Chapman J. Stuart & the Secession Convention of 1861 - Part 1
This week’s article marks the first in a series that will more clearly define Chapman Johnson Stuart’s role in West Virginia’s unprecedented path to statehood. I featured Stuart in an earlier article entitled Historical Marker for Chapman Johnson Stuart, when a marker for him was placed at the foot of Blockhouse Hill. You can read that article at https://www.doddridgecountyheritageguild.com/judge-chapman-johnson-stuart.
I recently rediscovered an aspect of Stuart’s political career that leaves me in awe of the intellect of this eloquent patriot. On the eve of Virginia’s secession from the Union, Stuart stood in front of the Virginia Assembly demanding fair treatment for his Doddridge County constituents at the 1861 Secession Convention in Richmond. For western Virginia, the question of secession was less about slavery than about the same thing that sparked the Revolutionary War, taxation without representation.
A Little Background
Animosity between eastern and western Virginia had been growing since the early 1800s. Most of the state’s population resided east of the Allegheny Mountains, so western Virginia was not adequately represented in the Virginia Legislature. Delegates from the wealthier slaveholding counties of eastern Virginia dominated their Constitutional Conventions. As the populace gradually grew in western Virginia, those counties were granted a larger number of delegates at Convention. By 1850, eastern and western Virginia appeared to be working well together. However, Virginia was massively in debt because of misappropriation of funds and overspending on turnpikes, canals and railroads. Virginia needed to restructure its tax laws in order to pay off its debt. That’s when things again turned ugly between the east and west.
At the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851, delegates from western Virginia were outraged at the new tax laws that benefited the eastern Virginia slaveholders. The part of the Constitution that they were forced to accept stated: “Every slave who has attained the age of twelve years shall be assessed with a tax equal to and not exceeding that assessed on land of the value of three hundred dollars. Slaves under that age shall not be subject to taxation; ...”
Under this law, the wealthy eastern slave owners were not required to pay taxes on slaves under the age of 12, and the taxable value of slaves over 12 was capped at $300, regardless of their higher market and production value. In the meantime, the non-slaveholding citizens of agrarian western Virginia were required to pay full taxes on all that they possessed. This injustice would eventually come back to haunt Virginia.
Question of Secession
On February 13, 1861, Virginia delegates met in Richmond to debate whether they wanted to take the drastic step of seceding from the Union. West Union’s Chapman Johnson Stuart was there representing Doddridge and Tyler counties, but his words no doubt reflected the thoughts of most of western Virginia. I want to share those eloquent words with you, words that not only illustrate the power of Stuart’s oratory, but also bring into focus the political differences that ultimately led to the formation of our state. The following excerpts are from transcripts of the 1861 Secession Convention, where Chapman J. Stuart spoke passionately and at great length against Virginia’s looming secession from the Union.
April 2, 1861
Mr. STUART, of Doddridge—
“...I desire to say to the gentlemen from Eastern Virginia, upon this floor, that I do not think they have been talked to on this floor quite as plainly as they ought to, on this question, and not quite as plainly as I will talk to them. I think it is my duty to speak to them plainly. I know exactly the feelings of Western Virginia upon this subject, and if gentlemen here will listen to me for a few minutes tomorrow morning, in the remarks that I shall make in all kindness to everyone, they will understand precisely the position occupied by us in the West.
“A crisis has arisen in which it may be necessary that the people of the State should be united, and should act harmoniously. We ought to be united. We ought to be harmonious. We ought to be one in interest and one in determination. I hope gentlemen from the East will listen to what we have to say and I am sure they will concede to us our rights. ...
“...I am not one of those who are disposed to fold their arms and say that all is peace and quiet; that the interest and honor of Virginia are in no danger. No, sir, I look upon the present aspect of affairs as threatening and perilous. If the ship of State can be steered clear of the breakers that surround us in the impending storm that is hanging over us, in dark and portending clouds, I for one shall rejoice. I cannot fail to see that there are many dangers and breakers ahead, and it is to avert these things that we are now convened in this Convention. I say that I am not one of those who are in favor of standing still and saying all is well — all is peace. I believe that we are on the verge of a civil war that will be forced upon the people of Virginia, unless by wise and prudent counsels it may be averted.
