May 23, 1861: Virginia Votes to Secede

On May 23, 1861 Virginia held its referendum on Secession.  The results were 132, 201 to 37, 451 opposed.  The referendum was voted down in most of the counties that would eventually form West Virginia, and the stage was set for a civil war within the Civil War in Virginia, as ultimately 29,000 Union troops would be raised in West Virginia.  Here is the text of the Ordinance of Secession approved by the referendum:

AN ORDINANCE to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United State of America by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution.

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitition were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States:

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain, That the ordinance adopted by the people of this State in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying and adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.

And they do further declare, That said Constitution of the United States of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this State.

This ordinance shall take effect and be an act of this day, when ratified by a majority of the voter of the people of this State cast at a poll to be taken thereon on the fourth Thursday in May next, in pursuance of a schedule hereafter to be enacted.

Adopted by the convention of Virginia April 17,1861.

Published in: on May 23, 2011 at 5:51 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. Just a few short corrections. The Ordinance of Secession was rejected in 26 counties of the future West Virginia, it was ratified by 24 counties, which comprised about 2/3’s of the state. Most of the Unionists were located in the 16 extreme northern counties. According to the vote reconstruction by Richard O. Curry in “A House Divided” secessionists outnumbered Unionists in the 34 counties that made up most of West Virginia. West Virginia did not contribute 29,000 Union troops, about one-third of West Virginia Union troops were from Ohio and Penna. Current estimates are 20,000 each for Union and Confederate soldiers, according to Mark Snell of the George Tyler Moore Center in Shepherdstown, and also the WV Dept. of Archives and History. See the Conclusion at the end of this article.

  2. Thank you for your comment Bob. I have noticed that when it comes to the Civil War and West Virginia, quite a few of the basic facts are in dispute. For example, most historians view the Ordinance of Secession as being decisively defeated in what would become West Virgina. Others, led by Richard Curry, believe that a sizable minority voted in favor of the Oridinance. The simple truth is since many of the vote totals from that region of Virginia were lost, we will never truly know.

    Union and Confederate troop numbers raised in West Virginia are similiarly disputed, with the Union totals going from 20,000 to 29,0000 and Confederate totals ranging from 7,000 to 22,000. Considering incomplete muster rolls, confusion of common names, consolidation of units during the war, I do not find this suprising. You are correct that recruits from Ohio and Pennsylvania are included in the West Virginia totals, but I assume that West Virginians probably enlisted in Ohio and Pennsylvania regiments on duty in West Virginia, as both Union and Confederate regiments were willing to enlist recruits, no questions asked as to where they came from. This would probably also indicate that there are West Virginians who served in non-Virginian Confederate regiments serving in or near West Virginia that are not included in the totals.

  3. and then there were those independant cusses that shot at whoever stole their chickens last!!!
    Because of steep mountainous terrain it was hard to move military units and ordinance so huge battles did not occur. But it was a murderous time in southern Appalachia. “Spy Rock” an unknown rock outcropping next to our family farm was used as a listening station for troop movements. Lee’s horse Traveler came from a farm about 10 miles away. Stories of troops singing to each other across the open field between them, Copperheads and thieves, are all stories I cut my teeth on while trying to run down rabbits on the farm as a boy.
    It is a shame that the most famous WVian seems to be Robert Byrd… there are/were so many good folks from that mountain lair.
    In Christ,
    Dennis McCutcheon

  4. Absolutely fascinating Dennis. So many facets of the Civil War never make it into the books, but are passed down orally from generation to generation.

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