So, did Henry A. Wise betray Virginia? Give it some thought.
Yes, we can see that Virginia was riding a fine line.
There were secessionists; there were Unionists… and among the Unionists, we can see a wide range of what it meant to be a Unionist. We have the unconditional Unionists, who were not budging in favor of secession, no matter what one may throw at them. There were also a wide array of conditional Unionists; some who came to support secession only when it appeared that Union troops would march through Virginia in order to coerce those who had already seceded, back into the Union. Secessionists spoke out, making it clear that their rights… the rights of Virginians… were closely tied to the threat posed to slavery. In turn, Unionists (conditional and unconditional) were adhering to the Union, often with the same concern in mind… “if I adhere to the Union, slavery has a better chance to continue… and therefore, my welfare is preserved. Yet, if I secede, it seems I most certainly expedite an end to that very important facet of the economy and social structure.”
Clearly, Virginia was divided, even amongst her own citizens. As we could see from the vote of April 4… a mere 2 weeks prior to the second vote on secession… Virginia was still not ready to secede. Had Ft. Sumter… and yes, Lincoln’s call for troops… been such a significant factor, why did Virginia not secede, or propose secession on the floor of the Virginia convention (even after mulling over what Sumter meant, over a weekend) on either April 15 or 16?
Yet, how can it be that it took the efforts of only one man to tip the balance?
There can be no doubt that Wise overstepped his authority by preparing cause-sympathizing troops to do put into motion an underhanded deed. In fact, I would even say that Wise betrayed Virginians by setting these wheels into motion, and most certainly, by taking from the Virginia arsenal at Richmond, ammunition sufficient to do the deed. Yes, I know… still, these troops did not officially do any harm to Federal interests until after Virginia seceded.
But, we can’t dismiss Wise’s intimidation on the floor of the Virginia Convention on the morning of April 17. He had strength behind what he said that day, and that strength/confidence was because of the things he had put into motion. He was so confident that he was calling out the convention, horse pistol in on the platform in front of him. Had not Wise put these troops in motion, how many more days, weeks, months, before Virginia would make a decision? Wise’s actions forced Virginia’s hand, did they not?
When measured for his actions, was he not, therefore, a traitor to Virginia? Did he not betray the trust of Virginians by working in an unauthorized manner, against the will of the majority of the Virginia Convention… those put in that position by the vote of the people?
In some ways, was Virginia the opposite of Maryland? While Maryland Unionists had the upper hand for having the support of Lincoln’s actions, what hope could Unionists have in Virginia? There would be no intervention by Lincoln there. Some say that Maryland was coerced into staying in the Union (of course, whoever says that, isn’t fully aware of the level of Unionism there). On the other hand, was not Virginia coerced… with Wise in the center of the final measures necessary to tip the scale in favor of secession? What could those still hoping… still looking for a compromise… hope to gain, when Virginia troops may well be attacking a U.S. facility at that very same moment? In essence, Virginia and Virginians had already been sold down the river. It was a done deal. What good would it be for the Virginia Convention to say, “sorry about your US Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not to mention Gosport.” Was their only option, at that point, secession?