Thursday, May 23, 1861, was a solemn day throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was the day its white, male citizens over the age of 21 would decide whether to ratify an Ordinance of Secession adopted in Richmond on April 17th. Though U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and many throughout the North viewed secession as illegal, a majority in Virginia believed their state had the right to sever its ties to the United States.
Since mid-April, Virginia Governor John Letcher and pro-secessionist forces had been acting as though Virginia was a sovereign country. They had seized all federal facilities in the state other than Fort Monroe, and in response, Lincoln extended the blockade of the seven original Confederate States to include the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. On May 7th, U.S. Navy ships exchanged fire with a Virginia battery off Gloucester Point, and again May 19th at Sewell’s Point.
Meanwhile, pro-Union delegates met in what was then Wheeling, Virginia on the Ohio River to determine how to respond to the crisis. They decided to wait for the results of the May 23rd referendum. They must have been the only ones who believed the vote was not a foregone conclusion. On the eve of the vote, the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Alabama announced it would move the Confederate capitol to Richmond, Virginia.
In urging its readership to vote in favor of secession, the Richmond Dispatch newspaper wrote:
“Every man who votes to-day for the Ordinance of Secession is a signer of the second Declaration of Independence, and will aid in finishing the work which George Washington begun. The first Declaration has only resulted in a change of masters–a change from the arbitrary King of a constitutional Government to the tyrannical head of a Republican despotism… Let us decide to-day whether we will be freemen or slaves.”
At the end of the day, Virginia voters overwhelmingly supported secession, 125,950 to 20,373, although this support was not uniform throughout the state. Virginians living west of the Allegheny Mountains and along the Ohio River had strong economic ties to Northern states, and slave ownership was uncommon. A majority in these counties voted against secession.
“Why shall the citizens of North Western Virginia allow themselves to be dragged in the rebellion inaugurated by ambitious and heartless men, who have banded themselves together to destroy a government formed for you by your patriot fathers, and which has secured to you all the liberties consistent with the nature of man… Will you passively surrender it and submit to be used by the conspirators engaged in this effort to enslave you, as their instruments by which your enslavement is to be effected? …What is secession? Bankruptcy, ruin, civil war, ending in a military despotism…”
For most Virginians, however, the die had been cast, and their destiny would be decided alongside the other rebelling Southern states. Union troops were already gathering along the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Virginians would not have to wait long to see whether they would act.