“Entertaining these views and sentiments, I hold that it is our first duty to make all right within our own borders; seek to heal all and every dissension among our own people, bind ourselves together as a band of brothers, and come up to the work as a united people with one object and purpose. We can read from very good authority that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Although we may differ as to the mode and manner of redressing our national difficulties, we still concur in the fact that the institutions and rights of Virginia have been invaded by Northern free States, and that it is our duty and our right to ask at their hands a remedy against these evils complained of, and we of the Northwest are willing to unite with our Eastern brethren in asking and demanding relief against these wrongs.”
Quoting the Masters
I find Stuart’s invoking of Lincoln’s 1858 “house divided” quote interesting in this context. While Lincoln was talking about national divisions between North and South, Stuart was referring to the same problem at the state level between East and West. Even more interesting is that he attributes it to a “very good authority,” a risky characterization given that Lincoln was decidedly unpopular in eastern Virginia.
Stuart’s use of the phrase “band of brothers” also caught my attention, since I recognized it only from the 2001 HBO WW2 mini-series and the 1992 book it was based on. But the well-read Chapman J. Stuart knew that his equally educated audience at the Virginia convention would recognize it as a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” when the title character was rallying his outnumbered British troops against the French: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother ... "
Slavery a Divisive Issue
As Stuart continued his speech, he enlightened the attendees about the attitudes of his constituents toward the divisive issue of slavery. He essentially said that although the people of western Virginia “have no direct interest in it,” they have nonetheless supported Virginia’s right to practice it. In keeping with the formality of his speech, he occasionally directed his words directly to the president of the convention.
“...Why, Mr. President, can the history of the world show a people who have been more loyal and true to the institutions of their State than the people of Western Virginia have been, and especially to the institution of slavery? They have for many years stood up for the institution and rights of slavery, when that very institution has been made to bear most oppressively upon the interest and rights of the Western portion of the State. Still you have always found them at their post. And, now, when this institution is not only made the means by which we are ranged, but when it is conceded that it is the direct cause of all present national difficulties, and when it is remembered that we have no direct interest in it, and yet, under all these circumstances, you find us at our posts ready to do battle for it, and to risk even the destruction of our National Government in demanding its protection for you. Can it be possible that any man can be so lost to a sense of justice as to again bring that charge against us?”
The Heart of the Matter
Having stated western Virginia’s position on slavery, Stuart was not content to let it go at that. He felt compelled to point out the unfairness of eastern Virginia demanding and receiving western Virginia’s support, while giving the westerners nothing in return.
“Let me say to you, Mr. President, that the people of Western Virginia are as disinterested, brave and true hearted a people as ever stood upon this green earth. I may assert it, that the people of Western Virginia are true to the institution of slavery from principle, whilst I might bring the charge against you of the East that your loyalty to it is prompted upon interested motives. Yes, gentlemen, of the East, it is interest that now makes you ready to rise in rebellion against your Government, the interest you have in the protection of slavery, while we of the West are advancing solely upon principle, and the wish to secure to you your rights. Standing forth in this attitude, will you not mete out to us even-handed justice? Or will you pursue a course that must alienate us from you?
“How do you reconcile to yourselves the fact that you are calling upon us to come to your rescue; even to help you to destroy our Government; a government that is endeared to us by many sacred ties, and under which we have enjoyed rights and privileges which no other people ever enjoyed; a Government, too, under which we have prospered as no other people ever have? Still to secure your rights, and to prevent injuries which you say may ensue, you ask us to cut loose from the General Government, and run the risk of a war and conflict with our sister States, not only our sister States, but truly in the limits of which our fathers, brothers and sisters are. All this for fear a wrong may be done you. And yet you are not willing to redress positive and grievous wrongs to your brethren in the same State, and those wrongs inflicted by your own hands. You appear ready to sacrifice your all in struggling for your rights against your alleged injuries, and not willing to come forward and redress our injuries, which are much more apparent and flagrant than your own. We do not ask you to fight for our complaints. It needs no armament or State equipment to secure justice and equality to your western brethren. All that it requires at your hands, is 'to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' "
The Two Virginias
As Stuart continued speaking, the differences between eastern and western Virginia became more and more clear. He painted a picture not just of different attitudes toward slavery, but also of different economies, different levels of wealth, and different people borne of their different histories. Yet he also worried that an influx of Yankees would result in Virginia soon being “abolitionized” and robbed of its pride, glory and spirit.
