historian, author, film producer

Tag: Virginia (page 1 of 1)

The South and Secession: 150 years later

In April 2011 we will be 150 years from the secession of Virginia and the upper South from the United States to join the just formed Confederate States of America. Led by South Carolina in December 1860, seven “deep South” or “cotton” states formally withdrew from the Union in the winter of 1860-1861. But when the upper South states left in April 1861, the Civil War followed quickly as both the U.S. and the Confederate States battled over national supremacy. As we mark the anniversaries of these key events, secession and civil war, we should look more than ever at what the participants said and wrote.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on The South’s Secession Commemoration on Thursday of this week does just that in a satirical review of whether slavery had anything to do with secession.

Slavery was at the core of secession, of course–see also the Making of Modern America blog post on Why Did Virginia Secede? which takes up this question.

Finding the Blue Ridge Tunnel Ruins

I asked Jean Bauer at the University of Virginia to search out the ruins of the Blue Ridge Tunnel near Crozet, Virginia, and to photograph the tunnel if she could locate it. I plan to include one image in my forthcoming book and hope to include more images in the Railroads site. At the time of its construction in 1850-54 the tunnel was the longest in the U.S. at 4,273 feet, and one of the longest in the world (see below for questions about the length). It was built with slave and Irish labor, a story not well known.

She has posted her adventure and some of the photographs on her blog — see “A Walk in the Woods” and her photographs of the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

The Wikipedia lat/long is incorrect. And Jean’s great images will give us some other views than the spooky image from the Library of Congress’s Historic American Engineering collection–where is that fog coming from!

Many of the records concerning this construction can be found at: Railroads and the Making of Modern America in the collection of Claudius Crozet’s correspondence and the payrolls of the Blue Ridge Railroad.

Time to Drop Lost Cause Thinking about the Civil War

For an op-ed Commentary in today’s Roanoke Times on the Governor of Virginia’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation, see William G. Thomas’ Give up the Lost Cause.

Most recently, the old Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War has found its way into Governor of Virginia Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” There is something about the mythic Confederate effort that make some in the current political debates look back with admiration–its tired claims of perseverance, crusading against long odds, defense of home, and resistance to overwhelming federal authority have been trotted out at key moments in the last 150 years.

McDonnell’s rather unbelievable omission of slavery from his first proclamation was an indication of just how resistant some people are to the idea that slavery had something to do with the Civil War. The Confederacy’s raison d’etre was to perpetuate slavery, both as a social system and as a “right.” The state’s rights its leaders asserted were to hold slaves and take them where one pleased, as well as to secede from the Union when it suited their interests. Confederate high officials, from Georgia’s Alexander Stephens to Texas’s Louis T. Wigfall, over and over again stated as much.

But slavery was even more at the center of the Confederacy than many whites are willing to admit or understand. Haley Barbour and others have tried to dismiss slavery as unimportant or irrelevant. They try to downplay its role in the Confederacy. But the slave economy was growing stronger in the 1850s not weaker. Slaveholding was expanding not contracting. Few thought it would die out or disappear on its own accord. Indeed, most whites in the South had come to believe that slavery was rational, Biblical, legal, civilized, and modern. In this way slavery was a prime driver of the Southern economy and society. And a large section of the North’s as well. Wealth, property, contracts, wills, estates, and law teetered on the muscle and shoulders of the enslaved black South. We seem to have forgotten the enormity and complexity of this social structure. And for too long many whites have denied the essential appropriation that slavery was–an vast transfer of wealth by the exploitation of labor. Slavery reached and touched everything and everyone in the South. It was the central political issue in secession. It’s time we remember just how important slavery was.

We now know, however, that secession was contradictory and complex, a separation of loyalties not just states. The most urban parts of the South, for example, and the most recognizably modern as well–rich in telegraphs, railroads, mixed economies, finance capital, banks, and advanced political systems–were also the first to secede and the most committed to slavery. Whereas, the most remote and perhaps disconnected places were reluctant Confederates at best. Secession divided whole states, especially Virginia, and the boundaries of “the South” or even of the Confederate States of America were never very clear and consistent. We know also that the new Confederate nation was an example of historical forces converging in unexpected ways: electoral and constitutional breakdown, rapid crystallization of uncertain national loyalties, and inherent contradictions  changing the shape and behavior of modern societies. It is no longer useful to think that the South stood for agrarianism and the North for industrial modernity or their associated respective values. Nor was the South was simply defending itself against Northern aggression. Both societies were too similar to make such views plausible, yet the old Lost Cause ideas persist.

It’s time to drop the Lost Cause.

