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Miers Fisher

Union or Secession
Miers W. Fisher (1806–1873). Image courtesy of Margaret Ryther.
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Miers W. Fisher (1806–1873). Image courtesy of Margaret Ryther.
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MIERS W. FISHER (1806–1873)

Miers W. Fisher (6 or 7 June 1806–18 June 1873), member of the Convention of 1861, was the son of George Fisher and Susan (or Susanna) Joynes Fisher. Most likely he was born in Northampton County, where his paternal ancestors had lived since the seventeenth century. After working for a time as a hatter, Fisher read law and in July 1828 was admitted to practice in Northampton County. In October of that year he was commissioned a notary public. On 8 October 1829 Fisher married Juliet B. Holland Harmanson, a widow with one son. Before her death on 16 December 1868, they had two sons and three daughters.

Fisher, a Jacksonian Democrat, served two nonconsecutive terms in the House of Delegates. In the 1829–1830 assembly he sat on a minor committee to examine the condition of the state penitentiary, and in the 1831–1832 assembly he was a member of the committees to examine the first auditor's office and the clerk's office. During his second term Nat Turner's Rebellion provoked the General Assembly into an extended debate about slavery and the continuing presence of free blacks in Virginia. Fisher offered a motion to create a select thirteen-member committee authorized to report bills relating to these issues and became ranking member. He favored the committee's resolution declaring that it would be inexpedient for the state to abolish slavery and opposed inclusion of a mildly antislavery preamble. Believing that free blacks represented a threat and an economic drain, Fisher endorsed the failed plan of his Northampton County constituents to double the taxes on county residents in order to raise $15,000 for the removal of all of the county's free blacks to Liberia and agreed to serve on a committee that would arrange transportation. To ensure that all the free persons of color would leave, this scheme called on white Northampton residents to pledge not to employ or rent to any free blacks after 1 June 1832.

Beginning with a single acre near Eastville in 1830, Fisher steadily acquired land throughout the 1840s and 1850s. By 1860 he owned four Northampton County plantations—Pocahontas (almost 200 acres), where he made his home; Holly Brook (420 acres); Town Fields (660 acres); and Woodbury (almost 269 acres). He held another 80 acres in three tracts and controlled almost 97 acres that his wife had inherited. Fisher's slaveholding likewise expanded, from three slaves age twelve or older in 1830 to twenty-one in 1861.

Fisher became commonwealth's attorney in November 1836 and held that office for fifteen years. In 1850 he sought election to a convention called to revise the state constitution. Although Fisher polled the most votes in Northampton County, his poor showing in neighboring Accomack County placed him last among the four candidates vying for the two Eastern Shore seats.

By the time Fisher attended the abortive 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, he had come to believe that Virginia's interests were inextricably tied to those of the cotton states. After the Deep South delegates walked out of the convention over the treatment of slavery in the party platform, Fisher expressed his sympathy by withdrawing from the Virginia delegation, which had chosen to remain. He justified his action before a Northampton County public meeting and in a letter printed in the Daily Richmond Enquirer.

The Convention of 1861

In 1861 Fisher represented Northampton County at the Virginia convention called to debate secession. He numbered among the minority of delegates who entered the convention favoring immediate withdrawal "from this destructive Union" and "Black Republican Confederacy" in order to establish Virginia's "independence of Yankeedom." Fisher opposed calling a national convention to resolve the sectional crisis because he feared that the Republican Party would seize such an opportunity to reorganize the federal judiciary and make judges of the Supreme Court of the United States elective. He offered resolutions on 2 March stating that Virginia would view any attempt by the federal government to collect revenue on goods entering ports in states that had seceded as initiating civil war and that the federal government should immediately negotiate the transfer of Forts Pickens and Sumter to the Southern Confederacy. On 15 March, Fisher presented a series of resolutions from a Northampton County public meeting decrying Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address as a declaration of war and demanding immediate secession and union with the Confederate States. During a three-day debate late in March he demonstrated a broad familiarity with Southern political writings by ably citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and works of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison (1751–1836), John Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, William Branch Giles, and William Cabell Rives when arguing the constitutionality of secession.

Fisher voted for secession on 4 April when the measure failed and again on 17 April when it passed. The other Eastern Shore delegate opposed leaving the Union on the grounds that remaining in it offered the best protection for slave property. In explaining his own stance, Fisher acknowledged the exposed and vulnerable position of Northampton County——"There is not a tree, as you know, . . . between my residence and Europe or Africa"—but emphasized the imperative to avenge the North's perceived insults to Virginia's honor. In later proceedings he opposed ad valorem taxation of slaves, a measure favored by many western Virginians. Citing examples gleaned from his own slaveholding, he argued that such valuation would force masters to sell their slaves outside the state and as a consequence strip Virginia of tax revenue.

At the June convention session, Fisher pursued punitive measures against Wheeling banks, persons conducting business in the District of Columbia, and individual westerners and Unionists whom he viewed as treasonous. He also chaired a committee to investigate abolishing the Board of Public Works. After adjournment he returned to Northampton County, where the governor named him one of the local commissioners superintending the balloting in the Confederate presidential election that autumn. Late in September, Fisher reported to Jefferson Davis on the military preparedness of the Eastern Shore and requested that a general officer be assigned to Accomack and Northampton Counties, especially if the Confederate president intended to launch incursions into Maryland. Fisher was in Richmond attending the final convention session when Union forces occupied the Eastern Shore in November 1861. Federal troops used Town Fields as a hospital and relief station for African Americans, and Pocahontas served briefly as a regimental headquarters. Later stories reported that soldiers had carried off Fisher's 20,000-volume library, but this tale is likely exaggerated because he still had a sizable collection of law books when he died. Fisher spent most of the Civil War in Richmond, where in mid-March 1865 a clerk in the Confederate War Department described him as "neglected by the government, and racked with disease."

After the war Fisher returned to farming and practicing law in Northampton County. Late in 1867 Robert Edward Lee engaged his services to help in recovering Smith Island, a family property seized during the Civil War. Fisher's three orphaned granddaughters joined his postwar household. Miers W. Fisher died at Pocahontas on 18 June 1873 and was buried in the family cemetery there.

Contributed by Sara B. Bearss

Quotations in George H. Reese and William H. Gaines Jr., eds., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 (1965), 1:692 (first quotation), 2:457 (second quotation), 4:141 (third and fourth quotations); J. B. Jones, A Rebel War Clerk's Diary at the Confederate States Capital, ed. Howard Swiggett (1935), 2:447 (fifth quotation).

This biography, with a bibliographical note, will appear in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), volume 4 (forthcoming).

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