Stuart was well-qualified to speak on the subject. Born into a prominent family in Highland County, Virginia in 1820, he came with his parents to Harrison County four years later. But he maintained ties to his birthplace even as he was establishing himself in the newly created Doddridge County, where his oldest child was born in 1846. By the time of the 1860 Census, Chapman J. Stuart was a wealthy lawyer and farmer, with real estate valued at $8,600 and a personal estate of $3,220. He was also a slaveholder, having at the time two black female slaves, ages 22 and 10.
“The gentleman from Richmond city [Mr. RANDOLPH], in arguing another question — the question of protection said that we of the West were poor, not in an offensive sense but argued that we were made so from the operations of the Federal Government; that if it had not been for the operations of the General Government in giving large protection to the New England manufactories, thereby building up a strong power with which Virginia could not compete, that we might have been a large manufacturing people, and, as a consequence, would now be enjoying opulence and wealth. True, we are poor; but made so, in my opinion, more from the operations of the Government of Virginia and its unfriendly bearing to us, than by the Federal Government.
“But still, Mr. President, I might be permitted to inquire of that gentleman and of this Convention, where can you find a people who have advanced more in prosperity, population and in material wealth than the people of Western Virginia? It surely cannot be found in any other portion of Virginia. It will be recollected that trans-Allegheny, fifty years ago, was an almost unbroken wilderness. The emigration to that portion of Virginia commenced scarcely half a century ago, and yet, sir, those hardy pioneers have felled the sturdy oak, and in that short period of time, unaided, and as I think, oppressed by their Eastern brethren, have emerged from the wilderness and present a prosperous and happy people, counting their hundreds of thousands, and still advancing with an increase heretofore unknown to Virginia.
“But, Mr. President, while alluding to the remarks of the gentleman from Richmond, permit me to say that I love the institutions of Virginia. I love the Virginia gentlemen, their broad fields and large domain. It is here that the love of freedom is inspired and liberty can be proclaimed. I do not want to see our Virginia habits pass away. I do not want to see Virginia sundered from the manufacturing States, and protection between them and us, for the purpose of building up corporations and moneyed aristocracies. In that way, Mr. President, you would invite Yankee emigration to Virginia, and in less than 20 years, Virginia would be completely abolitionized. Then, sir, all the pride and glory of Virginia will be swallowed up, and our boasted superiority will have fled and it will be Virginia in name, and not in spirit.”
Next week I’ll continue with Chapman Johnson Stuart’s lengthy and impassioned speech to the Virginia Assembly. It’s important to remember that Stuart was born into a wealthy eastern Virginia slaveholding family. The Stuarts had settled on the Cowpasture River in Highland County, Virginia several years prior to the Revolutionary War. When his first wife died in 1855 in West Union, Stuart returned to Highland County to find another bride. I believe Chapman J. Stuart closely identified with eastern Virginia, but that did not stop him from fighting for the rights and interests of western Virginia, which happened to include his home in Doddridge County.
Chapman J. Stuart & the Virginia Secession Convention 1861 - Part 2
We continue now with Chapman Johnson Stuart’s impassioned speech to the Virginia Assembly just days before Virginia’s secession from the United States in 1861. I recognize that the text of his speech is not light reading, but I feel it’s important that his compelling words appear in these pages where they can be read and appreciated by you in the 21st Century and by researchers in the future. The message that Stuart delivered in Richmond cut to the heart of the issues that led to the western counties breaking away from Virginia and ultimately resulted in the creation of the state of West Virginia. We can be proud that a Doddridge Countian played such a prominent role in that historic process, especially since he emphasized that his positions reflected the will of his constituents.
Representing the counties of Doddridge and Tyler, Stuart was adamant that his constituents were essentially indifferent to the institution of slavery, but would side with the Union if the Virginia law allowing reduced taxation of slaves was left intact. Stuart was among several Western Virginia delegates, including Waitman T. Willey, John S. Carlile and George W. Summers, who used the secession convention to address the slave tax issue.
On April 2-4, 1861 Stuart addressed the Assembly on the unfairness of the tax cap paid on slaves over the age of 12, and no tax at all on those under 12. He also complained about the insufficient number of delegates from Western Virginia at Constitutional Conventions. The tax structure greatly favored the wealthy eastern counties with their largely slave-based economy, with the poorer western counties paying disproportionately more in taxes.
