A Revolution That Failed:
Secession in Pittsylvania County

By Herman E. Melton

A wise man once characterized a rebellion as a revolution that failed and a revolution as a rebellion that succeeded. In retrospect it is clear that none of the 3198 Pittsylvania County citizens who voted for secession on May 23, 1861 thought they were voting to adopt a measure that was in violation of the law. Moreover, none of them cared whether it was or not. Nevertheless, the action was in violation of Federal law.

A month earlier on April 17th, the Virginia General Assembly voted to adopt the following:

“An Ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America by the State of Virginia and to resume all rights and powers granted under said Constitution adopted in the convention in the City of Richmond on the 17th day of April, 1861.”

The vote on secession was held in eighteen county precincts. According to the election records, not one single person voted against the proposal. Whether or not there were those who opposed secession but were intimidated into either remaining neutral or into supporting the measure is a matter of conjecture.

The vote “FOR,” precinct by precinct, was as follows: Beavers 76, Callands 239, Cascade 220, Chalk Level 110, Hill Grove 130, Laurel Grove 219, Moormans 89, Riceville 100, Ringgold 112, Rorers 232, Spring Garden 69, Smiths 26, Straightsone 58, Whites 72, Whitmell 225, Danville 413, Pittsylvania Court House 240. (Source: Pittsylvania County Muster Roll 1861-1865. [UDC])

Two months prior to the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession on April 17th, the Pittsylvania County Court ordered the Sheriff to make preparations to purchase arms on credit in three payments. The arms were for the “Militia” to use in defense of the county. (Source: Court Record Book 46, page 150.)

As if the prospect of war was not chilling enough for county citizens, an even more threatening scourge made its appearance. It is a little known fact that a serious small pox epidemic broke out in the county seat during this time frame. The Court moved quickly to purchase furniture to equip a small hospital that would isolate the patients. In so doing, a potentially disastrous epidemic was contained. (Source: Court Record Book 46, page 162.)

Despite the threat from the richer, more powerful, and populous North, most Pittsylvanians failed to foresee that the county would soon face its most desperate hour in history.


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Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.