“It rained during the passed night and raining in the morning and rained snowed & hailed during the day.” There were “more waters on the land” than he ever had seen before. So wrote diarist Daniel W. Cobb of Southampton County, Va., on Monday, Feb. 4, 1861. But he was not about to stay at home.
Across the state that day, voters trooped to the polls to select delegates for a state convention, which was to deliberate about whether Virginia should secede from the United States. So Cobb rode six miles to the small town of Jerusalem, the county seat, to cast his vote. Cobb, a slaveholding farmer, cast his vote for John Kindred, a fellow Democrat and a “susseader” who favored “a quick go South.”
By this time it was plain that seven Deep South states had renounced the Union. That very day, their spokesmen met in Montgomery, Ala., to organize a government for the Confederate States of America. But many eyes were now focused on the Upper South states — most of all Virginia — which, with more whites and blacks than any other state in the South, was the great prize in the struggle for allegiances during the secession winter.
Courtesy of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, Franklin, Va.Daniel W. Cobb
Cobb and his family lived more comfortably than most white Southerners, and he was regarded as a substantial citizen in his home community. If we are to understand why the white South pursued the catastrophic course it did, and why Virginia ultimately joined that ill-fated venture, we need to understand Cobb. And we are in a position to do so, because he left to posterity a remarkable diary, filled with raw slices of life and reflections of Upper South white society on the eve of the war (his spelling, punctuation and grammar have been left intact). What predisposed a man like Daniel W. Cobb to give up on the United States?
Cobb wasn’t a full-blooded secessionist, at least at first. He had, he wrote, lingering hopes for “a frendly Compromise with the S[outh] and N[orth] on honerable turms” that would “sebtle matters without Blood shead.” Why not, he wondered, “let the S[outh] have her fore fathers rights and let the N[orth] have her Rights I meen her States rights and live as here to fore.”
But as he talked to his friends and neighbors, Cobb grew more alarmed: “A grate Confusion in Virginia at this time. And I here nothing But War no piece not scarsely one time to War 100 times.” Cobb lived in an oral culture. He learned about politics and public affairs from face-to-face encounters with men he trusted who read more than he, and who had more contact with the outside world. And these contacts plainly told him to expect the worst. Cobb’s principal consolation as he surveyed the situation was personal. “I am with in a fiew months of 50 Years of age,” he wrote. “They cant make me Bare armes.”
Cobb was a devout Methodist. He prayed every day, “kneeling, standing, walking, working sitting, prostrated on my face, lying on my bed, and even prayed in my sleep.” He devoted Sundays to churchgoing and quiet contemplation, fearful that those who failed to keep a strict Sabbath might “miss heaven . . . and being with Christ.” But that faith didn’t keep him from owning a dozen slave laborers who planted, cultivated and harvested his crops of corn and cotton. Indeed, he and some of them worshiped together at Indian Spring church (most churches in the Old South had black as well as white members; it was thought imprudent to allow slaves to organize separate congregations).
But while Cobb’s diary hardly ever mentions difficulties with his own slaves, he was haunted by memories of the slave revolt he witnessed in Southampton 30 years before. In 1831 Nat Turner and a group of slave rebels massacred 60 whites — and in doing so ignited an even bloodier anti-black pogrom. Cobb frequently mentioned alarming reports that others told him about dangerous slaves. In January, he credited rumors that the “servants” of a North Carolina man had taken him “from his bead at Midnight” and beaten him to death with an ax. “He beged for life but in vain.”
Such fears helped drive Cobb toward supporting Southern secession, but most white Virginians did not initially see things quite as he did. Voters east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Upper South region with the largest slave population, split almost evenly between Union and secession. West of the Blue Ridge, however, home to only one-eighth of the state’s 491,000 slaves, secession was overwhelmed by a thunderous five-to-one margin. “Lord, how dumfounded are the secessionists here” crowed a Lexington Unionist. “A few days ago they were high up stairs and clamoring from the house tops. But ‘such a getting down stairs, I never did see.’” Anti-secession sentiment was most intense in Virginia’s trans-Allegheny region, where fewer than 6,500 slaves were dwarfed in number by a white population that exceeded 250,000. “Would you,” asked one northwesterner, “have us … act like madmen and cut our own throats merely to sustain you in a most unwarrantable rebellion?” Western votes assured that pro-Union delegates at the state convention called for by the Feb. 4 vote would heavily outnumber pro-secession ones.
The pro-Union victory in the delegate election set off a jubilant response in the free states. Misled into thinking it a sign that the nation’s sectional troubles would be over, an observer in Boston reported that the news from Virginia “sent a regular thrill through the city. The result was announced on Jamaica Pond when we were skating and the huge mass of people flocked together and cheered with one mind.” Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the South’s most sharp-tongued critic, unleashed a stinging quip: “Well, well, well, old Virginia has tucked her tail between her legs and run, and thus ends the secession farce.”
But the dangers created by Deep South secession remained. Many who voted against secession in Virginia and elsewhere in the Upper South did so in part because they expected Republicans to offer generous concessions regarding slavery in the territories to appease the Deep South. And Union delegates in theVirginia Convention, which gathered in Richmond, warned against “coercion,” or a show of military strength to frighten the seceding states into submission. The country “can never be kept together by force,” they insisted; war would “end this Union now and forever.”
But the sort of compromise Upper South Unionists wished for wasn’t forthcoming. Republicans didn’t think they needed to apologize for winning the 1860 election, and they suspected that Deep South secessionists would ignore whatever overtures they did make. And while the incoming administration tried to modulate its tone toward the South, the subtleties got lost by the time the news reached men like Cobb. After Lincoln took the oath of office, exactly a month after the Virginia vote, Cobb glumly noted that “Our Presandent took his seat the 1st Avalition Presaedent we had.” A week later Cobb remained distraught about “Black republickism,” and he reported himself “much pleged [plagued] and harased in mine [mind] owing to the State of Avalitonism.” In mid-March, when it appeared that antisecessionists would keep the state in the Union, Cobb vowed that he would not tamely submit — “I shall leave Virginia The state hangs N[orth] I hangs S[outh]”
Of course Virginia did not in the end “hang North.” Secessionists gained decisive control of the state after Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter on April 12 and Lincoln responded by calling for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebels. Except in the far northwest beyond the Allegheny Mountains, “coercion” killed Virginia Unionism. Cobb raged against the diabolical “Lincon” and reported that “people are all united to the South to defend there rights as Suthern men.” He clearly understood what was to come. Although a Confederate patriot, he found it “awfull to think of the lives that is to be lost.” Cobb’s eldest son, Asbury Cobb, not yet 18, immediately volunteered for military duty. He survived four years of combat, only to die in the Appomattox campaign during the last days of the war.
One day in late June 1864, just as the principal theater of fighting moved into southeastern Virginia and cannons boomed in the far distance, Cobb strolled out to see his “foalkes” hoeing in a field of shoulder-high green cornstalks. “I was hurd to cry out grate heaven owing to the buty before my eyes,” he wrote, “and to say if a fine Crop and the [end of] the Cruel war was to come to gather[,] how happy would the people of the south be a gain.” Confederate defeat, emancipation and the loss of his son forever ended Cobb’s pleasurable reverie. Nothing thereafter could make him — or the many other white Southerners who saw things his way — happy again.