If the purpose of Virginia’s secession was to ease the minds of Virginia’s slaveholders, the move backfired. With the Commonwealth’s proximity to Union territory, especially the federal capital of Washington, D.C., and with the move of the Confederate capital into Virginia, it became a major focus for Union military activity. While reviewers are finding various reasons to quibble with Gary Gallagher’s recent book, The Union War, he is correct that the presence of northern troops had a way of upsetting the slave system, even if the soldiers did not see themselves as liberators of slaves.
This phenomenon, of course, was first seen around Fortress Monroe in late May 1861 after Gen. Benjamin Butler gave refuge to fugitive slaves. With this act, Butler set in motion forces he could not entirely control and neither could anyone else. Not only did a stream of slaves descended on the fortress, but the discipline of the slave system broke down in the surrounding area. On June 21, the National Republican, the semi-official organ of the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., carried the following story.
In front of our lines, across the Potomac from this city, the number of slaves who run away is not so great as the number whose masters run away, or whose masters tell their slaves to shift for themselves. The article has ceased to have a market place [Probably here referring to the heretofore bustling Alexandria slave market.], and can hardly be so managed as to have an income. Virginians who can move South with their slave property are doing so in large numbers, but the number of Virginia slaveholders who cannot move South is larger still. This larger class cannot now sell slaves at the South, where there is neither demand or means of payment, and, as our armies advance, these slaves will run away, or be abandoned by their masters. The thing is inevitable.
Virginia slaveholders clearly were aware of what was happening, and attempted to respond to deal with disruption caused by Union forces and the subsequent flight of slaves from their owners. The Virginia State Convention, meeting on June 19, 1861, in its second session had the following ordinance reported. To whit:
Be it Ordained, That in such counties of this State as are not actually invaded, but which, from she proximity of the enemy of the State, or other cause, danger exists of a loss of property to the citizens thereof, the Colonel commanding the militia of said county, or in his absence or inability to act, the next highest officer of such militia, shall whenever in his opinion it shall be necessary protect the property of the citizens of such counties, and have power, and is hereby authorized and required, to draft from the militia of such county such men as may be sufficient to prevent any loss of properties in his county, as afore said. This ordinance further authorizes the Colonel of the Regiment to forward to the Governor the names and rank of all men under his command, who shall be paid by the State, as if they were in its actual service in some regularly organized regiment.
While the proposed ordinance never specifies the property in question, the implication is clear enough it is referring to slaves. So with the flight of slaves to Fortress Monroe and in Northern Virginia, the Virginia Convention moved to organize home guard militia to keep more slaves from fleeing to Union controlled territory.
Likewise, an ordinance was proposed to the convention to retaliate against the northern states for the slaves already lost to the contraband of war policy. One that would hurt the northern states in their pocket books. It read:
The officers of the Federal Government now in command of an army quartered on the said of Virginia, have inaugurated (apparently with the concurrence of the authorities at Washington) a system of war late unknown to the uses and practices of civilized nations, by enticing away from their owners, protecting and holding slaves the property of citizens of this Commonwealth, whether said citizens are combatants or noncombatants. Be it, therefore.
Resolved, That the Committee on Finance inquire in other propriety of setting aside all debts the by this Commonwealth of Virginia, or the citizens or corporations thereof, to the citizens of any of those Northern States who are engaged in the invasion of our soil.
Clearly, by organizing stay-at-home militia and threatening to withhold debts owed to the North, the Virginia Convention hoped to end the contraband-of-war policy and reinforce the slave system against Union incursions into the Commonwealth. What it was not reckoning with was the strong determination of many people in the North following Fort Sumter to crush the Confederacy, the political focus of which was now gathering in the new capital of Richmond, a mere 100 miles from Washington, D.C. It also did not take into account the fierce desire of the slaves to be free and their willingness to act on that sentiment given even the smallest opportunity. White Virginians and other southerners would learn these facts in the months and years to come.