Virginia newspapers “doing harm” to sentiments of disunion

Posted on February 4, 2011 by


As Ron Baumgarten pointed out in his post the other day over at “All Not So Quiet on the Potomac”, today marks the 150th anniversary of Virginians voting for delegates to the Virginia Convention of 1861. By the time of the vote, seven states from the deep South had seceded; Texas being the most recent, on February 1.

In Staunton, Virginia, the secession-leaning newspaper, Vindicator, told of how the citizens there were confused over what, exactly, the vote meant. In fact, “there was a wide spread panic in this [Augusta] county– that the people were under the impression . . . that they were voting upon a question of peace or war.”

J.B. Baldwin

[William H.] Harman and [John D.] Imboden, the States Rights candidates, are as good Union men as [John Brown] Baldwin, [Alexander H.H.] Stuart and [George] Baylor, but because they advocated the policy of prompt and decisive action on the part of Virginia, as the course best calculated to bring about a satisfactory adjustment of our National troubles, they were regarded as dangerous men to the peace of the country, and were voted against by hundreds who believed their election would be equivalent to a declaration of war, and might cause pestilence and famine? On the other hand, hundreds of people thought that those who could denounce the seceding States as the immediate authors of all our ills, and sing the praises of Northern patriotism the loudest, could preserve the peace of the country and save the Union.

A.H.H. Stuart

Additionally, A.H.H. Stuart was reported as contributing “to the general alarm and excitement”, through his “statesmanlike and accurate sensation”, explaining to his constituents that, following secession, negroes were already taxed $16 per head in South Carolina… and that similar burdens would presently fall upon land and other property!” The following day, Stuart made another speech, proclaiming the same, “that in a short time we should exclaim here in Virginia, “blessed is he that has nothing to be taxed.” The Vindicator continued:

Mr. Stuart has a financial turn of mind, and considers questions of political, individual and States Rights, affecting the present and future honor and equality of the people of half this Union, in the same light that he would a project to make a turnpike from Christian’s Creek to South River. Verb. sap. and more, anon.

It was the Vindicator’s opinion, however, that peace could only be achieved was to “demand a recognition of our rights in the Union, and let the North know that we will take nothing less”; something that would be repeated to influence voting in Virginia’s referendum on secession, over three months later.

If Virginia takes this position our difficulties may be adjusted, perhaps. If she shews a want a firmness now, all hope of a settlement is gone, and separation is then sooner or later inevitable, and with separation in all probability will come civil war. We are in the midst of fearful dangers, and there is no use in trying to escape by taking counsel from the timid and the vacillating. Dangers often recede before the bold and fearless. Let us all go to work and be prepared to face whatever the future has in store for us in the spirit of men of ’76.

Despite bold talk from the Vindicator, those at the Staunton Spectator appeared to keep cooler heads, and were labeled as harmful to particular efforts being made in the state.

We understand that some of the extremists in this and the adjoining counties say that “the “Staunton Spectator” is doing more harm than any paper in the State.” As what they mean by doing “harm” is the influence it exerts in opposition to their efforts to precipitate the State into secession, revolution and civil war, we accept it as the highest compliment, and feel thereby encouraged to labor with more zeal and energy in the cause of the Union and the preservation of peace and the avoidance of oppressive and grinding taxation. If the extremists would never complain, we would feel that we were laboring to but little purpose; for we are satisfied that in proportion to their annoyance and complaints, we are exerting an efficient and salutary influence. In the sense in which they use the term, we are pleased to hear that the “Spectator” is doing “harm.”

The Spectator, however, was not alone in its efforts at undermining sentiments of disunion… and it wished to make that fact quite clear.

We must protest, however, against the acceptance of the whole extent of the compliment conferred upon the “Spectator,” for we do not believe, (as the extremists to whom we have referred seem to do) that the “Spectator is doing more harm than any paper in the State.” On the contrary, we believe that there are other papers in the State which do much more of this good kind of “harm” than the “Spectator.” We are glad to know that such is the case, and are pleased to see the Richmond Whig, the Alexandria Gazette, the Lynchburg Virginian, the Petersburg Intelligencer, the Charlottesville Review and other papers in Eastern Virginia doing so much of this kind of “harm,” which is destined to save the country from being desolated with the ravages of civil war, if that dire calamity can, by any means, be avoided. If any doubt that the “Spectator” is doing efficient service for the good of the country, we refer them to the vexed and annoyed extremists who say that it is doing so much “harm.” We are rejoiced to know that we have so many co-operators in this portion of the State in the work of “harm” in which we are engaged. In this glorious “Old Augusta,” in noble Rockbridge, and in Union-loving Rockingham, nearly the whole people are with us, working “harm” to the schemes of the disunionists.

Though seven “Southern sisters” had gone the way of secession, and some Virginians were more than eager to follow, the Old Dominion remained cautious, even while South Carolina pressed her for immediate and absolute secession… and expressed intention to force a collision at Fort Sumter.