Spring 1861 was a horrible time for the Upper South, as the slave states there had to decide whether to cast their lot with the Lower South in the new Confederacy or with the Union many there still held dear. This situation was no more true than in Virginia, which was not only as Ira Berlin would put it a “society with slaves,” but also with a history deeply invested in the creation of the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and many other important founding fathers hailed from the state, and, of course, four of the first five U.S. Presidents were Virginians.
A convention had assembled in Richmond on February 13, 1861, at the behest of the legislature to consider the state’s future allegiance. Up until the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Virginia’s Unionists held the upper hand at the convention, soundly defeating a vote over secession on April 4.
Still, pro-secessionists in Virginia in March 1861 were passionate and vocal. One such group assembled in Dinwiddie County that month and on March 23, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer reported on their proceedings. The “Resistance Party of Virginia,” as they called themselves, saw Unionism in the Upper South as pointless. They demanded the Unionists in Richmond, if they were really serious about staying in the United States, make a tough series of demands on the free states consistent with the Confederate Constitution, recently adopted in Montgomery.
Not surprisingly, all the demands of the Dinwiddie meeting had to do with slavery. According to the Enquirer article, they were as follows:
- That African slavery in the Territories shall be recognized and protected by Congress and the Territorial Legislatures.
- That the right to slaveholders of transit and sojourn in any State of the Confederacy, with their slaves and other property, shall be recognized and respected.
- That the provision in regard to fugitive slaves shall extend to any slave lawfully carried from one State into another, and there escaping or taken away from his master.
- That no bill or ex post facto law (by Congress or any State,) and no law impairing or denying the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed.
- That the African slave trade shall be prohibited by such laws of Congress as shall effectually prevent the same.
Clearly, the Dinwiddie meeting believed slavery was the only substantive issue for the Commonwealth of Virginia in March 1861 when considering whether “to unite our destinies with our sister Southern States—or, to remain a useless appendage to the Northern Confederacy.”