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Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union Paperback – March 29, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


Showdown in Virginia will make accessible to a much broader audience than before perhaps the most important body of primary source material about the breakup of the Upper South in 1861. These were the final months of what would later be called the antebellum era, and it is in looking at the proceedings from that perspective―of being on the eve of a great national calamity without knowing what shape it would take―that gives them immense poignancy. By examining the words of the Convention, the modern reader can glimpse the uncertainty, anxiety, and hope that Virginians felt in the spring of 1861.

(Nelson D. Lankford author of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 and editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography)

In early 1861 Virginia rejected secession and tried to promote peaceful reunion, but the state reversed itself in mid-April. Showdown in Virginia, expertly edited by Bill Freehling and Craig Simpson, provides a ringside seat as the Old Dominion wrestled with its tragic dilemma and finally sided with the Southern Confederacy. At long last, historians and their students will have easy access to this indispensable source.

(Daniel W. Crofts, The College of New Jersey author of Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis)

[A] great read. Historians William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson researched the four volumes of official convention records from the 1861 meeting as well as newspaper stories to create a 200-page account of the two-month battle between the unionists and secessionists. There is magnificent oratory, fiery debates, intrigue, a near duel and the abrupt walkout by delegates from the northwestern counties.


About the Author

William W. Freehling is a Senior Fellow with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and author of Prelude to the Civil War, The Road to Disunion, and The South vs. The South. Craig M. Simpson is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario and author of A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia. Freehling and Simpson coedited Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press (March 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813929644
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813929644
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #425,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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For the length, oratorical brilliance and monumental stakes riding on the Virginia Convention in 1861 it has received an astonishing lack of coverage. This may be in part due to its size. With the convention lasting over two months and three thousand pages of George Reese's massive four volume compilation, taken from transcripts and newspaper coverage of the debates, the task for the historian is intimidating, even though the debate is extraordinary. In the last forty years several historians have tried to cut into this oversight. Most notably Daniel Crofts, who wrote the standard work on the Winter Crisis in the Upper South, but Freehling's coverage in "Secessionist's Triumphant" and Potter's in "The Impending Crisis," are also both invaluable. Still, however the convention receives but a passing mention in most modern studies, even some very good ones, an unwarranted oversight. Furthermore, no book, aside from Reese's tome covers the Secession Crisis in Virginia alone. Even Crofts' essential study deals with the entire Upper South and focuses on Virginia only through that context. His book is required reading for anyone with interest in the Secession Crisis, especially with regards to Unionist sentiment and how the rapid dissolution of the United States came to a screeching halt in early February.

Virginia however, absolutely deserves independent coverage for several reasons. Not only was it the largest slaveholding state in terms of free population, but its 490,865 slaves also gave it the largest enslaved population (although mush less than some of the deeper south slave states in terms of a free to enslaved ratio). It also was a massive industrial, agricultural and intellectual center.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is primarily comprised of speeches made during Virginia's convention to decide if the state would secede or remain with the Union; occasionally, the editors add a bit of background information. It is an abridged volume; there are more complete works - the editors note that their work was made possible by George H. Reese's four-volume "Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861" - but this single volume makes the information more accessible to the average reader who is interested in the topic.

Most readers will be disabused of some of their beliefs about secession, the role of slavery and of Lincoln's call for troops after Fort Sumter, and the reasons for the eventual split between Western and Eastern Virginia - no matter what those beliefs may be. Many speakers argued, for example, that the Deep South was attempting to enlist the border states as a buffer to protect the slaves of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, et al; those speakers further maintained that secession would actually result in more slaves running away from Virginia and other border states because federal laws requiring the return of runaways would not apply to seceded states. It would, in effect, "put a Canada" on their very doorstep.

Because of the topics debated here, those who have more interest in the larger issue of Southern secession than in Virginia (and West Virginia) specifically, this book is a very good window into the concerns of the border states. Some speakers also discuss South Carolina's views on the tensions between North and South and what the Confederacy should be. This book is highly recommended for those who do not have the time, access or inclination to pour through multi-volume works on Virginia's secession debates.
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Format: Paperback
For a long time I tried not to bother these fellpws because I knew they were hard at work on this latest masterpiece. The amount of raw material availble on the Virginia secession debate is unbelievable and a great many hours, many conversations, much debate and "I am not moving" went on between these men. Bill admits he was at first against the inclusion of the April 17 debate between Henry Wise and John Baldwin. Bill didn't want to include it and Craig insisted. Finally Bill read the sheets Craig submitted to him and gave in. He now says it is his favorite part of the book. I must agree and than Craig's stubbornness. The editor's debates consisted mainly over what and what not to include of the vast array of literature available. As one other reviewer has said, now students and professionals have the vast books shrunk to a readable and useable size with superb introduction and editing.

If you enjoyed the thoroughly marvelous book on GeorgiaSecession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 this is the perfect companion. Let's say you are a purist--you don't like reading just the meat of a speech. You have two choices in studying the Virginia Secession Debates: read the 4 volumes edited by George H. Reese, about 4,000 pages and the stenographic recordings in the Richmond Enquirer of the convention speeches (cumbersome to carry with you) or this book.

In all honesty I feel obliged to admit, if you have't guessed it, Bill and Craig are friends, and I am very prejudiced in their favor. My relations in no way detract from the book's value. Both scholars are experts in their field and work well together.
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