Friday, July 30, 2010

Secession Dissection in the Old Dominion. Or, Where West Virginia Came From

Continuing on with a look at Civil War era electioneering, lets take a look at how one particular state (soon to become two) moved toward secession.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the Confederacy was formed in waves; not every state left the Union at the same time.  In the second wave of secessions was Virginia.  Following the attack on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln's call upon the states to provide troops for the Union effort, the critical state of Virginia moved toward secession.  Given the size of the state, its geographical location, and its history in the forming of the country, the Confederacy would probably have ended much sooner than it did had it not had Virginia in its ranks.

As must be noted, Virginia was actually quite hesitant to secede.  A number of efforts were made to keep Virginia in the Union, with an early Secession Convention sending a delegation to Washington to try and ascertain the Lincoln administration's intentions.  When Sumter was met with Lincoln's determination to meet Southern hostilities with force, Virginia's march to leave the Union picked up pace.  On April 17, Virginia's Secession Convention voted to secede, with the final decision subject to a statewide referendum.  With the data for this vote available on a county-wide basis, I thought I'd map it to see if any patterns emerge.

In the last post I tried to show a linkage between secession support across the South with the prevalence of slavery.  For the purposes of this post, lets do the same thing.  Our hypothesis would be that those parts of Virginia that had a higher prevalence of slavery would have a higher level of support for the secession referendum.  Fortunately, I found a good map of Virginia that shows slavery by county that we can use:

As we can see from the map, slavery was more prevalent in some parts of the state than others.  The most north-western part of the state (more on that in a bit) had very little slave presence at all.  So, how did the vote correspond?  The vote to ratify secession was held on May 23, 1861.  I've taken the county data, color coded it based on the percentage of the vote for secession in each particular county, and then transposed the result onto the above map.  The color scheme is as follows.  Each percentage band is % of the vote in favor of secession: Dark Red 95% and above; Red 90-95%; Dark Pink 85-90%; Pink 80-85%; Orange 75-80%; Yellow 65-70%; Light Yellow 60-65%; Brown 55-60%; Light Green 50-55%; Green 35-40%; Dark Green 30-35%; Sage Green 25-30%; Light Blue 20-25%; Turquoise 15-20%; Pale Blue 10-15%; Blue 5-10%; Dark Blue 0-5%.   For those parts of the map that are un-colored, there was no data available.

What becomes clear immediately is how widespread and virtually unanimous support was for ratification across a wide swath of the state.  Essentially, all of modern day Virginia, even in those counties that had a comparatively small slave population, voted unanimously (95%+) to ratify secession.  Once the movement toward secession had built up momentum, the population followed. 

Where things are more interesting is in the north-western part of the state.  Here, as we can see, resistance to secession was strong.  In most of this part of the state ratification failed to not only get a majority, but received less than 20% of the vote.  This, in short, is the story of how modern day West Virginia came into existence.  Even prior to the May 23 vote, efforts were underway in this part of the state to not only vote against secession, but to create an alternative government and eventually break off from the Commonwealth.  During two conventions held in Wheeling, strongly pro-Union Virginians plotted to resist the movement of the state into the Confederacy.   Conventioneers moved to create a "Restored Government of Virginia" and utlimately break away from Virginia.  Ultimately, West Virginia was admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863.  If you've ever driven through this part of the country you know how mountainous this territory is.  This was not land where slavery ever took hold.  The land was simply not hospitable to the type of agriculture that one found in South Carolina, Mississippi, and other parts of the Confederacy including modern day Virginia.  Thus, Unionism was and remained strong even as the state was moving quickly into rebellion. 

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