Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Union or Secession
  • "The best policy for the cadets?"
On November 3, 1860, a Virginia cadet at West Point asked the governor for advice should Abraham Lincoln be elected president of the United States.
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"The best policy for the cadets?"

J. L. S. Kirby to Governor John Letcher, November 3, 1860, Executive Papers of Governor John Letcher, Acc. 36787, State Government Records Collection, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.

Three days before the 1860 presidential election, Joseph Lee Smith Kirby, a Richmond cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, wrote to the governor offering his services to Virginia. "What Sir," he also enquired of the governor, "do you deem the best policy for the Cadets appointed from Virginia, to adopt in case of Mr Lincoln's election? Ought we to resign or not?" The governor docketed the letter, "File this."

The son of a career military officer from Connecticut who married a Virginian, Kirby was in his first year at West Point in 1860. His extended family faced divided sectional loyalties. Three of his brothers joined the Confederate forces, while two of his cousins who were also at West Point sided with the Union. On July 18, 1861, Kirby enlisted with the Richmond Howitzers, but his company failed to recruit enough members and disbanded. From 1863 to 1865 he served under his cousin, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, in Texas and Louisiana.

J. L. S. Kirby to Governor John Letcher, November 3, 1860, Executive Papers of Governor John Letcher, Acc. 36787, State Government Records Collection, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.

U S M A
West Point NY
Nov 3rd 1860
Dear Sir,
In consequence of the excitement both, in the North and South in regard to the election of Mr Lincoln to the Presidency, I have the honor to solicit from you, the Governor of my native State, a commission in the army of Virginia, should she secede from the Union with other Southern States, What Sir, do you deem the best policy for the Cadets appointed from Virginia, to adopt in case of Mr Lincoln's election? Ought we to resign or not?
Trusting that my request for a commission may not be deemed ill advised by one who has Virginia's dearest interests at heart,
I remain honored Sir
Your Obt Servant,
Cadet J. L. S. KIRBY