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March 9, 1865

Waitman Willey

South Carolina holds a significant Senate record.  For thirty-six years, from 1966 to 2003, it sent the same two senators to Washington: Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings.

Virginia, by contrast, holds a uniquely different record.  In eight years of the Civil War-era, between 1861 and 1869, it sent nine senators.  This number appears even larger considering that Virginia had no senators for four of those eight years.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in May 1861, Senators James Mason and Robert Hunter packed their bags and went home.  In July, the Senate expelled—on grounds of treason—Mason, Hunter, and others from the South who had not formally resigned their seats.

Not all Virginians agreed with that state’s decision to leave the Union.  A bloc of northwestern Virginia counties remained strongly pro-Union.  Soon, a new legislature convened in Wheeling, Virginia, to represent those counties.  It immediately sent Waitman Willey and John Carlile to fill Virginia’s vacant Senate seats.  When Willey and Carlile arrived to take their oaths, senators applauded “the return of the Old Dominion.”  Carlile served the balance of Hunter’s term, which expired in 1865.  Willey remained until 1863, when Virginia’s Unionist legislature agreed to cede the northwestern counties to form the state of West Virginia.

The Virginia legislature moved from Wheeling, settling closer to Washington in Alexandria.  It elected Lemuel Bowden to replace Willey, who had become one of West Virginia’s first senators.  At the start of 1865, Virginia’s loyalist legislature elected two more senators: Joseph Segar to replace Bowden, who had died in office, and John Underwood for a new term.

When Segar and Underwood presented their credentials, senators immediately objected to their seating.  No longer did members cheer the “return of the Old Dominion.”  Instead, they challenged the legitimacy of that state’s breakaway legislature—the same one whose choices they enthusiastically accepted four years earlier.

By early 1865, with the Confederacy nearing defeat, and with Arkansas and Louisiana seeking readmission, the Senate wished to set no precedents with Virginia that other states could follow to ease their reentry.  An increasingly hostile Senate majority asked why states formerly in rebellion should, by their renewed membership in Congress, have a say in determining reconstruction policies.  On March 9, 1865, the Senate rejected Segar and Underwood.  

Not until 1869, with Virginia back in the Union, did the Senate finally seat two new senators.  If you are still counting, they were numbers eight and nine.