Editorial: 160 years ago today, Virginia made a grievous error | Editorial

This heavily anti-Confederation satire is a fantastic vision of the Union’s defeat by the secessionist movement. On the left, a hideous monster emerges from the water, representing the secession. He is killed by a mammoth cannon “Death to the traitors!” operated by Uncle Sam (right). A two-sided figure depicting Baltimore, whose loyalty to the Union was at least in doubt during the war, pulls on Uncle Sam’s coattails. The explosion sends several small demons representing the secessionist states through the air. South Carolina is prominent among them, in a coffin in the upper right corner. Tennessee and Kentucky, two southern states internally divided over secession, are represented by two-headed creatures. Although Virginia is part of the Confederation, it is also shown divided – likely a recognition of the Appalachian and Eastern Regions’ alignment with the Union. Among the demons is a small figure of the Tennessee Senator and 1860 presidential candidate John Bell with a bell-shaped body. In the foreground is a large American flag on which Winfield Scott, commander of the Union Forces, and a bald eagle rest. Despite the copyright date printed on it, the print appears to have been registered for copyright on June 14, according to the inscription on the library’s impression, but was not deposited until July 10, 1861.


On April 17, 1861 – 160 years ago today – Virginia made an important decision for which it still pays the price.

That day Virginia decided to leave the Union.

Technically, a specially elected assembly called the Virginia Convention voted to send a secession referendum to voters, but that referendum a month later was just a formality. Two days after the Convention voted for secession, the Confederate flag fluttered over the Virginia Capitol and a Confederate army was invited to settle in Richmond. It would have taken a brave man – and then only men voted – to stand up to the public passion for secession. Yet some in this convention stood up and voted against secession. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them came from the western counties of what would become West Virginia.

It is remarkable – one mild word, mind-boggling could be another – that all these years later the causes of the civil war continued to be debated. It was about slavery, some say. No, it was about the rights of the state, say others – as if that were a binary and exclusive choice. It was both, although the main right the southern states wanted to protect was the right to enslave fellow human beings.

We want our story the way we want our politics today – reduced to something the size of a 30-second commercial or maybe a tweet. The story is not like that. The chairman of the convention shows how complicated and chaotic our history can be. He was John Janney, a Loudoun County attorney. In 1831 he had drafted a bill to abolish slavery in Virginia, which apparently failed. Three years later he bought his first slave.