Virginia’s colleges became cradles of disunion as young people debated the necessity, and opportunity, of a new Southern nation.
On March 15, 1861, in the black of night, seven students at the University of Virginia slipped away from their rooms and gathered at the famous Lawn in preparation for scaling the Rotunda, the architectural and intellectual centerpiece of the campus. The Lawn had long been a place for student mischief, where young men, free from the restraints of home, would stage veritable vaudeville acts. They would paint their faces black, beat pots and pans and blast horns until their professors, who lived in the modest quarters along the Lawn, came in their nightclothes to break up the festivities. Such antics, often inspired by large amounts of liquor, were relatively harmless expressions of youthful exuberance—except in 1840 when a drunk student accidentally shot and killed Professor John S. Davis, who was trying to pacify a rowdy crowd of young men. Unlike previous student adventures on the Lawn, the young men who gathered during that March night did not want to be noticed; they surreptitiously carried the flag of the newly formed Southern Confederacy.They wanted the world to see the rebellious banner in the light of day, flying from the tallest building on campus so that anyone walking the streets of Charlottesville or standing on the hills of Albemarle County could see that young people desired the disunion of the United States.
When the morning sun revealed the flag, the students rushed out of their boardinghouses and gathered on the Lawn. The cheering grew so loud that one bystander thought it “sounded as if the Lunatic Asylum” had been relocated to campus. Professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe, one of the South’s leading intellectuals, stood in front of the young men and praised the symbolic meaning of the flag but suggested that they take it down. Bledsoe’s colleagues were less empathetic and demanded immediate removal of the flag. “Dr. [Socrates] Maupin and the rest of the Union Profs made them take it down tho’,” wrote one disgruntled student; “indeed all the Faculty disapproved of its being there.” As the flag came down, the students let out “three groans” of disapproval. Some made secessionist speeches, while a choir of young men began singing “Dixie.” The banner disappeared with the young men who retrieved it, only to fly again on nearby Carr’s Hill a few days later. By the end of March, smaller secessionist flags waved from all parts of the college, many on poles “50, 60, & 70 feet high.”
Student demonstrations in support of secession occurred not just in the Old Dominion but throughout the South, confirming the low opinion adults had of young men whose political acts were routinely dismissed as the consequence of immaturity and excessive emotionalism. It is curious that historians have not veered from this interpretation. Many scholars have explained secessionist activity among young people as evidence of a Southern romantic tradition that compels Southern men to feel rather than think. While emotion had an undeniable influence on how Southern men of all ages responded to the secession crisis, students also acted from a set of ideological beliefs and interests that were structured by their membership in a slaveholding society.
Young people who attended Southern universities were usually privileged members of the slaveholding class. It should come as no surprise, then, that these young men were deeply concerned about the future of slavery in a nation where the governing party—the Republicans—were devoted to stopping slavery’s westward extension. This controversial political issue energized a larger intellectual debate about sectional differences. The debate captivated students, but they did not blindly follow the fiery words of politicians or the sensationalized editorials of newspapermen. In Virginia, for example, college-age students launched a vigorous secessionist campaign that put them at odds with many of their elders, most of whom were conservative Unionists who argued that the Old Dominion should stay clear of the hotheaded secessionists of the Deep South.
The political activism of young people in Virginia and throughout the South can only be understood by looking at the convergence of emotion, politics and ideology. To do so is to recognize that young Southern men, while moved by emotional impulses, also thought long and hard about secession. The prospect of secession often resulted in an adrenaline rush—but it also demanded serious intellectual contemplation. Thinking and feeling were not incompatible. Young Southern men growing up in the 1850s expressed great love and reverence for the nation, and considered themselves as patriotic and devoted as any other group of Americans. So taking the step of discarding the Stars and Stripes for secessionist banners was not a careless act of youth but a calculated political act that reflected a profound shift in allegiances from the United States to the South. It also gave young people in Virginia and probably throughout the South an opportunity to break away from adult authority and claim for themselves their full status as men. Secession therefore created a dynamic in which young Virginians reaffirmed their commitment to slavery while calling into question the leadership and manliness of their parents’ generation.
