- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

William Ballard Preston was accustomed to what he called “public life.” Son of a governor of Virginia and grandson of a member of the House of Burgesses, he owned several plantations and about 50 slaves. In the spring of 1861, he was caught in a rainstorm as well as a political one.

Elected to the Virginia House of Delegates when he was 24, “Ballard” Preston reached 25 - the minimum age of eligibility - just days before the legislature convened. Speaking to the House in 1832, he advocated legislation that would end slavery in Virginia through gradual emancipation. He said the slave had a “natural right” to liberty.

In 1847-48, Preston, described as tall, slim and a redhead, had been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Territories in the West were ready to be admitted to the Union as states. The issue was whether the new states would allow or exclude slavery. Preston spoke in support of a bill that would first admit the new states and then have their residents vote on whether slavery would be admitted. The House rejected the bill.

Moment of crisis

In the crisis that followed the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, Preston was elected to the Virginia State Convention in 1861, called to meet in Richmond to debate the issue of secession. Seven Deep South states already had seceded; Virginia hung in the balance.

In an hour-long speech, Preston said the “aggressions upon the South” were “no longer to be borne” and he, for one, was “ready to repel them.” Still, he felt this was not the time to secede; the convention should appeal to the Northern people rather than the politicians. The slave question, he said, was “at the bottom of it all.”

His ancestors, he said, had fought and died in defense of Virginia, and with God’s help, this should be his destiny. If he died elsewhere, he wanted to be brought back “to be buried in my own meadow.” He pledged that he would “go to the North or to the South, or to the judgment seat of God, in vindication of the rights of Virginia.”

Delegation of three

On April 4, 1861, the Virginia State Convention voted 2-to-1 against secession. Preston, a “conditional Unionist,” voted against it. On that day in Washington, President Lincoln met with Unionist John Brown Baldwin, a member of the Virginia Convention who was invited, at the urging of Secretary of State William Seward, to come to the White House for a secret talk.

If the president could convince Baldwin that the convention should adjourn and the members go home, that would keep Virginia from seceding, at least for the time being. Baldwin asked Lincoln to abandon Fort Sumter and call a national convention to work out the problems between North and South. Lincoln told Baldwin he had come “too late.” That same day, Lincoln ordered an expedition made up of several ships to sail for Fort Sumter.

Preston, representing Montgomery County in the southwestern part of Virginia, told the State Convention that he could not go back to his constituents and tell them he did not know what Lincoln’s intentions were with regard to Virginia. So, on April 6, he proposed that a delegation of three commissioners go to Washington immediately to see Lincoln in person and ask the question that was on everyone’s mind.

The delegates chose men who represented the three major factions in the Virginia Convention: George Wythe Randolph, a secessionist and a grandson of Thomas Jefferson’s; Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart, a Unionist and a former congressman and secretary of the Interior; and Preston, former secretary of the Navy under Zachary Taylor, to represent the moderates.

Caught in a storm that disrupted travel between Richmond and Washington, the three men traveled to Norfolk and went by steamboat to Baltimore. Three days later than planned, they reached Washington and the Willard Hotel.

By 11 a.m. on April 12, the Preston delegation was at the White House. Lincoln saw them and made an appointment to see them again the following morning. He received them at the appointed time, but his manner was formal and a bit cold. The commissioners presented the resolution and explained what Preston called their “mission.”

Lincoln already had read the resolution word for word in the newspapers, which regularly printed the proceedings of the Virginia Convention. The resolution asked the president to “communicate to this Convention the policy which the Federal Executive intends to pursue in regard to the Confederate States.”

Lincoln presented to them his reply, written that morning. In it he said he had stated his policy as clearly as he could in his inaugural address, and he felt “deep regret” and “some mortification” that there was “great and injurious uncertainty in the public mind” about what he intended to do.

He had stated in the address that he would “hold, occupy and possess” the properties that belonged to the federal government. By this he meant the forts, particularly those in the states that had seceded. However, he also had said “there will be no invasion - no using of force against, or among the people anywhere.” If what he had heard was true - that Fort Sumter had been assaulted - he would consider stopping the delivery of mail to the seceded states. By 9 that morning, when Lincoln’s meeting with the Virginia commissioners began, Confederate guns had been firing on Fort Sumter for several hours.

A ‘prairie fire’

On Monday April 15, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 men to serve in the Union Army. In Richmond the next day, the three commissioners who had met with Lincoln reported to the convention. Preston spoke “for some hours,” but his speech did not appear in either the official Proceedings of the Convention or the newspapers.

