“down to the field of war in Virginia”

--Walt Whitman, Specimen days, 1882


George B. McClellan, Head-Quarters Department of the Ohio, Cincinnati, May 26, 1861. Soldiers: You are ordered to cross the frontier, and enter upon the soil of Virginia. [Cincinnati, Ohio: U.S. Army, 1861]
Bequest of Paul Mellon (E472.1 .U56 1861)

Virginians voted on secession on May 23, 1861, but preparations for war began a month earlier. General McClellan was given command of the militia in Ohio on April 23, 1861. With this May 26 broadside, he ordered Union troops into western Virginia, setting the stage for the Civil War’s first major battle. McClellan's order noted that the “only foes are the armed traitors;” it also acknowledged the delicate political situation by emphasizing that troops were to protect “the loyal men of Western Virginia.”


Traitors in Wheeling. Below will be found a complete list of the traitors and rebels of Wheeling, Va., who voted May 23, 1861, for the infamous Ordinance of Secession, adopted by the usurpers in the Richmond, Va., Convention. [Virginia, 1861]
Elizabeth Cocke Coles Fund (Broadside 1861 .T73)

The city of Wheeling is considered the birthplace of the state of West Virginia. Located in the far north of the Virginia panhandle, the city and surrounding Ohio County were resolutely pro-Union. Staunch Unionists printed this broadside labeling as “traitors and rebels” the 81 Wheeling men who voted in favor of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession on May 23, 1861.


West Virginia Constitutional Convention, Journal of the Constitutional Convention of West Virginia, assembled at Wheeling on Tuesday, November the twenty-sixth, eighteen hundred and sixty-one. Wheeling, Va.: Campbell & M’Dermot, 1861.
Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History (A 1861.W478)

The West Virginia Constitutional Convention opened six months after Virginia’s secession. Once a name for the new state was selected—Kanawha and New Virginia having been discarded—delegates addressed the crucial issue of which counties would comprise West Virginia. Berkeley and Jefferson Counties were included, but their status remained in dispute until the matter was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871. The convention also debated the gradual emancipation of slavery, but the delegates ultimately declined to face the issue, and West Virginia entered the Union a slave state.


The Virginia girl’s song. The volunteer’s reply. [Virginia?, ca. 1861-1865]
Elizabeth Cocke Coles Fund (Broadside 1861 .V57)

Virginia women were expected to encourage the men in their lives to join the army. In this anonymous and undated broadside poem, the Virginia girl vows that she will have no contact with young men who shirk their duty and stay at home while married men are leaving their wives and children to join the fight.



The song of the “contrabands”: O let my people go. New York: Horace Waters, 1861.
William and Elizabeth Morris Fund (M 1640 .G64 1861)

This song originated among a group of contrabands—runaway slaves who had escaped to Union lines—at Fort Monroe, a military installation in Hampton Roads, Va., that had remained under Union control. Song of the Contrabands was first published in 1861, shortly after the refugee slaves were heard singing it upon their arrival in Fort Monroe; a note printed on the sheet music indicates that “this song [had been] sung for about nine years [ca. 1852] by the slaves of Virginia.”

The song’s final verse is sung:
This world's a wilderness of woe,
O let my people go!
O let me all to glory go,
O let my people go!


Resolution concerning the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act. Pittsylvania County, Va., 1861.
(MSS 6458)

In the winter of 1861, the citizens of Pittsylvania County adopted a resolution expressing their outrage regarding the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the Northern states. The Act had required officials in free states to return runaway slaves to their masters. Pittsylvania County’s resolution sought to repeal the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act, propose legislation for defense of the state and retaliation against all states that uphold nullification, and establish commercial relationships with entities outside of the North.




John Frisbie, Letter to Gilbert Frisbie, 6 December 1861.
Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund (MSS 12177)

Private John Frisbie of Company H, 3rd Vermont Volunteers, writes to his brother about military life at Camp Griffin in McLean, Va. Federal troops occupied the area from the fall of 1861 to the following spring. Frisbie’s contact with runaway slaves in camp provides a glimpse into the grim situations contrabands had fled; he writes,

Got one to work a cooking that ran away from his master in mariland & i ges they are used prety bad for I have seen the scars & ridges on his back where he had been whipted & his legs are very crooked by pooting to much load on his back when he was young.