A misunderstanding of the circumstances behind Virginia’s seizing Harpers Ferry?

Posted on July 1, 2009 by


Reading a comment in another blog today, I can’t help but lay-out the facts surrounding Virginia’s seizing of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in April 1861.  The question is, was it really a “legal” action from the perspective of the (then) Virginia government?

The fact of the matter is that the plans to seize the US Arsenal in Harpers Ferry in 1861 were not plans made by the greater body of elected secession convention delegates, but were made by a handful of Virginians… John D. Imboden, the brothers Ashby (Richard and Turner), & Oliver R. Funsten, to name a few, with former Virginia Gov. Henry Wise right at the heart of the matter. In fact, Wise and this group appealed to Gov. John Letcher for an endorsement. Letcher did not endorse the seizing of Harpers Ferry (and Gosport Navy Yard) but he did give the nod to make plans… but not to act until after the Virginia Convention had passed the ordinance of secession. It seems likely that Letcher was not as hasty because he was still more interested in strides toward peace (keep in mind that there was a Virginia Peace Commission).

Yet, Wise’s group, not wanting to lose the element of surprise, moved beyond the planning phase and started telegraphing militia units and telling them to prepare for action. Wise, et al. were not willing to wait for the secession vote and began moving well outside their authority.

A mere two days after Wise discussed the plan with Imboden and the morning after asking Letcher for the endorsement… at the convention on April 17,  Wise put on quite a show. After drawing a horse pistol from his bosom and laying it on the table in front of him, he (according to a delegate present) “proceeded to harangue the body in the most violent and denunciatory manner. He concluded by taking his watch from his pocket and, with glaring eyes and bated breath, declared that events were now transpiring that caused a hush to come over his soul.” More or less, the cat was out of the bag. Wise’s efforts had far exceeded his authority. It was a military action that had moved well beyond the point of planning and preparation, and still without the support of the Commander-in-Chief of Virginia’s forces (Letcher), and thus clearly beyond anything that could be considered a legally endorsed action. 

Many in the delegation were furious, including John Baldwin of Staunton. Baldwin was “aghast” when Wise announced that many of the “the patriotic volunteer revolutionists” were Baldwin’s own constituents, many of them his own “neighbors and friends.” On the other hand, delegate George Baylor rushed to Wise, openly sobbing and stated, “I don’t agree with you, I don’t approve of your acts, but I love you, I love you!” Wise openly accepted full responsibility and then turned the blame back on the convention, stating that his actions were moving forward to “aid the people who had waited on the convention too long in vain, in seizing arms for their own defense.” It was in this “emotionally charged atmosphere” (wrote Imboden’s biographer) that the convention began to take action, beginning with the passage of an ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Nonetheless, this was an ordinance and it was to be ratified by the people of Virginia. The referendum would not be put to the people until the latter part of May…

I often wonder that if by virtue of the fact that Virginia troops had been plunged into the affair, how it impacted the vote on the ordinance of secession in Virginia. I wonder if they were thinking, “how can I show hesitation at the very moment in which (at least they were under that impression because of what Wise stated) Virginia forces were moving against U.S. installations and might even be engaged.”  Again, Virginia’s referendum for secession did not come until May 23…  well over a month after the seizing of Harper’s Ferry.

Yet, let’s move beyond Virginia. As I have mentioned before, secession in the Southern states was not a clear-cut matter of peoples’ choice throughout the South, nor did it represent something akin to democratic process and representation of the people. Virginia was one of the few states to have a referendum, and even with that, there is a trail of evidence reflecting coercion in the vote in several counties (Elder John Kline of Rockingham County is but one example… what happened to him when the referendum was put to the people?)… so any suggestion that the referendum was part of the democratic process is either ignoring  the facts or reflectant of an unawareness of evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, to say that secessionists leaders as elected officials “ostensbly represented the views of their citizens” reflects a misunderstanding & misrepresentation of the sentiments of the Southern people (and circumstances surrounding the entire situation) as the bells tolled the secession of each Southern state. In fact, secession, in various areas of the deep South (more often a matter of class issues than in the upper South) as well as the upper South, was not so eagerly supported, nor offered-up to the people (in the lower South) for ratification… and frankly, the words of some pro-secessionists officials reflected that several “higher officials” really didn’t care what the common folk had to think about it. My favorite quote with respect to this issue comes from a South Carolinian, A.P. Aldrich who, in response to the common folk being against secession, remarked “…whoever waited for the common people when a great move was to be made? – We must make the move and force them to follow?” [emphasis mine].

Indeed, a wonderful lead-in to things to come… especially when we think of the three Confederate conscription acts passed by the “higher-ups” to help ensure (though the level of success of the conscription acts can certainly be questioned) support for a war that they could not wage without the forced support of the common people. Incidentally, “forced support” came in various forms, not just at the hands of conscription patrols… but that’s another post unto itself.