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Showdown in Virginia

The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union
edited by William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson

BUY Cloth · 240 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813929484 · $60.00 · Mar 2010
BUY Paper · 240 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813929644 · $25.00 · Mar 2010
BUY Ebook · 240 pp. · ISBN 9780813929910 · $25.00 · Mar 2010

In the spring of 1861, Virginians confronted destiny—their own and their nation’s. Pivotal decisions awaited about secession, the consequences of which would unfold for a hundred years and more. But few Virginians wanted to decide at all. Instead, they talked, almost interminably. The remarkable record of the Virginia State Convention, edited in a fine modern version in 1965, runs to almost 3,000 pages, some 1.3 million words. Through the diligent efforts of William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, this daunting record has now been made accessible to teachers, students, and general readers. With important contextual contributions—an introduction and commentary, chronology, headnotes, and suggestions for further reading—the essential core of the speeches, and what they signified, is now within reach.

This is a collection of speeches by men for whom everything was at risk. Some saw independence and even war as glory; others predicted ruin and devastation. They all offered commentary of lasting interest to anyone concerned about the fate of democracy in crisis.


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(s): 

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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