When Lincoln’s election became a certainty at the beginning of November 1860, many young people broke with their elders and started to consider secession as a viable and necessary political alternative. It appears that party affiliation did not determine young Virginians’ stance on this question. They understood, perhaps with more clarity than their conservative elders, that power relations at the national level had radically changed with a Republican in the White House. No honorable way out of this political dilemma was possible, young Virginians concluded. Reluctantly, they embraced the idea of disunion and braced for the possibility of civil war. While sitting in his room at the University of Virginia, Richmonder William R.J. Pegram felt melancholy as he contemplated the nation’s future with Lincoln at the helm. He wrote: “On the one side we have a President, opposed to us in every way, and a vice-President, who is to preside over that August body, the Senate of the United States, a half-negro [body]; and the Germans for our masters; while on the other side, we have disunion, and the greatest of all evils, ‘a civil war’ staring us in the face.” “Isn’t this perfectly dreadful,” he added, in reference to the political situation. “This is not a mere Jno. Brown raid.”
A foreboding sense of doom overwhelmed Pegram, as it did many of his peers. These young men were not jubilant about the prospect of civil war, but resigned to what they considered to be an unavoidable reality. Pegram accepted disunion because he recognized that the Lincoln administration, despite its warm appeals for union, represented antislavery interests. Although Pegram’s family was not part of the planter class (his mother owned fewer than five slaves at their Richmond home), he still believed that he had a stake in the perpetuation of the institution. On this point Pegram enjoyed wide support from his peers, all of whom believed in the ethical, economic and political arrangements of slavery, the very basis of their opposition to the Republican Party.
Although it would be a mistake to generalize too much from the words of Pegram, his response reveals how many students could accept secession as a necessary option without suddenly becoming Southern radicals. In fact, a number of young men hoped for reconciliation while condemning the extremists during November and early December 1860. Friction dramatically increased between Deep South students and Virginians at the University of Virginia. “A word or two about that great meeting of the ‘Students,’” William G. Ridley of Southampton County sarcastically wrote on December 5. He bitterly complained about a gathering of 30 “‘fire-eating’ Georgia and ‘South-Carolina’ students” who published a resolution favoring secession and signed the document “in the name of the ‘Students of the University.’” Many “ridiculed [it] a great deal,” and even the “New-York Herald gave it several [curses].” In Ridley’s opinion, the resolution had backfired and actually smothered the secessionist spirit at the university. “At one time,” he noticed that “every man nearly that you could see about here had a ‘blue cockade’ stuck on his hat.” But since the proclamation he did not believe that Henry Wise, Virginia’s strongest backer of secession, would be welcomed to speak. Most of those wearing the blue cockade were from South Carolina and Alabama. A number of students from other states refused to follow this fashion trend when they discovered that the blue cockade had been made in the North.
Even though Ridley probably overstated his case, his observations reveal the lack of unanimity among Virginia’s youth at the beginning of the secession debate. Acrimonious discussions filled the dining areas, classrooms and residence halls at Virginia’s schools. A University of Virginia student overheard supporters of Southern Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge taunt admirers of Constitutional Unionist candidate John Bell: “You are a traitor to the South, and we’ll hang every one of you old Whigs.” Bell’s advocates replied: “You are a traitor to the South, the North & the whole country. We’ll hang every one [of] you disunionists.” Shortly after the election, a student from Tennessee remarked that both disunionists and moderate Bell men frequently used the word traitor when describing each other. “All of which seems to be taken in good part,” he added. Yet he could “tell…when not in each others’ company that they are in earnest about it.”
