent popular referendum. The citizens voted by a two-to-one margin to require the referendum. Eastern Virginians split evenly on the requirement, while Western Virginians insisted five to one that the popular referendum must be held.18

Virginia voters’ choices for delegates followed the same divisive pattern. Only around one in six of the elected delegates, around two-thirds of them from eastern Virginia black belts, sought instant disunion. Another one in six of the election winners, around four in five of them from trans-Allegheny white belts, favored unconditional unionism, even if civil war ensued.19

Between these two irreconcilable extremes loomed would-be national reconcilers, two-thirds strong at the beginning of the convention. These conditional Unionists sometimes differed on their conditions for a restored Union. But they concurred that if Lincoln coerced any seceded state, Virginia must secede. They also concurred that if no civil war transpired, Virginia must remain in the Union for many months, patiently seeking a reconstructed Union.

On February 13, impatient secessionist delegates descended on another Institute Hall, this time Richmond’s, for the start of the state convention. The ultras meant to abort delays and to preclude any repetition of the 1832 legislative antislavery debate. A priceless private letter from Virginia’s exgovernor (and Buchanan’s ex–secretary of war) John B. Floyd epitomized the determination to spring free from that past history.

Three decades earlier, John B. Floyd’s sire, the first Governor John (without the B.) Floyd, had been Virginia’s chief executive during Nat Turner’s revolt and the subsequent Virginia slavery debate. When western Virginians menaced the institution, the earlier Governor Floyd had recommended gradual emancipation in at least western Virginia. John B., trained for sterner stuff at South Carolina College, never forgot his father’s and his state’s lack of (proslavery) backbone. In February 1861, he feared that another slavery debate would overwhelm the latest Virginia apologists for slavery if the state delayed its decision on disunion.

On February 7, Floyd privately wrote that in Virginia’s February 4 election, “the southern cause has sustained a fearful defeat. … Unless the convention itself shall take high & decided grounds,” the previous “symptoms of a coming contest in Va. for the emancipation of the slave” will become “almost irresistible.” Because that “temptation … in this commonwealth … is very strong,” we will hear again that emancipation will yield an “increased demand for white labor,” an “increased value of land,” and increasing “progress of all improvements. … Whenever this discussion begins again in Va., slavery will be abolished, and you and I may (if not hung for treason!) live to see it.”20

The memory of his own father as traitor to Virginia slaveholder interests, when Nat Turner and then western yeomen struck in 1831–33, added intimate forebodings to John B. Floyd’s abstract dread of Virginia’s persisting apologetics. It was as if a son had to commit patricide to prevent a beloved sire’s traditions from dooming the ruling class. That same familial anguish between generations provoked the two best secessionist debaters in the Virginia convention, James Holcombe and George Randolph. The clash between older and younger Virginians would also underlie the convention’s final confrontation over Virginia’s fate.

George Randolph and James Holcombe shared a common characteristic of eastern Virginia’s most determined secessionists: a relatively young age. Both barely forty, Randolph and Holcombe each despaired that older Virginians floundered between Lower South zeal to save slavery and northern abolitionists’ frenzy to eliminate the abomination. Drift, not mastery, had resulted from previous Virginia generations’ conventional wisdom that slavery was wrong; that emancipation without removal of free blacks was more wrong still; and that the slow drain of Upper South slaves to the Lower South might best secure race removal. Or perhaps the necessary evil could incrementally become unnecessary, after federal or state governments slowly colonized blacks outside the nation.

Two generations before George Randolph, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father of necessary-evil apologists, had hoped colonization would make the evil unnecessary. But Grandfather Jefferson, ducking any fight for a lily-white America, had instead charged the next and the next generation with the glory of the colonization-emancipation struggle. His son-in-law and grandchildren staggered under the charge and achieved no glory in the struggle. In 1860, George Randolph felt compelled to pick up the pieces.21

Randolph, the Founder’s youngest grandson, was the last (and eleventh) offspring of the great man’s daughter and her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph. George Randolph’s austere father, when governor of Virginia, had pressed the legislature (unsuccessfully) to use one-third of the state’s revenue to buy and deport Virginia’s young female slaves, just before they reached puberty. Grandfather Jefferson protested that older breeding wenches would breed three times faster than potential breeders could be expelled.

