Book Review: Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History

Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History. Edited by Dwight T. Pitcaithley. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2024. Hardcover, 308 pp., $48.00.

Reviewed by John G. Selby

Historian Dwight Pitcaithley continues his fine analysis of the state secession debates in the South during the winter of 1860-1861, with his most recent volume, Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History. In focusing on the Old Dominion, he annotates 43 critical primary documents drawn from the 9,000 pages of the Congressional Globe, the journal of Virginia’s state convention, the Washington Peace Conference, and the proceedings of the state legislature. He also provides a concise history of the longest state debate over secession, one that began on February 13, 1861 and concluded on April 17, 1861.

Pitcaithley includes statements from Governor John Letcher, former Governor Henry A. Wise, every Congressional representative and senator from Virginia, as well as a host of well-known and lesser-known Virginians. Using the words of these men and providing historical context, Pitcaithley establishes that the 16 amendments to the United States Constitution proposed by Virginia representatives would have “protected the institution of slavery throughout the country.” (xlii) The men from Virginia were not preoccupied with “states rights,” but rather with finding ways to keep slavery and remain in the Union.

There were outliers. As early as February 26, 1861, convention representative John Goode Jr. of Bedford County stated that he had “no hesitation in declaring that .  .  . Virginia ought now, promptly and without delay, take her position at the head of the Southern column.” (155)  The next month James Barbour of Culpepper County took issue with the many proposals to change the Constitution to allow Virginia to remain in the Union, called them “little paper amendments” and urged Virginia to join her fellow Southern states in secession. (xxxviii) Lewis Harvie of Amelia County forced the question to a vote on April 4, when he proposed an ordinance of secession.  It was defeated by a vote of 90 to 45.

But even as the secession convention deliberated, events occurring outside of Virginia changed the terms of the debate. After the firing on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress “said combinations” in the South, the convention reconsidered the ordinance of secession and on April 17, 1861, it passed by a vote of 88 to 55. Within three weeks the same convention would vote to join the provisional Confederate States of America, ratify the constitution of the provisional government, and receive admittance into the Confederate States of America. When the ordinance of secession was belatedly presented to white male voters on May 23, 1861, it was approved by 86% of those voting. Virginia had cast her fate with her Deep South sister slave states.

This book follows on the heels of two similar books, histories of secession efforts in Kentucky and Tennessee based on primary documents. Pitcaithley’s three books join Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War in becoming indispensable reference and discussion tools for students of the secession crisis. To aid research and topic debate, Pitcaithley provides discussion questions, a timeline of events, detailed footnotes, and a helpful bibliography and index.


John G. Selby is a Professor Emeritus of history at Roanoke College and the former holder of the John R. Turbyfill Chair in History. A Civil War scholar, Selby wrote: Meade the Price of Command, 1863-1865; Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates; and coedited Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans.

4 Responses to Book Review: Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History

  1. This is from Amazon’s book description of another one of Professor Picaithley’s books, “The U.S. Constitution and Secession: A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy,” published in 2018.

    “What emerges clearly from these documents, and from Pitcaithley’s incisive analysis, is the centrality of white supremacy and slavery—specifically the fear of abolition—to the South’s decision to secede. Also evident in the words of these politicians and statesmen is how thoroughly passion and fear, rather than reason and reflection, drove the decision making process.”

    It does appear that Professor Picaithley has a pre-conceived point of view. Which he has every right to hold, and which many (perhaps a majority) of Americans share. I’ll stipulate to that. And, it does reflect what appears to be the dominant view among Civil War academics at American universities. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the dominant view that an academic historian can voice publicly).

    I was about to shell out $48 for his book…until I read that description. Again, that’s not someone’s review of the book—it’s the words Amazon chose to market the book. I think I’ll wait a few months, until I can get it on the secondary market. Something tells me there will be plenty of used copies at VERY reasonable prices.

  2. Dr. Selby, does the book you reviewed discuss what another author has described as a plot to institute a coup – using violence if necessary – against the Virginia state government by the most radical secessionists? Lawrence M. Denton, in his 2014 “Unionists in Virginia: Politics, Secession, and Their Plan to Prevent Civil War,” discusses the “People’s Spontaneous Convention.” As Mr. Denton describes the situation, the leaders of this movement intended to arrest Governor Letcher and the Unionists members of the State Convention, break up that body, and install former Governor Henry Wise as the leader who would then take Virginia out of the Union. Only President Lincoln’s proclamation calling for troops swung the Convention into voting for secession, rendering the coup unnecessary. Very fascinating and (to me at least) unknown history.

  3. I knew and worked with Dwight Pitcaithley back in the day when he was Chief Historian of the National Park Service and I was a lawyer in the Office of the Solicitor. He was kind enough to do historical presentations for our office. I have thought fondly of him over the years and glad to see this review and know he is still active.

  4. Dr. Selby … thanks for this review and commending Dew’s Apostles of Disunion to your readers … what struck me in Dew’s book was how largely ineffective the deep South’s public relations campaign for secession was in the upper South as the vote in Feb ’61 shows — 90 against vs 45 for … but how fragile that majority was after Fort Sumter and the presidents call for volunteers … another good read on Virginia secession is Edward Ayers In the Presence of Mine Enemies … thanks again.

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