This month contains a date which, while long overlooked, is crucial to our peninsula’s history. For it was on April 11, 1864 — one hundred fifty years ago this month — that slavery came to an end on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
|New York Times, October 17, 1863|
Provided by Kellee Blake.
Rather, the demise of slavery on the Eastern Shore came about quietly and undramatically.
Not all of Virginia seceded from the Union in early 1861, not Chincoteague and Tangier on the Eastern Shore, and not a number of counties in the western part of the state where slavery had never taken deep root. Delegates from these western counties met in Wheeling to set up a rival government to the “rebel” one in Richmond, and on June 25, 1861, Lincoln recognized them as the “reorganized and restored government of Virginia.” Thus throughout the rest of the Civil War there were two Virginias: Confederate Virginia, whose capital was Richmond, and “loyal” Virginia, whose capital was Wheeling. Loyal Virginia remained a part of the Union, represented in the U.S. Congress, throughout the war.
There were, in addition, other parts of Virginia that were in Union hands when the war began: Fort Monroe and its surrounding area in Hampton; Alexandria, Arlington, and parts of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. These also were included in the restored government, and as the war progressed other parts of the seceded state that subsequently came under Union control were added to it.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia officially became a part of the restored government on November 23, 1861, exactly one week after the Union army occupied the peninsula, and for more than a year it sent representatives to the state capital in Wheeling. The western counties, however, were intent on forming their own state, and on June 20, 1863, the state of West Virginia was formed, taking most of the land mass and most of the people of the restored government with it. Virginia was thus reduced to several small, disconnected regions — Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, the Virginia Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore — which then looked to Alexandria as their capital.
When the legislature of the “Alexandria government” convened for the first time in December 1863, Gov. Francis H. Pierpoint identified to the legislators what he saw as the most pressing item of business for his truncated state: The need to bring slavery to an end in Virginia once and for all.
In urging the end of slavery, the governor offered no religious or humanitarian rationale, but simple practicality, for the reality on the ground was that in virtually every place where the Alexandria government operated the Union army was also present, able and likely to interfere with the day-to-day functioning of slavery. Thus in February 1864 a special convention convened to draw up an amendment to the state constitution that would end slavery. Among its delegates were Arthur Watson and
On that day — April 11, 1864 — slavery officially came to an end on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
It was sixteen months after the Emancipation Proclamation, a year before the end of the Civil War, twenty months before the 13th Amendment — and two hundred and forty-five years since Africans first set foot on Virginia soil.
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