Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unionists in Virginia by Lawrence M. Denton

George W. Summers
In early 1861, a group of Union-loyal Virginians worked to prevent the Civil War.  The Union faction led by George Summers, John Brown Baldwin, John Janney, and Jubal Early believed that a war with the North could be prevented.  The Union supporters defeated Southern Rights Democrats in voting for delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention.  In Washington, Secretary of State William H. Seward worked behind the scenes to support the Unionists efforts. However, just when it appeared that cooler heads might prevent disaster, a series of actions by President Abraham Lincoln destroyed reconciliation efforts and propelled the nation into a bloody Civil War. 

These are the events that author and historian Lawrence M. Denton examines in Unionists in Virginia - Politics, Secession and their Plan to Prevent Civil War.  Denton's scholarly effort captures the difficult times as the country waited for Virginia - the lynch pin of avoiding Civil War. After Lincoln's election in November 1860, "Virginia truly occupied a unique position at this critical moment in the nation's history."

Denton cites many historical sources in navigating the reader through the complexities of the Virginia political landscape.  He characterizes the Unionists as wanting to remain in the Union and trying to rebuild it. The author points out that, "...just after Lincoln's election, the vast majority of Southerners did not favor secession."  The conflict fought in Virginia had more to do with political power than slavery.  It was a battle between the aristocratic planter class ("Slave Power") who controlled the political apparatus in the state and non-slaveholders who considered the slaveholders to be the embodiment of "undemocratic government at its worst."

As early as 1850, the undemocratic structure was under attack by Southern "liberals, moderates, and conservatives - essentially all those who were excluded from the process." The anti-Slave Power won a huge victory by first winning the vote for a state constitutional convention and then gaining the right to vote for "all white men," election of the governor, reducing the power of the legislature, and giving more control to residents of their local government.

Northern support for the James Brown raid partially offset these victories. "As a result of Northern sympathy, or supposed sympathy, for Brown's crime, all factions in Virginia were united in their resentment."

Denton presents some interesting statistics on the Union support from Confederate States. His data indicates that 102,000 Southerners from Confederate States fought for the Union.  He also indicates that 200,000 border whites joined the Union army compared to 90,000 who enlisted in the Confederate army.

Even after Lincoln's election, Virginians loyal to the Union maintained their strength. The Unionists "unleashed their most virulent attack on the Southern Rights Democrats" denouncing them as the Slave Power faction and disunionists. In the referendum vote of February 1861, the anti-Slave Power supporters accounted for 69% of the votes.

Willard's Hotel
Site of Peace Conference
Denton characterized February as "a time for hope." The Peace Conference met in Washington during that month and drafted a proposed thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.  Among its seven articles were reestablishment of the Missouri Compromise Line, prohibition of Congress interfering with slavery in any state, strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and ending the foreign slave trade.  When a committee from the conference met with Lincoln, the president-elect refused to endorse the Peace Conference Amendment.

William H. Seward

The author presents the role that William Seward played in supporting the efforts of the Virginia Unionists. Denton leads the reader through the events of March and April that eventually resulted in war.  Seward's efforts to abandon Fort Sumter were dashed by a mismanaged scheme to resupply the fort.  Lincoln is portrayed as a political novice who refused to make any concessions to the South. Soon, Seward realized, "the final decision regarding compromise lay in the hands of one party, and ultimately just one man: Abraham Lincoln."

Seward's Letter to Lincoln
Denton puts the blame on the two presidents: Jefferson Davis for approving the attack on Fort Sumter and, more significantly, Abraham Lincoln for calling for troops to put down the rebellion.  Lincoln's last measure alienated the remaining Union support in the South and ended the nation's best chance of saving the Union without war.

Lawrence Denton's book is a worthy addition to any Civil War library. His well-researched narrative provides an in-depth view on how Lincoln and the Radical Republicans seized defeat from the jaws of victory.

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