Taxation, Unequal Representation
Stuart used census records to prove that 72% of Virginia’s population growth from 1850 to 1861 occurred in the western portion of the state. Given their relative populations, Stuart insisted that western counties should be granted at least ten additional delegates.
“I desire now to bring myself down to the question under discussion. ... If you are not willing to give us equal taxation and representation... we have a right, under any circumstances, to demand of you the representation we are entitled to under the bases you forced upon us. You will discover that in 1850 the white population of Virginia was 895,000; at the present time, as shown by the census report, the white population of Virginia is 1,047,000, showing an increase of 152,000 white inhabitants. Of this increase, 109,000 are in Western Virginia. Taking the present population of the State and the basis of representation established by you in 1850-51, and it will be found that we in the West will now be entitled to 23 representatives over the Eastern portion of the State, instead of the 13 at present given to us. We are entitled to ten more representatives in the Lower House, and are now entitled to them on this floor, and they almost exclusively to Trans-Allegheny. And have we not, I appeal to you, a right at least to ask at your hands this small boon that is due us according to your own showing?"
Slavery Was an Issue
I’ve heard the argument that the Civil War was not really about slavery, but the words of Chapman Johnson Stuart indicate that slavery was indeed a major issue for Eastern Virginia. He stated in so many words that Virginia’s imminent secession from the Union was “because the institution of slavery is endangered …” But his constituents, he said, "have no interest in slavery” and were not interested in “an untried experiment” of secession.
“… Let me say to my Eastern friends that now is the time to come forward, and offer to the West her rights. Advance with the olive branch in your hands and harmonize the people of the State. Unite the people of the East and West as one band of brothers ready on all occasions to fight to the death for each other's interests. You who want us to pass an ordinance of secession, ask us to go home to our people and convince them that it is [in] their interest to leave the Union, and cut asunder from the general government. Our people will be very apt to take a common sense view of this subject. They will ask us for what reason are they called upon to do this thing? We will have to answer, that it is because the institution of slavery is endangered by the encroachments of our sister free States in this Confederacy; but their reply would be that they have no interest in slavery, and that they should not be called upon for that reason to launch forth in an untried experiment. We would then have to reply, that it is true, they had no direct interest in the question of slavery, but that our State and our Eastern brethren have a large and vital interest in it, and that it was to our interest to protect the interest of slavery in the State. We would then have to cast about us for arguments and reasons for this hypothesis.
“I suppose that the only reason that could be offered would be the one pressed upon the consideration of this Convention by the argument of the gentleman from Culpeper [Mr BARBOUR], the other day, and that was, that it was the interest and policy of the Western portion of this State to make slavery valuable for in that way it would pay more into the public treasury in the shape of taxes and thereby help to meet our large State debt. This argument however, will not hold good, and will not bear an investigation by our Western people. Under our present organic law, which you refused to change, your slave cannot be taxed higher than you tax $300 dollars worth of our land, and if we help you to dissolve our connection with the Union, and thereby make your slave, which is worth now $1,000, worth then $2,000, still it will not add one cent to the taxes, or help us to pay our large and increasing public debt. We are willing to stand forth in vindication of your rights, as we have always done heretofore, but we will with the same spirit insist and demand our rights at your hands. Your property must be taxed in proportion as our cows and horses are taxed. Our people know how to demand their rights as well as to protect yours. We are no Submissionists…
Demands Constituents’ Rights
"… My District is on the extreme Western border of the State, washed by the beautiful Ohio river; we stand there on the Eastern shore of our beautiful river, looking across into our mighty and powerful neighbor State, saying to her and all others whom it may concern, that we and our friends in Virginia together with all others, have our guaranteed constitutional rights, and for the vindication of these rights we are willing and will make any sacrifice. Never for one moment would we entertain the idea that we would prove recreant to the interest of our Eastern brethren. But, Mr. President, we can right about face, and with the same determined purpose demand our rights under our State Government. We are not submissionists in either sense, nor do we ever intend to be. I stand here, at this moment, demanding, in the name of my constituents, their rights at the hands of this Convention, and I do not want to be offensive when I say, we intend to have them. We are compelled, in arguing this question, to anticipate your objections. You do not appear to be disposed to meet us in arguing the subject. Do you contend that we have nothing to complain of? I would not be afraid to go before any jury of men in the civilized world, with the
evidence I could bring to bear against you, and obtain a verdict from their hands, that we have many wrongs which we can trace back to you. …"
More Unfair Taxation
At this point, Stuart returned to the disparity in taxation between the wealthy slave-holding counties of Eastern Virginia and his own region in the agrarian western counties. He complained that while the West’s “land, cattle and horses” were fully taxed, the East was more lightly taxed on their slaves, whom Stuart referred to as their “peculiar property.”
