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. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Civil War Secession Maps

As the current electoral season has me a bit underwhelmed, I'm going to dig back into history a bit. Every once in a while I get a Civil War bug that sends me to the book store for a few weeks or months of exploration. In my mind it's without a doubt the most important period of our history. Most of the unresolved issues of our early history came to a head then; so much of our history since then can trace its legacy to this time. A lot of posts on this site have dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, especially as they relate to the role of race in our politics and elections.

I'm currently in the midst of Shelby Foote's magisterial three volume history of the Civil War. This is a project that will probably be completed in fits and starts over the months ahead, especially as other things capture my attention. Anyhow, an interesting electoral story is that of the secession votes held across the south in the wake of Lincoln's election and the subsequent firing on Ft. Sumter in early 1861. The first wave of states to secede were South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. The second wave (following Ft. Sumter) comprised the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. I found this interesting map to give a sense of secession sympathy in these states:

What the history of this period tells us is that support for secession was by no means universal. Many of these deep south states had pockets of people loyal to the union (or at least not enthusiastic about secession). A classic example of this is Tennessee, which to this day has strongly Republican leaning counties in the eastern part of the state that never became part of the Solid South for Democrats. Also of note is the part of Virginia that would ultimately break off to form the new state of West Virginia.

The most common explanation for this diversity of opinion regarding secession in these states relates to the presence or reliance upon slave labor. In Alabama, for example, the northern most counties tended to have very little slaveholding. With a geography and topography that wasn't conducive to cotton or other labor intensive crops, secessionist feelings were less intense than in places like South Carolina or the Mississippi Delta. Consider these maps of slavery's pervasiveness in the region with the above to get a sense of these very interesting dynamics.

If you're interested in the Civil War and have some time on your hands, I'd highly recommend Yale historian David Blight's course on the period. Its absolutely amazing and worth the time it takes to get through all of the lectures.