Thursday, July 9, 2015

Roger A. Pryor, John Brown, Secession, and Slavery

It is fascinating to me that certain men made sure they witnessed and took part in history making events leading up to the Civil War. I think that says something about these individuals as well as the stake that they had in the outcome of these events and what they wanted to see for the future. 

It is well known that Virginia arch-secessionist Edmund Ruffin made the trip to Harpers Ferry from his plantation shortly after Brown's raid to be at the ground zero of an event that he hoped would kick off a conflict between the North and South and result in Southern independence. Taking advantage of the occasion, he also took time to collect some of Brown's pikes to send to slave state governors as propaganda pieces. Ruffin, too, was at Charleston, South Carolina, as events came to a head at Fort Sumter. Some claim he was given the honor of firing the first shot. It seems another Southern fire-eater also made an appearance at Charlestown, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina as the sectional fires continued to grow in 1859, 1860, and 1861.   

I came across the above newspaper notice in the November 21, 1859, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. As it mentions, Roger Pryor, who at the time had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was a citizen of Petersburg, Virginia, made the trip to Charlestown, Virginia, with his city's militia unit to guard Brown and the other captured raiders at the town's jail.

Roger Atkinson Pryor was born in southern Dinwiddie County in 1828, to Theodorick and Lucy Pryor only a handful of miles from where the enslaved Elizabeth Keckley had been born ten years earlier. The Pryor family moved to Nottoway County when Theodorick switched careers from attorney to Presbyterian minister. Following his father's footsteps, in 1845, Roger graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in Prince Edward County, and then graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in law in 1848. He was admitted to the bar the following year and practiced law in Petersburg before calling it quits due to ill health. Pryor added newspaper editor to his resume soon thereafter. He oversaw papers in both Richmond and Washington D.C. 

In 1854, Pryor was appointed by President Franklin Pierce to serve as a special minister to Greece for about three years. Upon his return he went back into the newspaper business briefly. When Representative William O. Goode died in office, Pryor was elected to fill his seat. He took office in December 1859 and served to March, 1861, when he resigned during the secession crisis.

Like Ruffin, Pryor was an ardent secesssion advocate. And like Ruffin, Pryor was in Charleston when Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861. Pryor was hailed by South Carolinians, who often sought out like-mined Southerners from other states. In a speech there shortly before Fort Sumter he declared: "I thank you especially, that you have at last annihilated this accursed Union, reeking with corruption and insolent with excess of tyranny. Thank God! it is blasted with the lightning wrath of and outraged and indignant people. Not only is it gone, but gone forever!" Pryor was part of the four man delegation that demanded the surrender of Major Robert Anderson and his force in Fort Sumter. Probably realizing the gravity of the moment he allegedly refused the honor of firing the first shot on the fort.

Apparently Roger Pryor did not personally own slaves. However, he vehemently supported the institution as a constitutional right, and saw the Northern states' refusal to honor the Fugitive Slave Law as grounds for breaking away to form an independent nation. Pryor also well understood the power slavery provided the Southern states. Pryor believed that without slavery the South would not be the South he loved. The institution supported the region's economy and framed its society. 

When it came time to put up or shut up, Pryor anted up and became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He was replaced in 1863, but continued to serve in different capacities; as a scout, special courier, and possibly a spy. Pryor was captured in November 1864 near Petersburg and was sent to Fort Lafayette in New York. He was released with a parole from President Lincoln just before Lee's surrender at Appomattox. He lived in New York where he wrote for a newspaper and revived his law career. Pryor died  in New York on March 14, 1919, far from his Southside Virginia roots, and was buried in Princeton, New Jersey, where is wife and two sons were buried

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