Democracy’s dark day–the May 1861 secession vote in Fredericksburg, part 2

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.  )

Dowdall's Tavern in Spotsylvania County, one of the polling places on May 23, 1861

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.)

Hunnicutt, Fredericksburg's unabashed Unionist, and ultimately perhaps the most hated resident in Fredericksburg's history.

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.

Stafford farmer and fisherman James Lowry remembered vividly the pressure put on him that May 23 day.  Neighbors Valentine Conway and Dr. John Daniel did the leaning–“I was urged and threatened by prominent citizens here to vote for the adoption of the secession ordinance.” Conway and Daniel put Lowry in a room.  “I could not well get over their persuasion,  I thought I had better do it than to run the risk of being put in prison.”  Valentine Conway later admitted his role in the coercion:  “Dr.John Daniel and I were very active to secure all the votes we could in favor of its adoption and we used every persuasive means in our power.” They were determined “either induce or compel him to vote for the ratification and we both walked with him and tried with all our powers to do so, but [he] persisted in asserting his attachment to the Union and his determination to adhere to it, saying he had rather be cut to pieces than to see it broken up.”

Finally Lowry gave up. “At last towards the close of the day [I] yielded. I still clung to the Union with my heart, but I could not tell it to the crowd.”

Some other testimony to the coercion going on:

"Laurel Hill," the home of Unionist Peter Couse off Gordon Road in Spotsylvania County

Peter Couse, a New Jersey-born Unionist in Spotsylvania:  It was not safe to talk Union in public…. My influence was always on the side of the Union, imprudently perhaps sometimes.  I voted for the Union candidate for the convention, and on the question of adopting the ordinance of secession, I did not vote at all.  I would not vote for it, and it was not safe to vote against it. 

Nathan Gardner, Spotsylvania:  I did not vote for secession, although in my neighborhood the polls were only open to register secession votes and all sorts of threats were made against any one who should dare to vote against it….I had fought for the Union in a foreign land and I wouldn’t do anything to help break it up.”   

James Estes, Orange, who testified for Gerrit Graves of Spotsylvania. In my opinion it was not safe in 1861 for either property or life to refuse to vote for secession.  I know that Mr. Graves lived at that time and during the entire war in a community filled with violent secessionists, a perfect ‘secession hole.

George P. King, Fredericksburg:  “My brother, who was arrested used to caution me very often. I ought to say that they got my consent  to vote for the ordinance on the ground that I did not think it was my duty to stand up against a strong influence that was there. My wife was a very delicate woman and I thought I was in danger of being arrested all the time and I thought I would make us fair weather as best I could, and finally I consented on that ground because I thought it would make my situation more tolerable….”

Recent research by Donald Pfanz has shown that the 1,323-0 vote in Spotsylvania was not in fact the case. Two men–Walter Mills and miller James Gardner–actually did vote against the ordinance, but when Spotsylvania commissioners reported the votes, they simply dropped the two dissenting ballots.  (Walter Mills and his family lived on Sophia Street at the foot of George Street–a site that is today a city parking lot. His daughter, Henrietta, later married newspaperman Rufus Merchant. Their descendants still live in Fredericksburg; indeed, Mary Katherine Greenlaw, a member of City Council and an occasional commenter on this blog, is descendant from the Mills family.)

Editor James Hunnicutt spotted hypocrisy in the acts of the secessionists.  “These were the men who denounced the despotism of the ‘Lincoln Government’ and the ‘tyranny of the old infernal Union. These were the men who shouted against coercion,–who boasted of the liberty of the press, the liberty of speech, the liberty of action,–all of which simply meant that everybody had to write, speak, and act precisely in harmony with all that the original secessionists wrote, spoke, and did.”

In the first year of the war, a number of local Unionists (including Peter Couse and George King’s brother) would indeed be arrested and imprisoned–fulfilling the proclaimed fear that inspired many men of contrary minds to vote against their conscience.

The midst of Civil War was by no means a golden age for democracy in America, and no where is that more vividly illustrated than in our own back yard….

Don Pfanz has identified the polling places for the May 23 vote:

Stafford Court House, Aquia, Falmouth, Hartwood, White Oak, Stafford Store, and Edrington’s.

Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Mount Pleasant, Dowdall’s Tavern, and Andrews’

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