P. Douglas Perks- Jefferson County, Va. late 1850s – Clouds of War

770 words


P. Douglas Peerks

P. Douglas Perks- Jefferson County, Va. late 1850s – Clouds of War 7:17

Sometimes I think the assumption is that the American Civil War started and Virginia was automatically a confederate state and that’s not quite how it happened. So what I’d like to do is to look a little bit at how this unrolled here in Jefferson County, Virginia, and remember in the spring of 1861, Jefferson County was still part of Virginia. That change had not occurred yet. So let’s look first a little bit about what Jefferson County all about.

In the census of 1860, Jefferson County was populated with 14,535 people. Interestingly, when you compare 1860 to 1850, that’s a slight decline in 1850. There are 15,357 souls. So that’s a decline of about four percent. You can break that down a little further. There are 10,054 white citizens in Jefferson County in 1860, 3,960 enslaved people in Jefferson County in 1860 and 511 free blacks and each of those represents a decline as compared to 1850. Overall, the decline of population is four percent. The biggest change from 1850 to the 1860 census is in the enslaved population. In 1850 there are 4,341 enslaved individuals and that number dropped by nine percent to 3,960 in 1860. Although there is some industry – certainly the industry at Harpers Ferry is significant to the economy of Jefferson County, but Jefferson County, Virginia in 1860 is an agricultural county. As a matter of fact, we are, at that point, the number one wheat producer in the state of Virginia. There are a little over 460 farms in Jefferson County, the majority of them – 356 of them which is about 80 percent – are small farms, around four or 500 acres. So, at the start of the American Civil War, Jefferson County is a is rural county of about 15,000 people. Roughly 70 percent of the population is white; roughly 27 percent enslaved and that’s where we are when all of this gets started. The first thing you really need to do – and this gives you an indication of just how divided the state must have been – is to look at the presidential election of 1860. This election of course is noteworthy because of the fact that there are four candidates the democratic party is split north and south uh the republican party has a candidate and there’s also another candidate that is providing yet another option: the Constitutional Union party. So John Bell, John Breckenridge, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln are campaigning to see who will be president in Jefferson County.

John Bell
Stephen Douglas
John C. Breckinridge
Abraham Lincoln

4:11 Overwhelmingly, John Bell and the Constitutional Union party won. The vote out of a total vote of 1857 John Bell got 959 votes which is 52 per cent. Now 52, of course, is just a little over a majority. But you see that John Breckenridge got 458 votes and Stephen Douglas got 440. Abraham Lincoln got no votes in Jefferson County. Compared to the surrounding counties – Berkeley, Hardy, Loudoun, Morgan – all supported John Bell; whereas Clark, Frederick and Hampshire supported John Breckenridge.

5:04 Interestingly, the only county in our neck of the woods who gave Lincoln any votes was Loudoun in the state of Virginia. There was the slimmest, slimmest victory for John Bell. John Bell had 74,481 votes; John Breckenridge had 74,325 votes. So by a 156 vote majority or margin, John Bell carried the state and got Virginia’s 15 electoral votes. State of Maryland went for John Breckenridge. The state of Pennsylvania, of course, went for Abraham Lincoln.

5:54 So this indicates to the United States that Virginia didn’t jump into the confederacy. There was considerable support for the Constitutional Union party, for the party that would support the constitution for the party that would remain in the union and this will play a significant role in the opening days of the Virginia Secession Convention.

6:29 After Lincoln’s election, after the firing on Fort Sumter, the southern states began to leave the union and by February the first, 1861, 7 had formed a Confederate States of America.

6:48 But all eyes were on Virginia. Virginia had yet to decide. Governor Letcher had not made any decision or made a move. So finally, in early January at a special session of the Virginia General Assembly, they called for a statewide convention to be held in Richmond on February the 13th that would decide Virginia’s fate.


Perks, Doug. “The 1860 Census and Presidential Election in Jefferson County, Va.” APUS: Civil War Scholar. 16 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011

Virginia Free Press November 8, 1860 p. 2 – loc.gov chronicling america

Presidential Election Nov. 8, 1860 – Virginia- wikipedia.org