By March of 1861, the deep-South states had seceded; a Confederate government was in place with Jefferson Davis as president and the capital at Montgomery, Alabama. But until hostilities opened between Federal and Confederate forces at Fort Sumter in April, Virginia was on the fence. Secession did not come easily to a state deeply proud of its central role in founding the United States.
The Virginia Convention of 1861 voted to secede on April 17, and on May 23, the decision was ratified by a vote of the state’s white male population. Richmond became the new capital of the Confederate States of America. In response to secession, a Unionist movement grew in the western part of the state, and Virginia became a state with two parallel governments.
Life changed swiftly. Blockades halted trade at Virginia ports. Slaves began fleeing to Union strongholds where they were protected as “contraband of war.” The University of Virginia was virtually emptied as students left to fight for the Confederacy. By July, Virginia soldiers had helped the Confederacy win the first major battle in the state, at Bull Run near Manassas Junction, Prince William County.