Whatever George Randolph thought of this exchange about breeding wenches, the future secessionist eventually felt compelled to spring free from his cherished elder brother no less than from his godlike grandfather and his forbidding father. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest and favorite grandchild and twenty-seven years older than brother George Randolph, had his own rendezvous with Jeffersonian paralysis after Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt.22 When the black rebel struck, Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s terrified wife had urged her husband to carry the family to Cincinnati, away from slavery’s horror. But her husband had instead proposed that the state legislature free all slaves born after July 4, 1840, the women at age eighteen and the men at twenty-one. Thus began that 1832 Virginia legislative debate, destined to last two tense weeks and forever in the memories of those who watched, appalled or hopeful.

The Virginia legislature eventually enacted not Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s plan but an ambivalent, ineffective colonization experiment. Still, most of the Old Dominion’s leading subsequent defenders of the necessary evil (now called a temporary good) continued to expect that African colonization would someday (happily) take Virginia’s slaves to the Dark Continent, to spread the light of democracy and Christianity. George Randolph understood why that compromised mentality filled gentlemen like John B. Floyd with forebodings. An 1860 reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson Randolph might be coming, if eastern Virginia stalled again and western Virginia struck again. Still, George Randolph, born and eventually buried at Monticello, could not immediately break from his royal family’s drift. Right before Lincoln’s election, Randolph privately wrote that “if the states south of us go, … we shall not secede but will probably occupy a position of armed neutrality, … unless an attempt be made to coerce them.”23

While George Randolph was not yet ready to assault neutrality, James Holcombe’s still more painful familial experience with Jeffersonian apologetics led to quicker impatience with Virginia’s drift.24 At the time of Nat Turner and of the Virginia slavery debate, Holcombe’s mother could not tolerate her state’s acceptance of slavery. Nor could her husband, Dr. William Holcombe, a prominent Lynchburg physician and preacher, abide masters’ resistance to allowing Christ’s Word to be heard and read in the quarters.

James Holcombe’s parents, with his mother in the lead, ultimately freed their fifteen slaves. They sent some of their freed people to Liberia and others to Ohio. They supplied their ex-slaves with an average of over $500. In defiance of Lynchburg’s withering disapproval, remembered one of their younger sons, they also took “open ground in favor of speeding colonization of the whole race in Africa.”

Then Mrs. Holcombe heard that her aged, childless uncle had decided to bequeath two plantations and eighty slaves to her children. When James’s mother could not dissuade her uncle from the familial step backward, she announced that “the crisis has come.” Like Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s wife at the time of Nat Turner, she pleaded with her husband to take their children “beyond the reach of … evil influences.”

Dr. Holcombe, unlike T. J. Randolph, honored his wife’s plea. “To the amazement of all his friends,” continues his son’s remembrance of the familial earthquake, he sold all his cherished Lynchburg possessions, “surrendered all the most sacred ties of his being, sacrificed apparently all his best interests, and took all his family” to Indiana—with one exception.

The exception, Dr. Holcombe’s oldest son, James, had recently married a prominent Virginia heiress. The groom hovered between scorn for slaveholders, learned at Yale College, and revulsion for holier-than-thou Yankees, imbibed at the University of Virginia Law School. James Holcombe remained as devoted to his emancipating parents as his new wife was to her slaveholding parents.

The torn young adult was conservative, cautious, studious. Holcombe’s tall, lean frame exuded a delicate, fragile air. Deep blue eyes dominated his long, sad, sweet face, the orbs seemingly filled with “mild astonishment” that life was so complicated.25 It was beyond mildly astonishing to be forced to choose between a darling Virginia wife’s family and his own dear tribe of exiles, between a sneering North and a shaky Virginia, between Yankees obnoxiously sure they had every right answer and cousins vulnerably unsure that any answer existed. What was Virginia, anyway? What was he, anyway?

