On the 150
anniversary of Virginia's secession from the Union, it can be hard to remember how — for many months in early 1861 — the Commonwealth steadfastly resisted joining its Deep South neighbors.
When the voters of
, Warwick and York counties elected a delegate to the Virginia Convention in February, they lined up solidly behind Unionist lawyer, planter and militia officer
. Similarly strong sentiments gave Unionist delegates a decisive edge in
, Portsmouth and Norfolk.
But all that changed in a matter of days after the April 12 bombardment of Fort Sumter and
's call for volunteers ignited fears of a Northern invasion.
"No man loved the Union more than I did," said Isle of Wight delegate Robert H. Whitfield after rebel guns opened fire in Charleston.
"(But) we have no resort but to take the state out of the Union…and unite with the South in defense of Southern rights."
Unlike the outlying rural areas, the ports of Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth had deep ties to the North through military and shipping interests.
Strategically located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the entrance to
was America's largest masonry fort, and its importance had spawned a famous resort — the Hygeia Hotel — that attracted well-off visitors from as far north as Philadelphia.
was America's oldest and largest, generating nearly 1,500 jobs as well as the constant presence of warships and sailors. Across the Elizabeth River, Norfolk ranked as a leading port with global connections.
"It was the water — and all the communication and commerce it created with the outside world," Hampton History Museum curator Michael Cobb says. "That's what made the difference here."
Still, in a time of inflammatory and often contradictory emotions, Mallory changed his mind even before the attack on Sumter, supporting secession in an April 4 vote beaten back by two-thirds of the convention. His fellow Hamptonians changed sides, too, parading and firing off a pilot gun to celebrate Sumter's surrender.
When Lincoln called on "loyal states" to raise 75,000 troops, the momentum shifted so drastically that — just two days later — Virginia voted 88-55 to secede.
"The war came as suddenly as a flash of lightning," Hampton resident Fanny Worsham wrote.
"Nobody a month before it started believed for a minute there'd be a war."