Tuesday, April 16, 1861
Minds were on Virginia. The surrender of Fort Sumter had prompted Lincoln to issue calls for militia, even from the “border” slave states still true to the Union. Kentucky and North Carolina had flatly refused. Virginia’s answer was much the same.
Like North Carolina’s governor, Virginia’s Governor John Letcher at first doubted the authenticity of the request for 2,340 Virginians to put down the uprising in the South. He continued, saying that “the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view.” Letcher accused Lincoln of attempting to “subjugate the Southern States” and he would have no role in this.
Virginia had not, at this point, seceded. Lincoln, who was aware that they were on the brink, probably did not expect this closing threat from the governor: “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited toward the South.”1
Lincoln, the False Prophet
If the official response from Virginia was lukewarm, the public response to Lincoln’s call for troops was firebrand hot. The Richmond Daily Dispatch called the President a “false prophet” who held more “deadly hatred” for the South than John Brown. They predicted “wholesale murder and massacre” from the militia troops called for “the coming war.” “We are to be invaded with fire and sword,” continued the editorial, “the horrors of servile war, if possible, are to be added to those of civil war; our fields are to be laid waste, our houses destroyed, and if we resist, we are to be shot down or hung as rebels and traitors.”2
Could Virginia Be Neutral?
Meanwhile, the Virginia secession convention had agreed to a “secret session,” closing its doors to the public. There, they heard from three men who had just visited with Lincoln in Washington. Only one of them remained a Unionist. Though he disliked the President’s call for troops, he despised secession, saying, much like the Dispatch, that it would bring the war to Virginia.
A referendeum allowing the voters themselves to choose between seceding now or coordinating with other border states to possibly secede later was suggested. At this point, the Unionists were more in favor of the latter. Though it wasn’t exactly pro-Union, it wasn’t secession. This could almost be seen as declaring neutrality.3
Quick Action at Gosport Navy Yard
US Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had been informed by the commandant of the Yard that the USS Merrimack could be ready within 24 hours. Welles, in turn, ordered all valuable items to be placed upon ships, ready to be moved to safety in case of attack. He also ordered the USS Cumberland to assist, even if it was to repel an organized force.4
Getting wind of these activities, Wise wired friends in Norfolk take care of the situation. They hauled three hulks into the Elizabeth River, blocking both United States reinforcements from getting in and United States ships from getting out.
Wise Wants Harpers Ferry
Events were quickly happening in Virginia’s capital. The incredibly busy Henry Wise had called John Imboden to Richmond. Imboden was a captain of an artillery unit from Staunton. Wise had formulated another plan.
At seven in the evening, Wise gathered Imboden and several other militia leaders together in his hotel room for a council of war.
It was agreed that the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was of strategic importance. The United States had a few soldiers guarding it for the time being, but with the calls for troops answered by the North, that scant few would soon be bolstered. The arsenal should and could be taken if they acted immediately.
Speed was essential and for that, the railroads would have to be employed. Two railroad presidents were wired and told of the plan. Both agreed. With the fast transportation problem solved, they turned to the question of men.
Imboden had a battery of artillery, but it would take more than those few men to capture the arsenal. The state militia would be needed and that was under the control of Governor Letcher. Three men, Imboden included, woke Letcher from a sound sleep around midnight to tell him of their plan. Though the governor had just threatened Washington, he could not agree to the plan until Virginia had officially seceded from the Union.5