For a time, Holcombe, true to the necessary-evil mentality, split the difference. He commenced his law career in Cincinnati, on the southern edge of the North, south of his parents and north of his in-laws. There he squirmed under Yankee intolerance for any middle way, including his marvelous parents’ dearly purchased middle way. Those who would send blacks to Africa, Holcombe heard, were as heartless as those who lashed slaves. Those who brought crumbs of the Word to the quarters, continued the Cincinnati sneer, lent a Christian veneer to an antichristian abomination. A true Christian would help masters’ property flee across the Ohio River and help the unliberated rise against the tyrants. “The Northern people,” later cried the secessionist who had suffered the Yanks at Yale and in Cincinnati, “have cherished, in the bosom of their society, associations extensive in number and wealth, openly” seeking “to incite and aid the escape of our slaves, and not infrequently expressing sympathy with insurrection, rapine and murder.”26

Holcombe could not live with these intolerant, humiliating fanatics. He could not fathom how his father could teach Northerners or Southerners to send blacks speedily to Africa. He could only shudder at visions of a South full of free blacks. There was no middle way, no future in balancing on the borderland edge of North and South or on the colonizationist edge of slavery and antislavery. In a manner that resembled another tormented Virginian, Moncure Conway, James Holcombe felt called to live on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line from his beloved parents. But where Conway painfully departed from his righteously proslavery father’s ancestral Virginia home, to spread antislavery in the North, Holcombe sadly moved far from his parents’ Indiana home, to spread proslavery in the South. At the University of Virginia Law School, he would teach young Virginians to renounce their parents’ apologetics and to embrace secession.27



The professor, James Holcombe (left), and the grandson, George Randolph (right), decisive young secessionists who had had it with older Virginians’ indecisive drift. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Virginia Library (Holcombe) and the Library of Congress (Randolph).

As the secession winter developed, George Randolph, with his long, dreary, dreamy face, eerily shaped like James Holcombe’s, came to see as clearly as Holcombe (and John B. Floyd) that older Virginians’ middle way could no longer exist. Virginia’s middling choices had been ineffectual enough, and productive of enough declining influence and familial grief, in a Union of seventeen free and fifteen slave states. Now behold a Union with eighteen free states and only eight slave states, with the Border South half of the remaining slave states harboring an even more compromised slaveholding mentality than Virginia’s, and with the president-elect poised to develop his own antislavery party in the vulnerable zone. For George Randolph to remain as paralyzed as Grandfather Jefferson, and as ineffective as his father and eldest brother, and as indecisive as the middle-aged majority of the Virginia secession convention delegates would be to ensure that conflicted whites would soon be aswim in a sea of vengeful blacks.

– 4 –

As James Holcombe, George Randolph, and fellow Virginia secessionists began their assault on indecisive Unionists in Richmond, Henry Benning, Georgia’s commissioner to Virginia, told the convention that the Upper South’s compromised condition had played into his world’s uncompromising decision. Since “the Republican party hates slavery,” Benning argued, our foes will abolish the institution as soon as they “acquire the power” to “do it.” The Georgian warned that “the North is acquiring that power … with great rapidity.” Kansas shows that “every State that comes into the Union will be a free State.” Meanwhile, in “Delaware and Maryland and … other States in the same parallel,” borderland slaveholders “have a presentiment that it is a doomed institution, and … self-interest impels them to get rid of that property.” So slavery “will go down lower and lower, until it all gets to the Cotton States—until it gets to the bottom. … The weight of a continent” forces “it down.”

