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. Continue reading

The secession vote, part 1: the lament of Judge Lomax, May 23, 1861

From John Hennessy:

Judge John Tayloe Lomax

Exactly 150 years ago today, the people of Fredericksburg went to the polls to ratify (or–theoretically–not) the ordinance of secession. In Fredericksburg, the vote took place at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street. While some greeted the day with joy or simply saw the vote as confirmation of a foregone conclusion, for many the vote represented profound moment. In Fredericksburg, perhaps the most dramatic moment came when one of the town’s pre-eminent citizens, Judge John Tayloe Lomax, arrived at the Circuit Courthouse, over which he had presided for 27 years (he retired in 1857). Lomax was born in Caroline County, but became a mainstay of Fredericksburg society as the judge of Virginia’s 5th Circuit Court in Fredericksburg. He was for many years on the faculty of the law school at the University of Virginia, where he schooled at least three men who would become central to secession and the aspiring Confederacy–R.M.T. Hunter, Robert Toombs of Georgia, and Alexander H.H. Stuart. When not sitting on the bench or traveling to Charlottesville, Lomax operated a small law school in town. His prodigies included men who became some of the town’s most visible secessionists:  William S. Barton, John L. Marye, Jr., William A. Little, and Dabney Maury.

The Lomax house still stands at the corner of Hanover and Prince Edward Streets. It was heavily Victorianized after the Civil War. 1930s photo by the WPA.

By May 1861, the 80-year-old Lomax was “enfeebled by recent sickness,” and his appearance at the polls seemed to embody the determination and moral force of the Confederate cause as Virginians saw it. “With tottering steps, supported by friends,” the judge made his way up the courthouse steps. Sensing the expectations of others and inclined to a “rhetorical style and the cultivation of the graces of oratory,” Lomax paused to speak.  The assemblage (which otherwise had been quite raucous, as we shall see in part 2 of this post) went silent. “It was a scene calculated to produce a deep impression,” reported the Fredericksburg News. Lomax,  his voice feeble from both “weakness and emotion,” brought many to tears, and captured clearly the profound dilemma that faced thoughtful people across the South. Continue reading

Final plunge–April 15, 1861

Princess Anne Street, the cultural heart of Fredericksburg. Much of the debate over secession took place in the courthouse--the building with a cupola. The public celebrations on April 13, 1861 also likely focused on the streetscape shown here.

From John Hennessy (check out our prior posts on the rise of secessionism in Fredericksburg here.  Click here for a post on April 12, 1861 in Fredericksburg):

On Saturday evening, April 13, 1861, news of the surrender of Fort Sumter arrived by telegraph in Fredericksburg. Unionist James Hunnicutt, who abhorred the idea of secession and for nearly a year had harangued Fredericksburg with dire predictions of the destructive whirlwind secession would bring (he turned out to be right on nearly all counts), recognized precisely what this meant. The Federal government would not stand for rebellion, and Virginia in such circumstances would not stand by the Federal government in any effort to suppress it.  On April 15, Hunnicutt wrote:

“On the receipt of the news on Saturday evening, several guns were fired, the soldiers paraded the streets, several speeches were delivered, many cheers were given, and the doleful ‘ tiger groans ‘ fell upon our ear like the deep mutterings of demons coming up from the regions of despair. At night bonfires were kindled, as if the actors in the drama were eager for light to the downfall of the Republic and the departure of a nation’s glory ‘. Such is the progress of American civilization, such the character of American patriotism, such the character of American Christianity, in this enlightened nineteenth century !”

That very day, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion–3,000 of them from Virginia. As we have noted before, Fredericksburg had long stated that its collective determination to remain in the Union would disintegrate if the Federal government chose to use force against the South. And so it did. By sunset on April 15, 1861, the people of Fredericksburg knew they were going to war.

Just a few years before, Hunnicutt’s newspaper, The Christian Banner, had been the most popular rag in Fredericksburg. On April 16, 1861, faced with nothing but hostility from his anti-Unionist neighbors, Hunnicutt suspended publication of his newspaper. Continue reading

Fredericksburg April 12, 1861

From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg, taken from below Chatham. The date is 1863, but the Chatham bridge likely looked much the same after the storm of April 10, 1861.

