Coercion and the vote for secession

Posted on April 1, 2008 by


I can’t help but think of that scene in Gods & Generals when it came to the vote for secession in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Some may remember it, where the actor playing William Nelson Pendleton announced the vote and that there had been only one vote against secession in the county (after which, a person in the crowd yelled out that it must have been the “village idiot” who was the only vote against). I haven’t verified the facts on that one, but I do know that there is some very good evidence on how coercion was used in the referendum for secession (it would be great right about now to have that sketch that was made in the early war about the coerced vote in Virginia, but I can’t find it. If anyone has it, please send it to me so that I can include it in this post).

While I can’t speak with confidence just yet on the referendum for secession in Rockbridge, I have spent a considerable amount of time looking at a county in the central Shenandoah Valley.

On the surface, the results of the referendum for secession in Page County, Virginia show that 1,099 were in favor and four opposed; seemingly a reflection of overwhelming support for secession.[1]

A review of the Southern Loyalist Claims (aka, Southern Claims Commission applications) for Page County, however, reveals that several men had been reluctant to vote, mostly out of fear of retaliation.[2] Morgan M. Price and Martin Ellis felt that it was not safe to go to the polls with their sentiments. Ellis elaborated that there was too “much excitement” to side against secession. Price remembered, albeit incorrectly, that only one man voted against secession, and that that man was forced to “leave immediately to save himself from the mob.”[3] William H. Sours remained away from the polls and stated that “My sympathies were with the Union Cause. I did not talk much in favor of the Union. I had to be careful how I expressed my sentiment. I feared that I would be arrested if I spoke much.” Both James C. Robertson and Joseph Painter, Sr. remembered that they were too afraid to go to the polls. Painter was “informed that a party was coming out to hang several of us unless we would come out and vote for secession.”[4]

For those few Page County residents who applied for loyalist claims in years after the war, yet had been on record as having voted for secession, most stated that they had cast their votes either under an “illusion” presented by others or under duress.[5] Samuel Varner claimed that he had voted for secession because he was told if he “wanted peace he must vote for secesh.” Martin Hite noted that he had been “persuaded to vote for the adoption of the ordinance.” Joseph Miller simply noted that he was obliged to vote for secession through “fear.” [6] However, anyone who voted for secession, no matter the circumstances, would not receive approval for their loyalist claim. Nevertheless, understanding that the threat of bodily harm kept some men away from the polls to express their sentiment, it is not difficult to believe that some who had voted in favor of secession may well have done so out of fear for their lives or that of their families. Thus, even after Lincoln’s call for troops and the almost unanimous show of public support through the public referendum vote, Unionists were still very much a presence in Page County.

As historian John Inscoe points out, after the “secession process was completed and the war under way . . . the fluidity of the political debate as it had evolved in different ways in different states over the winter and spring of 1860-61 quickly gave way to the hard-and-fast allegiances demanded by two nations at war.” He further goes on to state that “suddenly to be a Unionist made one part of a self-conscious minority viewed with suspicion and hostility, a minority whose very presence threatened the new regime and its cause . . . Those who clung to what had been merely one side of a vigorous political debate were suddenly perceived as subversive and even traitorous, as ‘enemies to the country.”[7] The example of the experiences of Page County Unionists fits very well into Inscoe’s description, especially considering the reign of fear that followed the public referendum vote.


[1] County Vote on the Secession Ordinance, May 23, 1861. (Richmond: Library of Virginia, unpublished), 3.

[2] One-third (889) of the loyalist claims filed in Virginia were filed from the seven counties of the Shenandoah Valley; a particularly large portion of those being from Rockingham, Shenandoah and Page Counties, all in the central valley.

[3] Price was in error for saying this as there were actually four men who voted against secession in the county.

[4] Southern Loyalist Claims Application Files (Disapproved Claims), National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Southern Loyalist Claims Application Files (Approved Claims), College Park, Md. Southern Loyalist Claim Application Files of Martin Ellis, Joseph Painter, Sr., James C. Robertson, Morgan M. Price and William H. Sours. According to the 1860 Page County census, Ellis was a forty-eight year old farmer with $825 in real estate; Painter was a forty-two year old farmer with $350 in real estate; Robertson was a forty-two year old teacher with $1,200 in real estate; and Price was a thirty-one year old shoemaker with $100 in real estate. Sours cannot be found in the census records. Of the four men identified in the 1860 census, two resided in Luray and the other two in districts to the east.

[5] Incidentally, there is no evidence to show that those who applied for Loyalist claims in years after the war were in any way shunned by their families, neighbors and friends.

[6] Southern Loyalist Claim Application Files of Samuel Varner, Martin Hite, and Joseph Miller. According to the 1860 Page County census, Varner was a forty-six year old farmer with $4,000 in real estate; Hite was a forty-one year old farmer with $270 in real estate, and Miller was a forty year old miller.

[7] Inscoe, Enemies of the Country: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South, 2; Inscoe borrows the “Enemies of the County” phrase from a letter written from William W. Gordon to his wife, Nelly Kinzie Gordon on 29 July 1862. Carolyn J. Stefanco details the story of the Gordon family as part of Enemies of the County: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South, 148-171.