Despite the fierce rhetoric, cooler heads at first prevailed among most young Virginians. A challenge to their sense of honor did not immediately elicit a visceral response. Instead they would first see how political events unfolded before taking decisive action. Their patience with national politics, however, would prove short-lived. By the end of December, young Virginians started to campaign as a collective body for secession through school organizations, militia companies, newspapers and political gatherings. What occurred between Lincoln’s election and the final month of 1860 is critical to understanding this seismic shift in the outlook of young Virginians on secession. Unfortunately, the evidence is limited for this period, but it is possible that the antagonism between Virginians and Deep South students dissipated during those crucial three months, and that young people from that region gained influence over their moderate peers. It also appears that Lincoln’s failure to make immediate concessions to the South pushed many young Virginians into the secessionist camp. Since Lincoln had not officially assumed office, it is difficult to imagine what he could have possibly done to appease young people. Nonetheless, young Virginians had expected Republicans to demonstrate their good faith with the South by repealing personal liberty laws, enacting a stronger fugitive slave law and passing constitutional amendments protecting slavery in the states where it already existed and in the federal territories. When Lincoln refused to meet every Southern demand, these young men saw a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Many felt betrayed and angry, including an 18-year-old University of Virginia student from Richmond, Hodijah L. Meade, who had given up on the Republicans by December 1. “Are you not for Secession now after Vermont refused to repeal those Personal Liberty laws, & the Republican congressman manifest such an unyielding disposition?” he asked. “I am for it now, without any further attempts at a reconciliation.”
While a legitimate concern for slavery’s future united these young men behind the banner of disunion, it would be a mistake to see the ideological and political dimensions of slavery as the only source of political motivation. The insatiable desire for honor also pushed young Virginians to support secession. They saw their personal reputation as intimately connected to that of their state. When South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, triggering the withdrawal of the Deep South, young Virginians feared being left behind. They wanted their state to assume a leadership position in a new Southern nation. To miss this opportunity, these young men believed, was to surrender the Old Dominion’s position as the “mother of all the states.” Some of these students had imagined the South declaring its political sovereignty as one collective body. They wanted Virginia at the helm of the new nation in a role reminiscent of the state’s illustrious history in the American Revolution.
Edwin Taliaferro, for instance, felt betrayed by his state’s political class for preventing the Old Dominion from assuming its “natural” leadership role. Taliaferro had attended the University of Virginia and studied in Europe before accepting a professorship of modern languages at the College of William and Mary in 1858. There, he had organized secessionist activity among his students, most of whom were only a few years younger than he and who shared his belief that Virginians possessed the God-given right to rule others. Although other states could have rightfully claimed the revolutionary mantle, young Virginians believed they possessed the most direct link to the revolutionary generation. During the secessionist winter, Taliaferro complained that “Poor old Virginia” had lost “her influence, and her caste.” “It is a hard case for a State so long First in Councils of wisdom,” he added, “…to be now in her old age [and] in the hands of…temporizing, submissive, Politicians.” Significantly, Taliaferro used the language of age and submissiveness to create a revealing metaphor. Virginia, in his mind, had become decrepit and impoverished. The old fogies had allowed the state to decline, and now they were keeping the Old Dominion from becoming the leader of a dynamic Southern Confederacy. The implication was clear— a new class of rulers was needed, young, masculine and forward thinking, who could throw off the yoke of Yankee domination and transform Virginia into a vibrant leader of a new Southern nation.