On the “not distant” day when the bottom of the South contains “the only slave States,” climaxed Benning, “the North will have the power to amend the Constitution” and declare “slavery … abolished.” Then the master who “refuses to yield” will “doubtless be hung.” Race “war will break out everywhere, like hidden fire from the earth.” Eventually, “our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds.” And “as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate.”28

Virginia convention delegates’ long-winded speeches for secession could have been reduced to one pithy affirmation: How right you are, Judge Benning, and especially about our vulnerability in our latitude without your help. Unless cotton states return to the Union, agreed Virginia ultras, we will be “as helpless as a child.” Even if eight slave states can block eighteen free states, we will soon lose half our states. Delaware, lamented James Holcombe, is “nominally only” a slave state; “Maryland will soon be a free State; and so it is with Missouri and Kentucky.” These border states, added George Randolph, have “a small and a decreasing interest in … slavery, and are not such protectors as we should select.”29

Even when we had Cotton South protectors, warned Virginia’s secessionist delegates, Virginia’s slavery had receded southward. Our counties that border on the Yankees, declared George Richardson, lay “stampeded under the operation of the underground railroad.”30 So exposed masters have slowly moved their slaves southward. Statistics sustained Richardson’s claim. Virginia counties bordering on another state lost 4.7 percent of their slaves from 1850 to 1860. Twenty-one of the twenty-five counties suffered losses.

With Yankee slave stealers “driving slavery from those counties,” continued Richardson, what “is to prevent … the wave of sectionalism” from someday sweeping slavery “away through Virginia … and into the far South?” Worse, Lincoln’s Southern Republican Party would intensify the wave. President Lincoln, warned ex-congressman Jeremiah Morton, will shower “public patronage upon Virginia and Maryland and Tennessee,” and on “Kentucky and Missouri.” If we submit to Lincoln’s command, we “will find Black Republicans upon every stump, and organizing in every county; and that is the peace that we shall have from this ‘glorious Union.’”31

That nonpeace, feared secessionists, will foment unrest in the quarters. “Innocent” blacks, winced James Holcombe, can be misled. Slaves’ periodic “outbursts of violence … will fill the master with continual apprehensions.” Slaveholders’ “safeguards” will prove so “costly and so burdensome … that the institution itself will become intolerable.”32

Southern Republicans, continued secessionist delegates, would also infect western Virginia yeomen. In the convention itself, secessionists faced alarming evidence of fertile western ground for Hinton R. Helper’s economic-based heresy. Especially western Virginia’s Waitman T. Willey sought a state constitutional amendment, abolishing the 1851 tax breaks for slaveholders. Some time for this, eastern Virginians stormed.

This occasion allows us to have at the slaveholders, answered Willey’s western admirers. All eastern Virginians’ “talk about our rights being stolen from us by the North,” Henry Dering of Morgantown privately wrote Willey, “dwindles into nothing compared to our situation in Western Virginia.” An “impudent, boastful, and tyrannical” eastern “slavery oligarchy” taxes us unequally and would divide our “glorious Union.” If tyrants “persist,” we must renounce our state and thereby “throw of [sic] the Shackles” of “this very Divine Institution, as they call it.”33

Henry Dering’s representatives in the Virginia convention somewhat toned down this southern version of northern anti–Slave Power outrage. But white belt representatives’ edgy insistence on equal taxation, at this (so secessionists thought) scandalous moment, made Southern Republicanism seem all too plausible. “I now see,” wrote Henry Wise privately to his son, that “slavery is doomed in Virginia and we have no hope but in actual Revolution.” Wise was “confident” that “a number” of delegates would “vote for abject submission and abolition of slavery tomorrow.”34

Because of older Virginians’ submissive mentalities, declared George Randolph in a particularly stunning sentence, Republicans “are much more likely to make us wrong than we are to bring them right.” Jefferson’s grandson noted that proslavery “sentiment with us is recent—it is comparatively a thing of yesterday—it has not been incubated in early life, … it has hardly yet had time to be understood and appreciated by our own people. To dash it now against the iron-bound fanaticism of the North, would be the height of folly.”35

