From John Hennessy (for Part 1 of this post, click here; for other posts about Fredericksburg’s march toward secession, click here and here. Robert Moore has done a post on the May 23 vote in his part of the world–the Valley–that describes much of the same strong-arming that took place in Fredericksburg. )
The number is breathtaking: 1,323 – 0.
That oft-quoted score constitutes the results of Spotsylvania County’s vote on secession on May 23, 1861. Indeed, in Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania only a half-dozen souls voted against secession, while more than 2,000 voted in favor of the ordinance. These figures are often quoted to demonstrate the unanimous and purposeful spirit of local residents when it came to the nascent Confederacy. Indeed, given that Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania had months before elected a decided moderate on the question of secession (John L. Marye of Brompton), and that just three months before he had voted AGAINST secession, and was applauded locally for doing so, that the community would come together in seeming unanimity in favor of secession and war (there could be no mistaking by May that one would beget the other), the turn in the sentiments of the electorate seems nothing short of astonishing.
There is no doubt that the majority of local residents favored secession and war in May 1861. But the big fat ZERO in the calculus hints that something else was at work. In this community was a significant core of Unionists–many of them transplants from the North–whose sentiments were clearly not reflected in the May 23 vote. Why? A single reason: intimidation–a widespread, systematic effort on the part of secessionists to silence or influence the votes of would-be dissenters.
Bear in mind the circumstances: Virginia formally joined the Confederacy on May 6, two weeks BEFORE its citizens voted to take the state out of the Union. Clearly, after the vote of the secession convention on April 17, everything else was mere formality. Given that, secessionists sought virtual perfection at the polls, and they resorted to some un-democratic means to get it.
Much of the testimony regarding voter intimidation comes from the post-war damage claims made to the Federal government by local residents. Two conditions governed the granting of those claims: first, whatever damages being claimed had to have been inflicted by the Union army, and, second, the person making the claim had to prove that he had been loyal to the Union throughout the war. An obvious problem for those claiming loyalty was an affirmative vote for secession. And so the records include extensive explanations of why so many Unionists voted FOR secession–and thus comes to us a fairly stunning record of intimidation. (Obviously, given the self-interest of those trying to explain away a “yes” vote on secession, these records need to be used carefully. Still, the testimony is in its collective mass compelling and consistent–so much so that it seems the postwar review boards generally disregarded the secession vote as an indicator–or not–of loyalty.)
James Hunnicutt, the editor of the Unionist newspaper, the Christian Banner, received explicit threats that if he did not stop publishing his newspaper, “my paper would be stopped for me.” (Hunnicutt suspended publication on May 9.) When it came to the vote itself, Hunnicutt succumbed to pressure on that too. “I had a wife, and my daughter was in North Carolina. My two sons were here, and all my churches, all my friends every interest I had upon earth save my common country, was south of the Potomac river. What should I do? Should I act the part of a madman, of a natural fool, and stay away and either be hung or driven out of my State never to see my wife and children and friends again?” (Hunnicutt’s vote for secession did nothing to gain him goodwill in Fredericksburg. He probably still holds the mantle of being the most reviled resident in Fredericksburg’s history.)
The rub of the matter for voters was this: votes were given by voice, in the presence of other citizens, placing prospective “no” voters in a difficult place. When in Fredericksburg two men voted against secession, local miller Thomas F. Knox (who would send six sons into the Confederate army), arose and declared that “the man who next so voted should be hung.” Those indeed were the last “no” votes of the day. Continue reading