Virginia’s Vote for Secession; Johnston’s Faux Pas; Butler’s First Day

Thursday, May 23, 1861

Virginia’s popular vote to approve secession was a mere matter of formality. The Confederate army had taken control of the Virginia volunteers, accepted Virginia into her fold and even resolved to move the nation’s capital to Richmond. But formality or not, the votes were cast and secession was approved by a margin of six-to-one, statewide. When broken down between eastern and western Virginia, the story wasn’t so simple. While the eastern part of the state was nearly all for secession, western Virginia voted overwhelmingly pro-Union, with some counties coming it at twenty-to-one against secession.1


Johnston Not Quite Prepared for Command

The dividing line between eastern and western Virginia was generally regarded as the Allegheny Mountains to the west of the Shenandoah Valley. At the northern tip of the valley, where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac, sets Harpers Ferry, occupied by nearly 7,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas J. Jackson.

Unbeknown to Jackson, however, Brigadier-General Joseph E. Johnston had been reassigned from his command in Richmond to take command at Harpers Ferry. The order came through on the 15th, but nobody had thought to tell Jackson, figuring that the written order would be enough.

It probably would have been had General Johnston not forgotten to bring it along.

Jackson was at his desk tending to the paperwork that so naturally came with command when Johnston, accompanied by two staff officers, entered his office. Jackson had been acquainted with one of the staff officers back in his West Point days. Johnston, who was impeccably decked out in full Confederate military regalia, informed Col. Jackson that he was ordered to take over the command at Harpers Ferry. Jackson, apparently, said little. He had received no word of this change and with no written orders for Johnston to take over, Jackson was going to have to think on this for the night.2


General Butler in Command at Fortress Monroe

This date was also Union Major-General Benjamin Butler’s first full day at Fortress Monroe, his new command. Garrisoned in and around the fort were nearly 3,500 troops, mostly from Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. He spent the day of his arrival inspecting the fort and seeing to some concerns with getting fresh water.

More troops would be needed at the fort, but to receive more troops, he would need more land. In the morning, he, along with a colonel and 25 Vermont volunteers reconnoitered the ground between the fort and the town of Hampton, a few miles to the northwest.

When the Confederates in the town saw the small armed force approaching, they attempted to burn the bridge over Hampton Creek. The Vermonters, along with the help of some locals, were able to quickly extinguish the fire. They moved into the town, finding a few Rebel soldiers who claimed to be watching their slaves. Butler apparently left the town itself to them and encamped his troops about halfway between the fort and Hampton and then returned to the fort.3

Upon his arrival, three black men were seen rowing to the fort from Sewell’s Point, the location of a Rebel battery. Butler, according to his autobiography, thought that these men might have some information on the Rebel position and so asked to see them.

As he found out, the three were working at the battery as the slaves of a Confederate colonel who was planning on sending all of his slaves to Florida to put them to work there (or to avoid having them seized by the Union troops in Virginia). They did not want to leave their homes and families and so ran away to the hoped-for safety of the Union fort.

Butler set them up with food and a place to stay for the night.4

  1. Stats are available from many sources, but I got mine from “The Virginia State Convention of 1861” by James I. Robertson, Jr. in Virginia at War; 1861 edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, Jr., University Press of Kentucky, 2005. []
  2. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, Jr. []
  3. Letter from General Butler to General Winfield Scott, May 24, 1861, as found in Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Volume 1. []
  4. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler along with Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Volume 1 to keep him honest. []
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Virginia’s Vote for Secession; Johnston’s Faux Pas; Butler’s First Day by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Virginia’s Vote for Secession; Johnston’s Faux Pas; Butler’s First Day

  1. Once again, you have to be very careful about your sources for West Virginia history, even the most experienced historians are very ignorant about it. For instance, your source, James Robertson in “Virginia at War 1861”, says-

    “Western Virginia delegates had departed for home by April 23, when former U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee came before the convention to accept command of all Virginia military forces.”

    This is absolutely and demonstrably untrue. Most of West Virginia’s delegates stayed at the Convention, and most signed the April and/or June copies of the Ordinance of Secession, 29 of 49 delegates. The Library of Virginia has provided a detailed account of the votes and signatories.

    In Richard O. Curry’s vote reconstruction in his “A House Divided” (1964), he shows that half of West Virginia’s counties, about 2/3’s of the territory of future state, voted in favor of secession. While numerically outgunned by the far northern counties, once you went below the B&O Railroad route, which is most of the state, secessionists outnumbered Unionists.

    The total vote of the future state was less than 2 to 1, but many of the counties that voted against the Ordinance, such as Wayne, Cabell, Berkeley, Putnam, etc, nevertheless gave half or more of its soldiers to the Confederacy.

    1. The votes on secession is interesting. What I’m seeing is a lot of counties that were later included in West Virginia had expelled their anti-secession candidates and replaced them with pro-secession candidates. Other anti-secession candidates left on their own. Very interesting how Virginia seemed to be padding its vote.

      Throughout the Western Virginia counties, there were reports of coercion during the popular vote. Also, I’m going to take the authority of Robertson’s modern research over Curry’s research from nearly 50 years ago. The resources available now are much greater than they were then.

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