Republicans’ “insolent spur of contempt,” exclaimed James Holcombe, increases the folly of living among them. The enemy intends “not only to ruin but to degrade” us. Whenever “any people lose that self-respect which is the spring of public virtue,” they “must become extinct.” George Richardson added that “I will never consent to live … with men who claim that I am socially their inferior.” Republicans’ “insolent pretension,” their “bloated arrogance and impudence,” their “fanatical, meddlesome, overbearing” insults must be met “with the scorn and defiance” of an aroused “chivalry.”36

Instead, the Virginia convention majority called the chivalry overly aroused. Rather than fusing with the fanatical Lower South, most delegates wished to use a convention of soothing Upper South states to reconstruct the Union. These reconstructionists rejected the secessionist retort that Union saving had been proven hopeless. Reconstruction required endless attempts, affirmed Unionists, until the right formula tempted the right Lower South reconstructionists to bring their states back.

In a previous rendezvous with reconstruction strategy, the January Virginia legislature had summoned a National Peace Conference to Washington, D.C., on February 4. All states, except the seceded Lower South and the far-off Pacific Ocean states, had sent delegates. These disproportionately elderly gentlemen had elected Virginia’s aging ex-president John Tyler as presiding officer.

Tyler’s contemporaries had then spent three weeks in search of a reunion bargain, even if no Lower South man was there for the bargaining. The aging titans had finally settled for a version of John Crittenden’s tired compromise. Republicans had as little use for this substitute as for the original. Nor did Lower South states bother to reject the irrelevance. Virginia’s Washington Peace Conference became derisively known as the Old Gentlemen’s last hurrah, before young gentlemen’s blood soaked the battlefields.37

Nevertheless, on March 9, five days into Lincoln’s presidency, the Virginia convention’s Committee on Federal Relations recommended the same old route toward peaceable reconciliation, unless and until the Lincoln administration sought to coerce seceded states. “The people of Virginia,” declared the Majority Report of the committee, “recognize the American principle that government is founded in the consent of the governed. … They concede the right of the people” of a state “to withdraw from … the Federal Government.” Our people will never allow “federal power” to subjugate “the people of such States.”38

Continued peace, however, invited continued negotiations. The convention should formulate constitutional amendments and submit them to the several states. The convention’s proposed constitutional amendments, still being hammered out when war struck, would have featured yet another version of the Crittenden Compromise. Those measures would have failed again. The latest failure would have put Virginia on a collision course with Union, even if peace had persisted.

Yet the Majority Report of the Committee on Federal Relations provided possible escapes from the collision. The report declared that “Virginia will await any reasonable time to obtain answers from other States.” Citing that language, future Virginia unionist majorities could deny that “reasonable time” had passed. The report also urged the eight slave states still in the Union to meet in convention on May 27 in Frankfort, Kentucky. If that proposed border state conference recommended milder measures than Virginia’s proposed federal constitutional amendments, yet another Virginia Unionist Party majority might keep negotiating.

Secessionists preferred the Lower South’s nonnegotiable stance. “If we are to be dragged … either to the North or the South,” declared J. R. Chambliss, I would rather be dragged “under King Cotton than under King Abolition.” I would rather “be ruled by King Davis than by Autocrat Lincoln.” The Unionists’ George Baylor answered that Virginia anointed “King Wheat, King Corn, King Potatoes, King Tobacco, King Flax, King Hemp” as monarchs. “All these Kings together … far over-ride King Cotton.”39

The issue involved not only which king presided in Virginia but also whether a choice of monarchs now must be made. Unionists still saw hope of a middle way, of a Border South conference that could reknit North and South. Secessionists demanded that conciliators face facts, realize that two separate kingdoms had been irreconcilably created, understand that no third choice now existed.

