“that her union should be broken”

--Walt Whitman, Specimen days, 1882

Secession and separation


John W. Davis, Letter to his brother, 3 March 1861.
Elizabeth Cocke Coles Fund (MSS 1393)

In response to threats by Southerners to prevent Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, federal military authorities stationed troops throughout Washington. The threats had some basis in fact. Charlottesville resident John W. Davis reported: “A great many [students] left yesterday and this morning for Washington, to see the place before it is destroyed, hear the Inaugural, and see and probably take place in the anticipated fight. They were all armed with pistols.”




University of Virginia students, Letter to the editors of the Baltimore Exchange, 22 March 1861.
(MSS 15097)

An anonymous group of students recounts the raising of a Confederate flag at the University on March 15, 1861:

The spirit of Secession is rampant here. Last Friday—one week ago—the sun rose upon the flag of the Southern Confederacy floating over the dome of the Rotunda of the University …. It is whispered by ‘those who know’ that it was a band of seven of the ‘Carr’s Hill boys’ who conceived & executed the plan …. The sons of Virginia & of the South Maryland are true to her honor the South.


University of Virginia, Matriculation book, 38th Session, 1861-1862.
University of Virginia Archives (RG-14/4/2.041)

All University students officially registered in the matriculation book. The pages shown—for the University’s 38th session, 1861-1862—include entries for three students who left the University to enter Confederate military service: William Kenneth McCoy, John T. Redwood, and Warner L. Selden. All died before the war’s end. Sergeant McCoy, a Charlottesville resident, served in the Charlottesville Artillery. He died of battle wounds in May of 1863 and is buried in the University Cemetery. Private Redwood, originally from Mobile, Ala., joined the Albemarle Artillery and was wounded at Gaines’s Mill, Va.; he died in July of 1862. Private Selden, of Gloucester County, Va., succumbed to typhoid fever in August of 1862, several months after enlisting with the 7th Virginia Cavalry.

The University of Virginia was among the few Southern institutions of higher education to remain open during the Civil War. Approximately 4,000 of the University’s 8,000 pre-1865 alumni fought for the Confederacy. An unknown number of University students fought for the Union; Charles Augustus Briggs of New York and Bernard Farrar, Jr., of Missouri are among the very few documented examples. Both survived the war.


Benjamin Wilson, Letter to “Dear Judge,” 14 April 1861.
Elizabeth Cocke Coles Fund (MSS 11540)

Wilson, a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1861 from Harrison County, [West] Virginia, reports on the convention and describes the mood in Richmond. He characterizes the convention as “composed of mad men,” and relates the actions of a group who “hoisted the Confederate flag over the capital and defied” the governor’s order to take it down. The young men were armed and prepared for war, “and war they say they will have.” Wilson despairs of peace and begins “to think we must secede or split the state … there is danger in delay.”


Record of the vote in the Virginia Convention on the Ordinance of Secession, 17 April 1861.
Bequest of Paul Mellon (MSS 11637)

Virginia’s reluctance to leave the Union—as evidenced by the convention’s initial vote against secession on April 4, 1861—evaporated after the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12 and Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the rebellion three days later. The delegates passed the Ordinance of Secession on April 17 with 88 “yea” and 55 “no” votes.

Initially, Albemarle delegates were split: University of Virginia law professor James P. Holcombe voted for secession while prominent local lawyer Valentine Wood Southall voted against it. In the final vote tallied here, both men opted for secession. Other “yea” voters included Thomas Jefferson’s grandson George Wythe Randolph and former U.S. president John Tyler; future Confederate general Jubal Early steadfastly continued his opposition to secession.