Hmmm… about that referendum on secession in Virginia

Posted on May 22, 2011 by


Tomorrow marks the day, 150 years ago, when Virginians were given the chance to vote on secession… although, really, it didn’t mean a great deal considering the mobilization that had taken place, and… let’s not forget the Commonwealth’s offer for Richmond to be the capital of the Confederacy… before the referendum.

Really, it was a done deal, without the vote of the people. Yet, that “done deal” needed some safeguarding, and the measures to safeguard it weren’t exactly part of the democratic process.

In my home county, of Page, in Virginia, based on comparisons to the 1859 gubernatorial and 1856 presidential elections, at least 50 voters did not partake in the referendum of May 23.


Several had been reluctant to vote their mind, out of fear of retaliation by the pro-secessionists. Morgan M. Price and Martin Ellis felt that it wasn’t 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 (the actual vote was 1,099 in favor, and 4 against), and that man was forced to “leave immediately to save himself from the mob.” William H. Sours remained away from the polls and stated, “My sympathies were with the Union Cause. I did not talk much in favor of 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.”

But, even for those that did vote, was it purely out of solid support for secession?

A cartoon from the period showing Virginia's choices... or lack thereof... when it came to the referendum on secession.

A number of Page Countians later claimed that they had cast their votes in favor of secession, only under duress. Samuel Varner claimed that he had voted for secession because he was told, if he “wanted peace he must vote for secesh.” Martin Hite recorded 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 out of “fear”.

Of the four Unionists who were bold enough to vote their mind, against secession, I’ve got to say, these fellows were tough. I’ve documented at least two by name, James Lee Gillespie, and Reuben Kite. Gillespie rode through the county with my third great grandfather, speaking out against secession. I’ve also documented his story at length in Southern Unionists Chronicles. Reuben Kite’s story isn’t as long, but I encourage you to take a look at his experience in Southern Unionists Chronicles as well. I just posted his story today.

No matter if they voted or not, it was the general idea that, in order to keep themselves safe from the threat of violence, Unionists knew to keep their sentiments to themselves. It was just the beginning of a very long four years, not just for those Southerners who supported the Confederacy, but also for their neighbors, who wanted no part in secession.