Secessionists further insisted that Lower South leaders had been right to force the Middle South to choose. Their interests differ from ours, declared James Holcombe. They must have expanded territory, lest the drain of our slaves downward leave them trapped in a sea of blacks. Just as they could not wait for us, we cannot wait for the half-abolitionized Border South. “Are we prepared to commit the fortunes of Virginia into the keeping of States so unequally interested in the preservation of this institution?”40

Holcombe here reaffirmed the point that came from many secessionist directions in 1860–61: A committed minority must not turn over its fate to an uncommitted majority. Lower South Democrats must renounce a compromising National Democratic Party Convention, William L. Yancey had urged in Charleston, or the party will compromise southern constituents to death. Lower South secessionists must shun a southern convention dominated by the unionist Upper South, South Carolina’s William Gist had told Mississippi’s John Pettus, or the convention’s majority will paralyze our resistance. Middle South slaveholders must avoid a border state conference, now urged James Holcombe, or softhearts’ decision will soften us. Our minority must decide for itself, Yancey, Gist, and Holcombe all affirmed, and make our own history.

The Virginia convention’s majority still preferred to share the history making with Upper South states. On April 4, Lewis Harvie moved that secession be adopted. On this first-month anniversary of Lincoln’s inauguration, delegates voted down Harvie, Randolph, Holcombe, and immediate secession by a stunning 88–45.41 With the cannon that encircled Fort Sumter only a week away from booming, Virginians stood two to one for their fancied middle way—and for the tired illusion that the “Old Mother” could use a border state conference to summon wayward Lower South offspring back to a reconstructed Union.

– 5 –

Younger Virginians could no longer bear the convention’s paralyzed conceit. In an impetuousness worthy of Savannah’s Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, many young sports determined to march on Richmond. They would seize Virginia’s destiny from the convention’s old fogies.

The young Virginians’ leader, George Bagby, was thirty-two years old. The precocious journalist, eight years younger than James Holcombe, had lately become editor of the prestigious Southern Literary Messenger. Bagby used his new position, as Holcombe had used his University of Virginia professorship, to deprecate older Virginians’ middle way.42

Slavery, Bagby insisted in the manner of Holcombe, was either good or evil. Sending blacks away from Virginia was either right or wrong. The Middle South was either northern or southern. Virginia’s convention must sustain either the Confederacy or the Union. By insisting that the state immediately choose its southern roots, Bagby became a lightning rod for all younger Virginians who feared, as twenty-seven-year-old George Latham wrote Bagby, “that Virginia was about to disgrace herself.”43

Latham, editor of the Lynchburg Express, saw “no Virginia left in the world now. She was dead long since, when you and I were proud to be her children.” While “we did not know then” that “she had gone down into her grave,” now “we know.” The “craven” submissionists “in the Hall at Richmond … disgrace the memory of our Old Mother.”44

Like all the other younger Virginians around Bagby and Holcombe, twenty-two-year-old John Hampden Chamberlayne ached to avert disgrace. In past nonrevolutionary times, Chamberlayne wrote Bagby, “gray heads … did very well.” But in current revolutionary times, “show me a white head & a boy of twenty, & I will trust the boy.” Another comparative boy, thirtyyear-old John Esten Cooke, told Bagby that when I hear “what people think and say of Virginia, … I boil, boil, boil.”45

In late March, as secessionists’ fiery rhetoric failed to ignite the Virginia convention, Bagby summoned young Virginians to a so-called Spontaneous Southern Rights Assembly in Richmond on April 16. “I received your communication this morning [March 26],” wrote back twenty-eight-year-old Henry Gray Latham, “with a thrill of pleasure.” Now I have “something to hope for beyond … that convention of [Judas] Iscariots. … I will be with you in everything,” including “dividing the State by a revolution.” Or as Latham wrote Bagby a month earlier, “If old Va. don’t go out by a vote of the people, … we will … take the government property, and stand against the whole population of the State & Federal Union.”46

While Bagby’s followers marched on Richmond, determined to force action at last, the state convention remained stuck on nonaction. Despite the storm swirling outside the convention hall—cadets parading in the streets, mobs burning moderates in effigy, young turks massing for their hardly “Spontaneous” assembly—middle-aged convention delegates remained wrapped in their cocoon of self-importance. They would not abandon Mother Virginia. Their delays would summon their Lower South progeny back to the Union’s glory.

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