Virginia Civilians Make Hard Decisions
Decisions about war and peace, more dramatic than decisions about most political questions, involved all members of society and all members of every family. White women throughout Virginia closely followed the course of events during the secession crisis. One Richmond woman later wrote that "the women of Virginia, and especially of Richmond, began to play the important part in public affairs, which they sustained with unflinching energy during four years of sanguinary and devastating war. The hall of the Convention became their favorite place of resort and occasionally they engaged in political discussion before the assemblage of the members. Every prominent delegate had his own partisans among the fair sex. Every woman was to some extent a politician."
In March and April 1861, white women in Essex County, in Gloucester County, and in Petersburg published declarations in the newspapers urging other women to join them in pressing the Virginia Convention to secede. They and others like them argued that the honor of the state and the liberty of its white citizens could not be sustained in a nation with a Republican president who was critical of the Southern way of life based on slavery. The women of Essex County explained at length that they were following in the footsteps of their grandmothers of the American Revolution who had nobly and willingly sacrificed their pleasures and their husbands and fathers and sons for the defense of their liberties. The public arguments that the women made were very similar to the arguments that the men made, but the women recognized that the roles that they played in support of war were different from the roles that men played and would be demanding in special ways.
White women in all regions of Virginia expressed their views about the crisis and about the possibility of warfare. In northwestern Virginia and other communities where most of the men chose to defend the United States rather than join in fighting for the Confederate States, women expressed similar concerns and reacted to the possibility of war in much the same way as in the parts of Virginia where the men had chosen to fight for the South. Women took sides and expressed themselves in similar language when describing the sacrifices they were willing to make, the importance of preserving what they perceived as their legacy of the American Revolution, and their pride in the men of their families who were going off to war. As with the men, the differences among the women depended on which side they chose.
African Americans in Virginia also followed the events of the secession crisis, often with more attention than their white neighbors realized. Enslaved men and women ran away and sought freedom with United States Army officers even before those officers received official guidance about how to treat men, women, and children escaping from slavery into their custody. This process began as soon as it was clear that there was going to be a war. In several communities in Virginia, enslaved men were arrested, tried, and convicted of inciting an insurrection because they stated that they knew that a war was coming and that they were ready to fight in it for their freedom.