“Let it be remembered that our State is vastly in debt, to the amount of 40 million dollars. That our people are borne down with grievous and burthensome taxation, which, when collected, is barely sufficient to pay the interest on our State debt. Then consider the large additional expense now accruing to our State, and the large appropriation just made a few days ago, and then enquire for what is all this for? The answer will have to be that it is for the protection of slave property. … at least $2,000,000 additional debt, incurred in the last sixteen months, to protect your peculiar property; and yet you are not willing to let that property be taxed the same as our land, cattle and horses which give you no trouble and incur no expense to you. …
“By an examination into the revenue of our State and the appropriations made to the different localities of the State, it will be found that the Northwest will pay into the State treasury in five years every dollar that we have received from the treasury; and, after having done this, we are still to be oppressed and burthened with taxation to pay debts that have been contracted to build up improvements in your part of the State and to protect your negroes, and still you are not willing that the slaveholder shall bear his equal part of the burthens. ...
“… I say that there has been millions upon millions of dollars expended in the State, for improvements in which the Eastern portion of the State has been mostly interested, and now that our State is about to be bankrupted by your extravagant appropriations, for the purpose of building up your improvements, I maintain that it is our right to demand that you shall, at least, permit your property to be taxed as ours is taxed, to help to maintain the credit of our State. Is it not apparent to the most casual observer that the State of Virginia, unless something is done, must eventually repudiate her debt? … A fine field for Yankee speculation, if they were not afraid that we would never pay them."
Financial Consequence of Secession
Stuart goes on to point out the financial repercussions from severing ties with the northern and western free states. In 1853 the Virginia Assembly passed legislation for the construction of the Covington & Ohio Railroad, which would link eastern Virginia with the Ohio River. Virginia appropriated millions of dollars for the project that would eventually allow them to export their agricultural products to be sold in the northern and western markets. The cost of the project would be recouped from those sales. Stuart pointed out the folly of going to war against the very states that they needed to do business with.
“And may I be permitted to ask of you, gentlemen, who are for secession, what is to become of this great State improvement if your policy is to be carried out? I have always labored under the impression that the millions of dollars that have been appropriated to this improvement, looked to its ultimate completion, and through it open up a great trade with the Western States — the very States that you want to cut loose from, and build up a protective system that will prohibit the trade you expected to support the road and build up your cities.
“But more particularly to the question: it seems to me that you are willing to legislate in any way, so it does not tax your little negroes. And as I before remarked, we have to anticipate your objections. I suppose that your apology is that they are unprofitable until they arrive at that age. Let us compare notes and see how this affects the Western poor man, who pushes out into the wilderness and buys himself 100 acres of land for $100, takes his deed for the land, and you charge up the tax against him. When in its native state it is of no value towards supporting his little family, but absolutely requires years of toil and labor to bring it into value; and the very moment he erects a little house upon it to shelter him and his from the storm, you put the increased valuation on it and make him pay the additional tax before he has been enabled to realize one dollar, but which requires many years of most unremitting industry to subdue and bring into a state of cultivation. Many a noble and brave heart has sunk under the effort. But you were always ready to tax the very sweat of his face in his effort to bring into value your wild lands, while your little negroes were running around with a convertible value all the time, and growing in value most rapidly.
“By what mode of reasoning can it be justified, that the man of wealth who can afford to own slaves, and one of them under the age of twelve years and exempt from taxation, but still worth to the master more than the entire estate of his poor neighbor, yet that poor neighbor's cow may be exposed to sale by the sheriff to pay the tax that has been levied on his little all for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the Government in defending the property of the rich man against the abolitionists of the North? It is indefensible, and such an open violation and invasion upon the rights of freemen as should not be tolerated one day longer than an opportunity offers itself that it may be corrected. That opportunity is afforded you now to do, and give unto us of the West our rights as attaches to all freemen.”