Sen. James Murray Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

On a recent research trip to the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, U.K., I was working through the papers of William Schaw Lindsay, the M.P. who was the most vocal supporter of the Confederacy in Parliament. Lindsay traveled widely in the U.S. before the Civil War. Indeed, he was in America during the 1860 Presidential election and as a leading British businessman and representative he met many U.S. politicians. Lindsay corresponded with numerous Americans during the secession crisis. In 1861 he gave a speech at the North Shields Mechanic’s Institute on “America and the Americans” in which he argued that the separation of the North and South was permanent, that war was avoidable if Britain and others intervened, and that while slavery was abominable the North had no intention of eliminating or abolishing the institution. Taking Lincoln at his word, Lindsay thought slavery would not be touched in the states in which it existed. As for the future promise of America, it lay in the west. He traveled the Illinois Central Railroad in 1860 and observed first-hand “as far as the eye could see” the open lands on the prairie. This was a land of huge potential, he told his British listeners, and separation without war was preferable to a tragic national bloodbath. On his tour through America in the fall of 1860, Lindsay met Virginia’s leading U.S. senator–James M. Mason. Then, during the war he hosted Mason who as the Confederacy’s lead diplomat sought British recognition for the Confederate States.

Header from James M. Mason December 21, 1869 letter to William Schaw Lindsay from "Clarens"

William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


The story of Mason’s failed diplomatic overtures is well known. His capture aboard the R.M.S. Trent prompted an international storm over the U.S. violation of Britain’s neutral rights. But Mason’s life after the collapse of the Confederacy was lived out of the public gaze.

I was surprised to see in the Lindsay papers a letter from Mason dated December 20, 1869 from “Clarens, near Alexandria.” Because I grew up at Clarens in the 1970s, the heading on the letter jumped out and caught my eye. I knew that Mason once owned Clarens. In fact, the legend of the place was that Mason never sat on the north-facing front porch because it looked out over the Potomac at Washington, D.C., the capital city Mason despised so much. Mason told Lindsay that while Clarens was a beautiful property, “the feature that mars all is that we are but eight miles distant from Washington, that nest of serpents + which is in full view but I have no communication with them.” So part of the Clarens legend had been confirmed–Mason had no love for the nation’s capital.

Mason’s home before the war broke out was in Winchester, Virginia, and, as he explained to his friend Lindsay, it was “destroyed, or rather obliterated, by the invaders.” After the war Mason stayed in Britain into 1866, a Confederate without a country, then went to Canada, where he and his family waited. Their waiting, according to his daughter Virginia Mason’s account, was an “exile” from their homeland–the South. But Mason, like Jubal Early and the other former Confederate leaders and officials waiting in Canada, waited because they were officially not extended amnesty until July 1868.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


Deciding in 1869 to return to Virginia, Mason bought Clarens. The property adjoined that of his friend, the former Confederate General Samuel Cooper and was near the Episcopal Seminary, where other friends resided. “I gave for the whole establishment nine thousand dollars” in greenbacks, Mason told Lindsay in his letter about the purchase of Clarens. The greenbacks were his only remaining money, he confessed, and came from his wife’s family assets held in Pennsylvania through the war.

Mason described Clarens in this way: “an old residence, large + commodius home well built of brick + in good repair, ample lawns with venerable trees, and the garden (we call here the garden that which is appropriate to vegetables for the kitchen), good orchards of fruits pertaining to the South, including grapes with their trellises, The whole comprises nearly thirty acres of land. The side on the first high lands receding from the Potomac River distant two miles and of which on its summits commands a view of many miles. Our nearest town is Alexandria, one of the oldest towns on the Potomac, where there is good society and at the distance given above.”

Although he said nothing about whether he intended to rock on the front porch overlooking Washington or not, Mason did make a particular vow in his letter to Lindsay. “The poor negroes since they were manumitted are of course worthless, or rather worse than worthless,” Mason declared, “I have none of them in my service, and do not, however deeply I regret the necessity, intend to have.” Mason had brought “domestic servants (women) from Canada” and he intended to hire whites only. Negroes, he believed, were “the great curse of the country.” The fact that Reconstruction brought black voting particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the “end of the republic.”

With such convictions and with such vows, Mason lived another two years and died at Clarens in April 1871. Whether he rocked on the front porch or not, he likely did not employ any freedmen. Years later in 1906 Mason’s daughter Virginia compiled his letters into a published account of his life, and she passed on her father’s views to the next generation. She presented the plight of Southern whites as the main drama of the post war South–“their former homes reduced to ruins, and to be themselves reduced to the condition of quiet submission while ignorant and irresponsible negroes elected men to fill all the offices.” (The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason, p. 589)

James M. Mason’s strongly-held convictions about Clarens and the all-white labor force he employed there after the war set in motion a range of stories and ideas that suggested the limitations of Reconstruction and the profound resistance to change many Southern whites would exhibit in the coming years and decades. The war itself had been fought over the control of black labor–in the form of slavery. The post war South too would fight over the control of black labor. Newspapers were filled in the years after the war with urgent pleadings from the white South that it must have black labor or its entire economy would not move. It may not have occurred to James M. Mason that with their emancipation Alexandria’s blacks might share similar convictions and make similar vows as well–that they might never work for him even if he wanted them to.

Why Did Virginia Secede?

Today it seems almost inconceivable. Eleven states, in the Southern region of the United States, called constitutional conventions and in a matter of months formally withdrew from the nation. In breathtaking speed they had established an entirely new and separate nation with a capital at Montgomery, Alabama. What made this possible?

