Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Union or Secession

Union or Secession

Debating Secession The secession crisis in the winter of 1860–1861 forced all Americans to make decisions about their nation's future. Central to American identity as a result of its role in founding the United States, Virginia played a critical role during that crisis. States in the lower South began seceding from the Union in December 1860, but Virginia, with the most diversified economy and the largest population of the slave states, remained part of the Union. In 1860, Virginia stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River and Virginians in different regions and of different backgrounds varied in their perceptions of the events of 1860 and 1861. Some Virginians worked to bring the two sections of the nation back together and avoid civil war, but others called for instant separation. Not until after the war had begun and President Abraham Lincoln had requested troops from Virginia to put down the rebellion did a majority of the state's adult white men approve secession. In the western part of the state, some Virginians never accepted secession and instead began a process that resulted in the creation of the new state of West Virginia.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the Library of Virginia, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide presents private letters, public debates, and other records that allow Virginians who experienced the crisis between the autumn of 1860 and the summer of 1861 to explain their thoughts, fears, and decisions in their own words. Union or Secession also contains the life stories of forty Virginians who experienced slavery, the sectional tensions of the 1850s, the secession crisis, and the split of their state into two. Follow the story through the narrative of Virginians Decide and explore the people and documents in chronological sequence, by geographic region, or by topic to learn how the crisis affected free and enslaved residents of Virginia and how they made their decisions.

Callie's Mailbag features a selection of about two dozen letters from the Library of Virginia's collection of Anthony Family Papers (1785–1952). We present these letters from the perspective of their recipient, a young woman of Campbell County who in 1860 had recently left school and who was in frequent correspondence with family and friends. We have imagined this well-informed young woman commenting on current events and sharing information through a social-networking site between December 1859 and July 1861. Click here to enter Callie Anthony's world.

Portrait of John Brown "To Arms!" Map of Virginia, 1861 Frederick County Election Callie Anthony

Watch Commonwealth in Crisis: The Virginia Secession Debates. In recognition of the 150th anniversary of Virginia's secession from the United States, on 17 April 2011, historian William W. Freehling discussed the significance of the debates during the Virginia Convention of 1861. The event included a reenactment of speeches made as Virginia's leaders wrestled with the question of whether secession was wise, legal, necessary, or in Virginia's interest. This program was broadcasted live on WCVE Richmond PBS. Sponsored by the Community Idea Stations. Presented as a part of the Library of Virginia's public programs supporting its "Union or Secession: Virginians Decide" exhibition.


Our Civil War Research Guide has more information about the many collections at the Library of Virginia related to secession and the Civil War in Virginia. The Library of Virginia's Civil War 150 Legacy Project is scanning and digitizing privately-held Civil War-era letters, diaries, photographs, and other documents. Learn how you can share your manuscript materials through this innovative project sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.

The Library of Virginia presented two exhibitions from December 6, 2010 through October 29, 2011. In the Library's exhibition galleries, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide explored what Virginians thought and debated as the crisis unfolded. In the Visitors Center at the State Capitol, The Struggle to Decide: Virginia's Secession Crisis examined the actions taken by convention delegates and the governor that had a profound effect on Richmond and the Virginia State Capitol.

Project Staff and Special Thanks