George Wythe Randolph spoke next. He told the convention that Lincoln had requested that his conversation not be repeated. Preston had not repeated it; Randolph said he wouldn’t, either. However, Randolph said he must give some of the impressions he had gotten from the conversation with the president and from facts that had come to light in Washington.

Randolph said he believed they were seeing the beginning of “the greatest war ever waged” on the American continent. He thought the North would, at least at the beginning, be undivided in support of the war. Just yesterday, he had conferred with men from New York and the Northwest; wherever they traveled, “there was but one opinion, and that in favor of the war.”

It ostensibly would be a defensive war, Randolph thought, meant only to repossess forts and arsenals seized by the Confederate states. Stopping it there, however, would be like trying to “stop a prairie fire.” Virginia already had been called on to “furnish” her “quota of men,” and she was already furnishing a share of the money to pay the Federal Army. “You have got to fight,” Randolph warned. “Which side will you fight with?”

Three possibilities

When it was Alexander H.H. Stuart’s turn to speak, he told the convention that in addition to the “official interview” with the president, the three commissioners also had had a long conversation with him. Lincoln had asked that the conversation not be treated as part of their official meeting, fearing that it would be misconstrued.

The three commissioners had agreed implicitly that they would not describe Lincoln’s conversation in detail, and they hadn’t. Preston interrupted to say Lincoln had mentioned that “what transpired there” was in confidence “between gentlemen.” Stuart, though, wanted the members of the convention to know what his own part in the conversation had been, so without reporting all sides of the conversation, he felt free to repeat his part of it.

He had told the president what he thought about the legality of collecting duties or taxes in a place that was no longer under Federal control. He explained why he questioned the president’s authority over the forts: Only a convention or the Congress of the United States - through the legislative branch of government, not the executive branch - had a right to deal with the problem of jurisdiction over the forts. Lincoln agreed and said that in his inaugural address, he had appealed to the people for their consent. Stuart commented that this appeal was made after the Congress had adjourned.

Stuart had come away from the White House believing that Lincoln intended “nothing like a general war.” The call for troops surprised him completely. As soon as he read it, he sent a dispatch to the secretary of state, asking “whether it was genuine or fabricated.” Late that night, he received a response saying it was genuine.

Now Stuart saw three possibilities. Should Virginia stay in the Union or secede, or should she try to join with her “sister states which have not yet seceded?” He saw that secession would bring the war to “the bosom of Virginia.” Secession also would mean emancipation, bankruptcy and “widespread ruin to our people,” he said.

When it became apparent that secession was unavoidable, it was Ballard Preston who wrote the Ordinance of Secession and offered it to the Virginia Convention. Invoking the mercy of God, he explained that the ordinance was offered on the basis of the report the three commissioners had brought from Washington and on the president’s call for troops, not on the day’s news.

Preston concluded: “I feel that in this contest God himself will be with us.” He read the ordinance aloud. On April 17, the convention passed it.

William Ballard Preston was elected to the Confederate Senate in November 1861. He died Nov, 16, 1862, at Smithfield Plantation and was buried in the family cemetery.

Ray Scott, a volunteer interpreter at Smithfield Plantation, has identified 121 members of the extended Preston family who served in the Civil War. Among them were William Ballard Preston’s two sons and two brothers, one of whom was the first commander of the 4th Virginia Infantry.

Today, Smithfield is a rare and unexpected pleasure for visitors. A property of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation Virginia), the restored 1774 house at 1000 Smithfield Plantation Road, Blacksburg, is open for tours from April to December. Phone 540/231-3947 or go to www.smithfieldplantation.org.


Historic Smithfield Plantation, 1000 Smithfield Plantation Road, Blacksburg, VA 24060.

Phone 540-231-3947

email HYPERLINK mailto:[email protected]

URL HYPERLINK https://www.smithfieldplantation.org

P.H. Carder is a member of the Roanoke Civil War Round Table.

Image of William Ballard Preston courtesy of From the original oil portrait by Harvey Mitchell in the Virginia Historical Society.

Image of Smithfield Plantation House courtesy of Historic Smithfield.

Image of the Preston Family cemetery courtesy of Laura Wedin and Historic Smithfield. The standing stone is that of William Ballard Preston.

* P.H. Carder is a member of the Roanoke Civil War Round Table.

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