After all, secession seems entirely counterintuitive. Why would the most wealthy individuals, the men with the most to lose in society, risk everything, including slavery, as well as their lives, peace, property, prosperity, position, and inheritance? Why would they knowingly bring on a war with the United States by creating a new and risky republic in the South, and then throw everything into its defense until their capital lay in ruins, their population half-starved, and every army battered into total submission? 

Historian and leading scholar of the Civil War, James McPherson answers that secession was a “counter-revolution” not a “revolution.” White southerners, he argues, saw the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party as the revolutionaries. The move to secede was a counter-revolution, a conservative  effort designed to protect what they had and stem the tide of change sweeping across the nation. All of their resistance, he argues, was aimed at maintaining slavery and their position in society. To McPherson the answer is straightforward–they saw a greater risk in the Union and perceived themselves as the inheritors of the true republican virtues of the Revolution. Their new republic was, therefore, modeled on the “union as it was” before the slavery issue threatened their principles and prosperity. McPherson indicates that the South was in a way seeking to turn back the clock or at least stop time. Their vision was not progressive but regressive. 

When you read the four volumes of The Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, or an updated history of what the southern delegates said to the Virginia convention (Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion), however, a number of further considerations become equally important. Virginia, of course, included West Virginia at the time and so delegates came from the far western, mountainous counties too where slavery was less prominent. The convention met for weeks in Richmond and those favoring immediate secession maneuvered to keep the convention in session, hoping for a dramatic event that might tip the votes their way. Eventually, the got their wish, as President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from Virginia and the other states after the firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln clearly intended to suppress secession in the South and Virginia’s delegates voted the next day 88-55 to secede with the South and join the Confederacy.

Let’s reconsider, though, what these delegates said. 

First, not a single Virginia delegate criticized slavery. Indeed, many of the western delegates were slaveholders and those that did not spoke in support of the institution. No delegate wanted to be branded an abolitionist. Delegates outdid one another to voice their commitment to slavery. Slavery and its protection was clearly in the forefront of their motivations.

Second, slavery was not just an abstract or political issue, but one that for these white men was centered on “property.” When Thomas Branch of Petersburg offered his constituents’ views in the form of a resolution to the Convention, it was to affirm that “negro slaves are property.” Somehow, these white Southerners thought, the North had lost sense of slavery as a form of property and needed to be reminded of the bare, essential nature of the rights the South was going to defend. Branch for his part only needed to state that he would represent the will of his constituents and that meant immediate secession.

Third, the debates read as if they took place outside of time, and indicate that the delegates, however duly constituted, had few ways to articulate what was happening in the spirit of the white South. Despite the fast pace of events and the complex political and diplomatic issues at stake, the Virginia delegates spent hours and days parsing words such as “sovereignty” and “person” and “vital” and “social institution.” The delegates gave long-winded explications of constitutional history and read into the record as evidence the speeches, letters, and proclamations of Lincoln, New York U. S. Senator William H. Seward, Massachusetts U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, and others. There was remarkably little discussion of the real events taking place, the possibilities of war, the nature of the conflict, or the resources at their command. The delegates were assembled to debate “secession” as a legal right and to craft an ordinance that would tender Virginia’s withdrawal from the United States of America.

Fourth, despite the close votes in February 1861 and the reluctance of some to cause a war, the majority of these delegates already understood themselves as part of a Southern, modern nation on equal footing with the North, as well as Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. Indeed, a number of delegates placed the idea of the Confederacy in the context of newly forming nation-states in Europe. They saw themselves as part of the vanguard of modern state formation. Their sense of Southern progress, civilization, and modernity may be the most surprising aspect of the debates.

This last point is critical. The state conventions and legal machinations that flowed from them structured the debates over secession in very specific and circumscribed ways, especially in Virginia. Unlike the deep South states where the procedures moved quickly in December 1860, Virginia with its long history of Revolutionary heritage stood in the breach for months, the decisive tipping point, and the Virginia delegates knew it. It was no wonder they acted cautiously.

Only when we take the debates for what they were–a constitutional forum burdened with the history of Virginia’s role in the United States–can we begin to see the underlying frameworks that made secession not only possible but likely. The view of slaves, of course, as property offered the decisive common ground for these white Virginians. But confidence was equally important. Not confidence in a constitutional right worthy of defense, but instead confidence in the capacity to hold up a modern nation-state on the world stage. In this respect nothing about Virginia’s secession might be considered counter-revolutionary. “Nations act on their interests,” one Virginia delegate argued, “not on their sentiments.” (Vol. II, p. 673)

The idea itself is strikingly modern. As for the South, and indeed Virginia, it could not do otherwise if it purported to be a nation, to be sovereign to itself, to be a civilization worthy of the world’s respect. “It is a fact, Mr. Chairman,” the delegate concluded, “that there is a separate national existence at Montgomery.” (Vol. II, p. 675) The question was when, not if, Virginia would join it.