While the people of Charleston S.C. awoke on April 12 to the boom of cannon surrounding Fort Sumter, the people of Fredericksburg awoke to a torrent of another sort. Thanks to three days’ rain, the Rappahannock was flowing at a rate note seen since 1814. Two of the area’s bridges were doomed (not for the last time in coming years).

On Wednesday morning [April 10] the swollen, turbid mass of water, increasing rapidly in height and volume, raged onward with such force as to sweep away panel after panel of the Falmouth Bridge, which with similar velocity, struck the Chatham Bridge amidships, and carried off about one-third of that structure in its destructive course.  In a few hours the whole of Falmouth Bridge had disappeared, and from bank to bank surged the resistless tide of waters….From the Island under the Chatham Bridge, which had been engulfed some time previously, a wide and yawning chasm separated the broken wood-work, and the exulting waters rushed through, bearing along the ‘dismembered fragments of a once glorious union.’  Staffird had seceded by the force of circumstances….Lower down the river the shipping was in much danger.  One schooner, the D.K. Hopkins, was carried off, and a small river steamer was floated on shore and landed in the bushes.  The Gas Works were overflowed, and the town has been in darkness ever since.  Mr. Marye’s new Corn-Mill was endangered by the fierce current, and 150 barrels of Corn, we understand, were ‘cast upon the waters’ without hope of return, however.  Numerous houses, kitchens, &c on Water Street suffered severely—the water ten feet deep in some, and one family had to be taken out in a boat, from an upper window.  No loss of life reported, but one man, Captain Stevens we believe, was accidentally carried down the river on a portion of Falmouth Bridge, but rescued near French John’s after an exciting involuntary voyage….

While the Fredericksburg News was full of portentous news about coming war–“War seems inevitable,” editor Archibald Little declared–Fredericksburg’s life rhythms went on little affected. The paper advertised a particularly relevant speech at Citizens Hall:  “The Old Dominion! As She Was, Is, and Will Be.”

Elsewhere local citizens ruminated on more prosaic things, like a petition to the new President in Washington asking him to keep the town’s long-time postmaster Reuben Thom in place. Thom was 79 years old (one of the few people in town who likely remembered the flood of 1814) and an institution–“emphatically a good man,” said the News. But Thom was a secessionist, and the newspaper saw in his prospective appointment the chance for the new president (Lincoln) to reach across sectional divides, place party politics aside and rise “superior to these little, petty political prejudices…and show himself superior to party distinctions.”

Events of the following weeks would render the citizens’ petition for Thom moot, but he would indeed be appointed postmaster of Confederate mails. Like Fredericksburg, Thom and his family suffered severely amidst the war that loomed in the newspapers that April 12, 1861.  His house at what is today about 919 Caroline Street burned in the bombardment of December 11, 1862–indeed, he and his family huddled in the basement until flames forced them into their garden. His neighbor John Wallace saw him soon after the battle, “I met in the street Mr. Thom who told me he was utterly ruined, I can assure you I felt deep sympathy for him. He is not alone, many are in the same situation.”

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later, Part 2: the end of Union, March 11, 1861

From John Hennessy (for Part 1 of this post, click here)

The Fredericksburg Courthouse, scene of the tumultuous March 11, 1861 meeting that marked the end of Fredericksburg’s dance with Unionism.

Lincoln’s inaugural, with its pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” transformed Fredericksburg’s collective view on secession. Local observers saw those words as the dreaded threat of “coercion” against the South, something Fredericksburgers and Virginians had long declared intolerable.  The  tumult of Fredericksburg’s debate over Union or secession came to a crescendo on March 11, 1861, when the town’s dwindling population of Unionists called a meeting at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street–an attempt to counter the turnout of secessionists in the same building just three days before. The spiritual leader of the town’s Unionists was newspaper editor James W. Hunnicutt, whose Christian Banner was Frederickburg’s best-selling paper in the years before the war. But Hunnicutt was not alone in his Unionist sympathies. Grocer Hugh Scott (the father of “shell baby” in 1862), clothier James McGuire, and Northern-born dentist M.A. Blankman were among a fair list of Fredericksburg luminaries in the courthouse that night. But, Hunnicutt soon divined, there were far more than just Unionists in attendance.

No, this is not John Brown, but James Hunnicutt, Fredericksburg’s unabashed Unionist, and ultimately perhaps the most hated resident in Fredericksburg’s history.