Crack of Our Western Rifles
Despite Western Virginia’s unfair treatment at the hands of the Richmond government, Chapman Johnson Stuart declared that his western counties were still prepared to take up arms in support of Eastern Virginia against their “advancing enemies.”
“We are willing to demand and aid in securing to you your rights from your sister States. We stand as a barrier between you and your advancing enemies. Should a John Brown invade the territory of the little counties of Doddridge and Tyler, with five hundred followers, with a view of making war upon your institutions, much less a dozen with a few negroes, the crack of our Western rifles would be heard, and, I predict, that not one would be left to be guarded and hung by due course of law.”
Next week I’ll share more of Chapman Johnson Stuart’s contributions to the 1861 Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond. Those contributions were not without a personal struggle to reach the right decision about secession, but he made it clear that his position would reflect the wishes of his constituents in Tyler and Doddridge counties.
Chapman J. Stuart & the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861 - Part 3
This marks the final installment of my 3-part series focusing on Chapman Johnson Stuart’s heartfelt and compelling speeches at the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861 in Richmond. As a delegate representing Doddridge and Tyler counties, Stuart informed the Virginia General Assembly that his constituents in Western Virginia would unite with the Federal Government if Virginia seceded without revising certain tax laws concerning slaves.
The Secession Convention started in February 1861. On April 4th, the delegates voted against secession, but the convention opted to stay in session to see how the ongoing political turmoil played out. After the initial vote, delegates were given the opportunity to defend their position. Stuart’s speech that I have been sharing with you was given during the first week of April 1861.
Slave Tax Unacceptable
The following excerpts are from the Virginia Constitution as it read at the time of Stuart’s speech. But Stuart took strong exception to certain parts of it and wanted changes made. The underlined words are those that he wanted removed from the Constitution:
"Taxation shall be equal and uniform throughout the Commonwealth, and all property other than slaves shall be taxed in proportion to its value, which shall be ascertained in such manner as may be prescribed by law."
“Every slave who has attained the age of twelve years shall be assessed with a tax equal to and not exceeding that assessed on land of the value of three hundred dollars. Slaves under that age shall not be subject to taxation;...”
Mincing no words, Stuart went on to explain:
“Let me say to you in all candor and sincerity, until this thing is done by our Eastern friends, you might as well undertake to remove the Allegheny mountains from their base, as to undertake to induce the people of the Northwest, for present causes, to secede from the Union.
“... are you afraid to trust us with our rights! Would you not have every security when the Constitution would say that property should be taxed according to its value? Have we of the West not always stood as the guardians of the treasury? Have we not always opposed those large appropriations which are now bringing ruin and bankruptcy upon our State? Trust us with the power, and if we do not show another state of affairs, I will be willing to forfeit my right of citizenship.”
Revolution Rather than Secession
Stuart then informed the Assembly that he did not agree with the right of secession. Instead he believed in the right of revolution. However, he saw no justification for either if Virginia did not bring about the changes he was demanding. In other words, if Western Virginia agreed to sever ties with the United States but Virginia still did not change its tax laws, then what good would secession do for the people of Western Virginia?
“...I desire to be understood that we are not in favor of the doctrine of the Constitutional right of secession. We believe in the right of revolution. We believe that when our Constitution has been perverted to our injury and oppression, we have the right to throw off the shackles, and appeal to our natural rights. But revolution pre-supposes, in my opinion, a remedy; and, if the fact of dissevering ourselves from the Federal Government would be a remedy for the evils of which we complain, then we would be in favor of it. But I cannot see, for my life, how, under present circumstances, secession or revolution would be a remedy for the evils complained of. ..."
Western Virginia Sides with Union
Stuart’s argument against secession was a practical one, asserting that secession would only make matters worse. Astoundingly, he stated that Western Virginia was supportive of slavery, finding it legally and morally right, but that “the whole civilized world” was against it.
“They [Northern free states] appeal to us to come to their rescue and help them to save the Union. They have fought for us in days gone by, and now they appeal to our brotherly feeling to come to their aid and to save the Union. If we pursue the course indicated here by the secessionist party, we will cut ourselves loose from our friends in the free States, and array them against us. The whole civilized world will then be arrayed, by our action, against the institution of slavery. ...
