by Dwight Pitcaithley
University of Tennessee Press, 2023
eISBN: 978-1-62190-850-0 | Cloth: 978-1-62190-843-2
Library of Congress Classification E459
Dewey Decimal Classification 973.713

In January 1861, Virginia possessed the largest population of enslaved people within the United States. The institution of slavery permeated the state’s social, political, economic, and legal systems. While loyalty to the Union was strong in western Virginia as Civil War loomed, the state’s elected officials painted Abraham Lincoln and Republicans as abolitionists and reaffirmed Virginia’s commitment to slavery and white supremacy.

In this annotated volume of primary source documents from Secession Winter, Dwight T. Pitcaithley presents speeches by Virginians from the United States Congress, the Washington Peace Conference which had been called by Virginia’s general assembly, and the state’s secession convention to provide readers a glimpse into Virginia’s ultimate decision to secede from the Union. In his introductory analysis of the trial confronting Virginia’s leadership, Pitcaithley demonstrates that most elected officials wanted Virginia to remain in the Union—but only if Republicans agreed to protect slavery and guarantee its future. While secessionists rightly predicted that the incoming Lincoln administration would refuse to agree to these concessions, Unionists claimed that disunion would ultimately undermine slavery and lead to abolition regardless.

Virginia deliberated longer and proposed more constitutional solutions to avoid secession than any other state. Only after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s request for troops to suppress the “insurrection” did Virginia turn from saving the Union to leaving it.

Throughout Pitcaithley’s collection, one theme remains clear: that slavery and race—not issues over tariffs—were driving Virginia’s debates over secession. Complete with a Secession Winter timeline, extensive bibliography, and questions for discussion, Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History is an invaluable resource for historians and students alike.