The first big event that hurtled Virginia towards secession was the same event that started the Civil War. On April 12th, Confederates began shelling and firing upon Union soldiers in Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Reactions in Richmond were particularly enthusiastic.
In April of 1861, secessionist spirit was running high throughout the South. Seven states had already seceded from the Union, but Virginia was still very much on the fence. The state formed a Secession Convention late in 1860 to discuss the issue and possibly find compromise that would enable Virginia to stay in the Union, but as the months passed, Unionist support started to waver.
The first big event that hurtled Virginia towards secession was the same event that started the Civil War. On April 12th, Confederates began shelling and firing upon Union soldiers in Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This first act of war was electrifying across the South. Reactions in Richmond were particularly enthusiastic.
As soon as word hit Richmond, a spontaneous parade of citizens gathered and started marching through the streets. According to the Richmond Enquirer:
The procession had swelled to about three thousand persons, by the time the column halted at the Tredegar Iron Works, to witness the raising of a large Southern Confederacy flag over the main building of the works, which was done by the employees of the establishment. Without delay, the flag was hauled up, the band playing the Marsellaise, and cannon (manufactured at the Tredegar for the use of the Confederate Government) thundered a welcome to the banner of the South. Richmond Enquirer, 4.15.1861
At Tredegar, numerous speeches were given and it was announced that the artillery that bombarded Fort Sumter was made right there in Richmond at Tredegar Iron Works, which received a huge applause from the secessionist crowd.
From Tredegar, the parade marched up to an arsenal on Cary St. where they borrowed several guns (How does one go about borrowing several guns? Not sure.) and headed to the lawn of the Capitol to fire off an impromptu hundred-gun salute. The Confederate flag was raised above the Capitol as well.
Now, at this point, the governor of Virginia, John Letcher, decided to give a speech on the lawn. This is where things get a little funny, because Letcher wasn’t exactly wild about the idea of secession. He later supported it, but at the time, in true political fashion, he gave a speech that essentially said nothing:
Gentlemen. – I thank you very kindly for this compliment. But I must be permitted to say that I see no occasion for this demonstration. I have done all that my duty requires. I can only assure you, that come what may, I will be true to my duty to Virginia, without regard to the consequences that may affect me personally. Richmond Enquirer, 4.15.1861
The crowd was not happy at all with this lukewarm speech, and proceeded to move on from the Capitol and celebrate elsewhere. After dark and once the crowd had dispersed, a detachment of state guard troops quietly removed the Confederate flags from the Capitol building, supposedly under the direction of Governor Letcher.
Just a few days after the capture of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln issued a call for troops from all states still left in the Union to raise an army for what was now fully understood to be an impending war. The combination of the attack itself, followed by this call for Virginians to raise troops and take arms against the Confederacy pushed Virginia’s Secession Convention to the breaking point. On April 17th, they voted to secede from the Union.
While it didn’t become fully official until a statewide referendum was voted on in May, immediate steps were set in motion for secession. While the convention voted, Virginia militias had already seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the navy yard in Norfolk.
Virginia was preparing for war.