“The people of my district are in favor of contending for their rights in the Union. … We all stand up as one solid mass of people to contend and fight for our rights in the Union. We believe that secession, instead of being a remedy for the evils complained of, would be an aggravation of those evils. The great question that has given rise to complaint is the slavery question. And I have told you that although we have no direct interest in that question, we were loyal and true to the interests of the people of the eastern portion of the State. … We take the position that slavery is right, legally, morally, and in every sense of the word. But the Convention will recollect that the sentiment of the whole civilized world, at this day, is arrayed against the institution of slavery, …”
The War Begins
On April 12, 1861, while the Virginia Secession Convention was still in session, Confederate artillery batteries launched a prolonged attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The next day the U.S. Army surrendered the small coastal fort to the Southern Army. On April 15th, President Lincoln issued a proclamation asking state militias to supply 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.
On April 16th the Virginia Convention went into Secret Session to once again debate the question of secession, this time away from the prying eyes of the media and public. An Ordinance of Immediate Secession was proposed by William Ballard Preston from Montgomery County. Each delegate was then given an allotted amount of time to state his position and plead his case to the Assembly.
Also in the Secret Session, Fauquier County’s Robert Scott presented an alternative to the Ordinance of Immediate Secession. He proposed a referendum that gave delegates a choice between secession or consultation with the other slave states bordering the Union. Scott’s approach was to give delegates a middle-of-the-road approach, instead of siding with either of the two extreme factions.
Stuart’s Secret Session Speech
Based on Stuart’s speech on April 17, 1861, the second day of Secret Session, I believe that he supported Scott’s moderate approach. He started by emphasizing that his vote regarding secession would reflect the will of his constituents, as well as his own conscience. He also rebutted criticism that delegates from Western Virginia were not true Virginians. Chapman Johnson Stuart was born into a prominent family in Highland County, Virginia, moving to Harrison County as a child. But he maintained ties to Eastern Virginia and considered himself to be a true Virginian and patriotic American, while remaining loyal to Western Virginia.
“... I believe that I have represented the wishes of my constituents, and in the vote that I am now about to cast I am still of the opinion that I represent the interests and views of my people. If I were not convinced that I represented the feelings of my people, I would this moment resign my seat in this body. No earthly power could induce me to cast a vote of this magnitude against my sentiments and convictions of right, nor would I cast it against the views and will of my constituents.
“We were appealed to by the gentleman from Pittsylvania to know who we were - were we Western Virginians and not Virginians! Let me say to that gentleman that I am a Virginian. My great ancestor sought refuge in Virginia from foreign bondage and oppression. My grand ancestor fought through the Revolutionary War as a Virginian. My father fought through the War of 1812, and I, Mr. President, stand here today a Virginian - a direct lineal descendant from Revolutionary stock - ready and willing to live or die for my country, as her necessities may require. Through these veins courses blood that never shrank from danger when country was imperiled. Under the flag of my country, I am ready to march to victory or to death. But, Mr. President, I must know that it is for my country that I fight. I am not willing to bring on my little family and defenceless countrymen the battles of a people whose conduct and course of action towards us I have always condemned."
Opposes “indecent haste”
Stuart saw no need to take an immediate vote on secession. Even if passed, it would still have to be presented to the people for ratification forty days later. He argued in vain for the Convention to allow a couple more days for discussion before holding the vote.
“I am now called upon to pass upon a question of more vital importance to the people of Virginia than has ever been before any of her deliberative bodies during her existence as a sovereign State; and that, too, with closed doors and with indecent haste. ...
“...This ordinance of secession is to be hurried through this body; a revolutionary spirit is to be aroused, and the action of the people of Virginia is to be anticipated. The property within the limits of Virginia, belonging to the Federal Government, is to be seized. Hostile collision is to be induced by that act between the people of Virginia and the General Government. War is to be inaugurated here, without consulting the people. The purposes and objects for which we were delegated here will have been subverted by our own acts. Our mission here, as I understood it, was to deliberate and consult together for the interests of the Commonwealth, and to submit our action to the people for their adoption or rejection. What matters an Ordinance of Secession after we have brought upon our people open war with the General Government - the very thing we were sent here to prevent? Peace was our mission. The people reserved to themselves the right to say whether we should have war or peace. … Will not the members of this Convention hesitate before they recommend such a course? If you will not, let me warn you, that your unwarranted usurpation of power will arouse a spirit of resistance in Virginia, that you are not now prepared to realize.