Many young Virginians shared Taliaferro’s frustration with the state’s politicians. Their moment in history had arrived, and they would not allow their elders to block this singular opportunity to earn immortal fame. Personal ambition and a chance to earn reputation for themselves and their state converged with their ideological commitment to slavery. To bypass their stodgy fathers, they engaged in their own form of political protest with the intention of pushing the state toward secession. On January 12, 1861, in one of the first symbolic acts against their fathers’ generation, nearly 200 University of Virginia students burned in effigy General Winfield Scott, one of the state’s most famous sons, for suggesting coercion as a means to bring the Lower South states back into the Union. At a rally on campus, the students offered repeated cheers for Georgian secessionist Robert Toombs and the states that had already left the Union. Before the crowd dispersed, a card that read “Winfield Scott, Would-be Dictator and Despot” was placed over the effigy. “Hurrah for the U.V.!” exclaimed one young man, who said he believed that “the old rascal would have run from the boys” if he had been present. Once the effigy was fully consumed in flames, the students retired to their rooms, as one reported, “without manifesting their excitement by rioting—be it said to their credit.” This description creates the impression that the young men were orderly gentlemen, but it unfortunately diminishes the role of youthful exuberance. The demonstration against Scott clearly shows how ideology, political interest and emotion inspired political acts in support of secession. At the most fundamental level, the University of Virginia students came together to defend what they believed was the Deep South’s right to secede. Their sense of injustice took on an exaggerated form because of their antipathy toward the conservatism of the older generation. Scott became the symbolic old fogy standing in the way of young Virginians who sought authority and respect for themselves and their state in a new union of Southern states.
The students downplayed their emotional and vitriolic demonstration. Rather, they congratulated themselves for holding what they considered an orderly political demonstration. But the adult world considered the act a shameful display of irreverence and immaturity. The Staunton Spectator denounced the protest as “one of the most disrespectful and disgraceful proceedings which has ever occurred within this state.” The editor of the paper also condemned the Charlottesville Jeffersonian for overlooking the boys’ attacks on a native son who ranked second only to Washington in military fame. The Staunton Spectator demanded that the students involved be immediately expelled.
The university never disciplined the students, perhaps encouraging other young people to become more aggressive in their support of secession. By the time Texas left the Union on February 1, 1861, sentiment among the students at the University of Virginia had crystallized in favor of secession. Secessionist appeals were not confined to Charlottesville, however. One of the literary societies at Washington College voted 43-8 in favor of secession on Washington’s birthday. On the same day, cadets at the Virginia Military Institute reportedly offered strong disunion speeches. Young men who no longer lived on campus also supported a Southern Confederacy in overwhelming numbers by February.
Young people across the Old Dominion had high expectations when elected representatives of Virginia’s secession convention convened in Richmond on February 19. Instead of quickly passing Virginia’s secession ordinance, as young Virginians probably expected, the delegates engaged in lengthy debates, corresponded with the Deep South states and tried to compromise with Republican officials. The convention’s delegates reflected the conservative mood of older Virginians. Of the 152 delegates, fewer than 40 were open secessionists.
Frustration with Virginia’s convention boiled over after Lincoln’s inaugural address on March 4. The president’s words, although intended as conciliatory, extinguished what little Unionist feelings remained among young Virginians. Lincoln declared the right to control places and property belonging to the federal government. Because occupied garrisons in the Lower South could be returned only by force, many young Virginians interpreted his message not as coercion but as a virtual act of war. “How do you like Old Lincon’s [sic] inaugural address?” Richard H. Bagby of Randolph Macon College asked his father. “I think it is an open declaration of war against the South, and I think we ought to take it as such. I am for going out of the Union now.” A student at the University of Virginia reported that Lincoln’s inaugural produced a “tremendous sensation” on campus, adding, “The Virginia students have had a meeting in wh[ich] were made strong Secession speeches; and strong resolutions to the same effect were adopted unanimously.”