When Hugh Scott, the chair, called for a speech, George Henry Clay Rowe, a former elector for Stephen Douglas, a Unionist, a former agent of calm, rushed to the podium to speak. Rowe was 33-year-old lawyer who had carved out a successful practice in town, and while he eschewed elected office, he was everywhere involved in the town’s politics. In every public gathering prior to this night, he had espoused unwaveringly for Union. And as he approached the podium, Hunnicutt expected him to do so again.

But Hunnicutt was wrong.  Continue reading

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later: the rise of secession and the end of Union, Part 1

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this post, click here):

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Fredericksburg was undergoing a painful, tumultuous transformation in its consideration of Virginia’s place (or not) in the Union.  A look through this local lens tells us a great deal about how the secession crisis played out in Virginia.  Fredericksburg, like every community in the South,  approached the issue of Union or disunion in its own way, guided by its own principles (often in common with many of their Southern brethren)–each buffeted by economic, social, and political forces most clearly displayed at the local level. Fredericksburg is a vivid case study in a nation’s and a state’s march toward secession and war.

Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg. The courthouse, with the round cupola, was the site of two of Fredericksburg's most important public meetings.

Prior to the election of 1860, the discourse here among white residents focused on the nature of the Union, the reach of the federal government, the protection (and indeed extension of) slavery, and which of the candidates offered the best prospect for addressing the community’s concerns.  Fredericksburg was in no way monolithic in 1860. About 45% of local voters cast ballots for Bell’s Constitutional Union party–which embraced a solution to the ongoing debates about slavery and the nature of government within the existing Union.  Just over 36% cast their votes for the secessionist candidate, Breckinridge.  Lincoln was not part of the discussion. His name did not even appear on the ballot here.

After Lincoln’s election, the debate here shifted. Fredericksburgers spent far less time considering the fate and nature of the Union and nation, and instead shifted their focus, and debate, to the fate of Virginia and its place within that Union. In December 1860, the white residents of town established a clear road-map for the journey forward, setting conditions they deemed necessary for Virginia to remain in the Union.  You can find our post on that here. Put simply, the debate in Fredericksburg between the election and March 1861 focused on two things.

–  Were Virginia’s interests so allied to those of the Deep South that it should join them? The debate revolved not around the virtues of slavery (which were presumed), but of the Union—and whether the Union as it was would threaten slavery and a “southern way of life” built upon a foundation of slavery.

–  What steps would the Federal government take to counter secession. Would the federal government try to coerce seceded states back into the Union with force? And, worse, would Virginia, as part of the Union, be called upon to help vanquish the wayward secessionists?  This was the great question.

Reflective of the town’s conservative approach, in February voters elected relative conservative John L. Marye of Brompton to represent Spotsylvania County at the secession convention in Richmond (click here for a post about Marye’s views on slavery and secession).

But something changed dramatically on March 4. It was not simply that Lincoln was inaugurated–everyone knew that was coming. Rather it was what he said. Continue reading

Fredericksburg and the new Confederacy

From John Hennessy:

We have passed the 150th Anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as President of the new Confederate states, which at the time did NOT include Virginia. The people of Fredericksburg watched the tragic contortions of a nation in crisis with great interest. But they did not react to notably to Davis’s inauguration. Instead, Fredericksburgers and Virginians in general navigated a careful course–still uncertain whether their interests could best be protected within or outside the Union.

On December 17, 1860, the people of Fredericksburg (at least the white residents) adopted a document that would be by far the town’s most important collective expression on Union and disunion–indeed it would be their blueprint for the secession crisis. They mapped out precisely how the community–and by extension presumably the state–would respond in the face of the acts of the Federal government. The document clearly states the cause of white Fredericksburgers’ grievances, their self-image as Southerners, and precisely what acts would bring them to conclude that Virginia must leave the Union. The Fredericksburg News said of the meeting that produced this collective resolution, “We have only time to say that we have never seen more unanimity than was expressed last night in the Citizens’ Meeting….The sentiment of all present was to preserve the Union if it be possible on terms alike honorable to both parties.  If this be impossible, then placing ourselves upon our rights, under the guidance of providence, to stand by them come weal or woe.”

Here is the text of the resolutions adopted; they would, in fact, be the road map for the town’s descent into secession. Continue reading