“Mr. President, time fails me. I represent a people lying on the extreme border of the State. We can look across the beautiful Ohio, and converse with our sisters and brothers. In the name of every thing that is sacred, are we to be put in mortal array against each other without one last and final appeal to our brothers for reconciliation? Secession is war -- war in its most fearful and desolating aspect. ...
"I came here with the determination of demanding the rights of Virginia and taking nothing less. Every vote that I have cast in this Convention has looked to that object. But I for one, am not willing that Lincoln or any one man shall destroy this Government. I want to make an appeal to the people. Is it possible that a few ambitious reckless men will be permitted to destroy the fairest Government that was ever constructed by mortal man, and the people in their majesty and power not come to the rescue? God in his mercy forbid! Time is up, I am done.”
When Robert Scott's proposal for a moderate approach was put to a vote, it lost 77 to 64. The proposal for immediate secession passed, 88 to 55.
Stuart Returns to Doddridge
While many of the delegates from Western Virginia boarded a train and returned to their homes on the night of April 17th, Stuart remained in Richmond and made an appearance at the Convention the following morning. He asked the Assembly if he was released from his vow of secrecy concerning the deliberations and outcome of the Secret Session.
“I received a letter from my family this morning imperatively demanding my presence at home, and I desire to know whether on my return home, I shall be permitted to communicate to my constituents, who will flock around me on my return to ascertain the news, what has transpired here? ...So difficult of access is it, that a large number of my people were not aware that the election for this Convention had taken place at all.”
Released from his vow of secrecy, Chapman Johnson Stuart returned home to West Union. But he was not willing to quietly sit by and let Western Virginia be dragged into secession. He immediately went to work convincing other counties in Western Virginia to adhere to the Union. He even managed to convince many of the residents of neighboring Ritchie County, whose Delegate Cyrus Hall had voted for secession on April 17th, to stay loyal to the Union. The following item, submitted by a Ritchie County correspondent identified only as C.H.D., appeared in the May 9, 1861 issue of The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer:
“When I wrote you a few days since, I told you that I thought the Union men would be beaten, but since that time our general muster for this Regiment (the 170th) came off, and, as a matter of course, nearly every voter in the county was in town, and after being informed of the proceedings of the Convention by C. J. Stuart, Esq., the Delegate from tbe adjoining county of Doddridge, there was a most complete revolution in sentiment that I ever saw in my life, and I now have the pleasure of informing you that we will carry this county for the Union by at least 400 majority.”
Chapman J. Stuart went on to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 14th W.Va. Infantry. Following the war, he resumed his occupation of lawyer, serving also as Doddridge County prosecutor and judge. He died of Bright’s disease in West Union on April 20, 1888, age 68, and is buried in the Old SDB section of Blockhouse Hill Cemetery.
Without question, Chapman Johnson Stuart was an honorable and extraordinary man of great intellect. As Doddridge County’s delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, those traits were on prominent display, largely through the words of his compelling oratory. Doddridge County and all of West Virginia have much to thank him for.
But we haven't heard the last of Chapman Johnson Stuart. For whatever reason, Stuart was not elected as a Delegate for Doddridge County to the First Wheeling Convention in May 1861. However, identified as “Chapman J. Stewart, senator” from Harrison County, he was in attendance at the Second Wheeling Convention in June 1861. The August 15, 1861 issue of The Wheeling Intelligencer describes a “War Meeting” at Clarksburg where Waitman T. Willey and Chapman Johnson Stuart were featured speakers. One portion of the article reads,
"Hon. Chapman J. Stewart [sic], of West Union, followed in a brief speech, tart and well put. He appealed to the volunteers to come forward without delay. A good portion of his remarks were devoted to a scathing review of Mr. Carlile's delinquencies and inconsistencies, which he showed up with his accustomed sarcasm and vigor."
Bad-mouthing John S. Carlile, darling of West Virginia statehood? Oh yes, I have more research to do!