One week after Lincoln’s speech, Virginia students at the University of Virginia published a secessionist proclamation in newspapers across the state. This piece of evidence is extraordinarily important and a powerful testament to their organized support for secession. The Virginia students proclaimed “That we not only believe in the right of secession, but hold that the events of the last few months justify and demand the immediate exercise of this right.” No attempt was made to soften the words out of deference to age or experience. The students, in fact, defended their position as a prerogative of youth. They, rather than the older men who were currently deciding their fate in Richmond, would have to contend with the long-term effects of the Old Dominion staying in the Union. “We…have a right to be heard,” the students concluded. Such a bold public statement, they hoped, would “invoke young men of the state to hold meetings and give similar expression to their views upon the questions now agitating our people.” This published attack against Unionism also contained a powerful assault against adult authority, as the Virginia students called for youth solidarity to bring their state into the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s inaugural address, coupled with the plodding conservatism of Virginia’s secession convention, set off a wave of protests on Virginia’s campuses during March and April. In each of these demonstrations, Virginia students raised secession flags to symbolize their bold and unequivocal stand for Southern independence. In the month that preceded the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, students raised secession flags at William and Mary, the Virginia Military Institute, Roanoke College and Lynchburg College. Evidence suggests that young people at Emory and Henry, Randolph Macon and Hampden Sydney also agitated for disunion. The students at Washington College became the first to unfurl a secessionist flag, in a surreptitious ceremony that occurred in late December 1860. Although they were far ahead of their peers, the actions of Washington College students reveal the generational dynamic of flag raising ceremonies as simultaneous declarations against Unionism and adult authority. A participant in the flag incident at Washington College, Henry R. Morrison of Rockbridge County, explained to his sister that he and seven other young men had “put up a disunion flag on top of College. The flag was blue with one blood red star in the middle and DISUNION painted in large letters above it.” A few students threatened to pull it down, but Morrison and his band intimidated the Unionists by threatening “war” on anyone who disturbed the banner.
President of Washington College George Junkin, a committed Unionist, was infuriated by the act and demanded the flag’s removal. Anticipating retaliation from Junkin, the prosecession students had concealed the only ladders on campus. Replacements did not arrive from Lexington until the next day, leaving the symbol of disunion above the college overnight. When the banner was finally retrieved, Junkin planned to burn it in a public ceremony, but Morrison and his energetic crew managed to steal the flag back. Outraged, Junkin conducted a thorough inspection of the college, charging unannounced into students’ rooms and “squealing” for the flag that he never located. It seems that Morrison drew as much satisfaction from humiliating Junkin as he did from promoting the Southern cause.
Numerous flag raisings revealed that Virginia campuses were the epicenter of secessionism, and the tremors that emanated from the ivory towers shook young people into action across the state. Those who were outside the halls of academia expressed their political views in more conventional ways. They organized community meetings, wrote articles for local newspapers and spoke at public gatherings to push Virginians down the secessionist road. George W. Grimm turned himself into a walking billboard for disunion in his hometown of Winchester. “I wear the badge of secession on my left collar and am dressed in a full suit of Blue home manufactured cloth,” he boasted. “There are only two such suits in town,” he claimed, “and I assure you they attract a great deal of attention.” The use of clothing to express political ideas (as well as flag raisings and disrupting Unionists meetings) signifies how far removed young people were from the center of power.
The firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s subsequent call for troops convulsed the nation into civil war, but brought unity between young and old in Virginia and across the South. Sons and fathers suddenly stood together behind the Southern cause. In the Richmond Daily Dispatch, the student correspondent at the University of Virginia proclaimed that “Virginians, one and all…are determined that our rights shall be respected, or we will wipe the Black Republican Ape party from existence.” Although young people rejoiced over Virginia’s entrance into the Confederacy, some remained bitter about the state’s reluctant acceptance of secession. They believed that the passivity of Virginia’s politicians had forever tarnished the state. Richard H. Bagby wrote with disgust that “we Va the most powerful of the slave states, the mother of states” has been “kicked” out of the union. The state’s slow and tortuous road to disunion, according to Bagby, has “utterly disgraced herself in the eyes of all civilized nations and brought s[h]ame & reproch [sic] upon her own beloved sons & daughters.” He promised to redeem the “soil of our mother state” as should “every lover of liberty.” In a tacit reference to the atonement of Christ, he declared that only “our blood” will “atone for the inactivity & cowardice of our rulers.” The blood of Bagby’s peers, young men in the prime of life, would be spilled on battlefields across Virginia, paying for the political sins committed by generations of leaders since the nation’s founding.
This article is adapted from Peter S. Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005). He is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.