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The Road to War in Virginia

Going To War In Virginia

This month—April 1861—marks the 160th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. While most of the major "opening events," like Fort Sumter, the Baltimore Riots, and formulation of the Anaconda Plan happened outside of Central Virginia, the starting conflict produced reaction in the region.

The state of Virginia did not join the first wave of secession (December-March 1861), but following the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for volunteers, the Virginia secession convention which was already in session, quickly moved the state toward joining the Confederacy. On April 17, 1861, the Virginia secession convention voted in favor of declaring separation from the Union. The Virginia Ordinance of Secession was ratified by voter referendum on May 23, 1861. Also, in May, the Confederacy moved its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia—a move that would significantly impact Union war strategy and subject Virginia to four years of almost constant warfare.

The counties of Central Virginia didn't wait for the voting formalities. Recruitment and training of volunteers had already started in April 1861. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania men and boys raised companies and formed other military units.

Meanwhile, in the North, newspapers and orations promised to march into Virginia and quickly end the rebellion and war, ideally in one large battle. For many newly recruited soldiers in blue uniforms, getting to Virginia and fighting there would be the ultimate prize of their "90 day war" experience. They began to see the Old Dominion State as a significant location, particularly the new Confederate capital. Many of the roads and battlefields to Richmond lay in Central Virginia, and neither side knew how much blood would soak the road traces and fields of the region.

In the rest of this email, you'll find primary source quotes from newspapers or letters of the era, giving voice to the feelings on both sides in the tumultuous spring of 1861 in Central Virginia.


"Three Organized Military Companies"

The following excerpt (slightly edited for brevity in this email) appeared in the Richmond Daily Whig on April 25, 1861: THE FREDERICKSBURG MILITARY There are three organized Military Companies in this place, officered as follows: Company A, Washington Guards—Captain, W. Sener... Company B, Fredericksburg Grays—Capt. Robert S. Chew... Company C, Fredericksburg Artillery—Captain, Thos. A. Curtis... Another company is forming of Riflemen. These compose a battalion under command of Major Wm. S. Barton. There has been unusual alacrity evinced on the part of the young men in the promptness with which they have volunteered to drive back the invaders of the North. The "Home Guard"—This organization is composed mainly of such citizens as are "off the muster roll." We believe nearly two hundred names are attached to the rolls of the two companies... A guard is stationed nightly, and our town is thus under a more efficient police than at any former period.

Woodcut from a Confederate Envelope, 1861, cropped. (Library of Congress)


"This Virginia Rebellion"

The New York Daily Herald voiced opinion on May 23, 1861, regarding the fate of Virginia as the North mobilized for war. Also, note the mention of western Virginia's lack of enthusiasm for secession; West Virginia will "secede" from Virginia to stay loyal to the Union, eventually forming its own state in 1863. "But then the real trouble of these Virginia rebels will begin; and, with Gen. Scott and his moveable army of fifty thousand in front, and the loyal Unionists of the western section of the State in the rear, we count upon short and decisive work with this Virginia rebellion."

General Scott, depicted on a Union-supporting envelope (Library of Congress)


"Virginia Will Now Be The Battle Ground"

William C. Soutter wrote a poignant letter to Thomas F. Knox, Jr. on April 20, 1861. Soutter, a distant relative of Knox, lived in New York City at the time and would later join the 22nd New York Infantry. Knox lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his sons would fight for the Confederacy. Knox himself would be imprisoned for several months in Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. and spent most of the war trying to save his businesses in Fredericksburg or struggling to find new ways to support and protect his family. "Such has been the state of my mind for some time back that I have been utterly unfit for any thing. The awful plunge the Country has taken and the certain ruin I see impending over my native state has chrushed[sic] my spirits. No man standing here can doubt the result of the contest the whole north is united—Democrats & all—men who a few days ago were upholding secession—now all are determined come what will the Union must be preserved. The most awful feature of all is that Va [Virginia] will now be the battle ground and many of her noble sons must be slain—God preserve those of your kindred who feel it their duty to take up arms—May Heaven preserve them."

Woodcut from an envelope (Library of Congress)


"We Know Not What It Is"

Helen Struan Bernard lived south of Fredericksburg and wrote in her private diary on April 21, 1861: "Another week has at our dear old home, all has been quiet & pleasant enough but abroad we hear nothing but war and tumult, the greatest excitement prevailing throughout the whole length & breadth of the land, troops collecting from all points and the dreadful fact forcing itself upon our minds that Civil War, with all its untold horrors, is actually at our doors.... Rumours come & are contradicted & followed by others in such rapid succession that I know not what to believe. We talk of war, but we know not what it is. It has been heretofore all a myth to us.... I shudder to think the sad experiences we may have gained before another year has passed...."


Parting Shot


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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