The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States on November 6th, 1860 led to the rapid secession of seven Deep South slave states, but, much to their chagrin, the Upper South refused to join them. With mixed economies and less dependency on slave labour they were prepared to accept Lincoln and Seward's assurances that the peculiar institution was protected by the Constitution and were prepared, for the moment, to put up with the Republican Party's sectional program.

At this time, the most influential of the Upper South states, Virginia, had three very different regional constituencies. In the mountainous country to the west, small farms, small industry and mining predominated. Here communications and sentiment looked to the north. This area (the future state of West Virginia) would remain unconditionally loyal to the Union. In the eastern Tidewater area were to be found large farms and plantations producing tobacco, a cash crop. Chattel slavery was embedded in its agricultural system. This area saw itself as part of the Deep South and identified entirely with its interests. The central section of the state was moderate. Provided the national government left the Deep South alone, it would continue to support the Union.

The men who would later serve in the 55th Virginia Regiment were entirely from the Tidewater section. They were out and out secessionists. On February 1st 1861 the citizens of Essex County, which later provided some 40% of the regiment's manpower, instructed their delegate to the Secession Convention to “distinctly understand that we desire the Convention to entertain no proposition for compromise or arrangement with the non slave holding States. Put Virginia out of the Union and into the Southern Confederacy…” Despite this, after lengthy debate, the Convention voted against secession by 88 to 45, on April 4th. The secessionists were disheartened and becoming desperate. But within days the situation changed dramatically.

Realizing the Deep South would never rejoin the Union unless coerced, sensing a change of heart amongst northern Democrats and deluding himself as to the nature of conditional Unionism in the Upper South, Lincoln decided to use force. He provoked the Confederates into firing on Fort Sumter and then, on April 15th, called for troops to supress the ‘rebellion’. At that moment conditional Unionism in the Upper South evapourated. The moderate central region of Virginia ceased siding with the Unionists in the west and threw in its lot with the secessionists of the east. On April 17th, the Convention, which had remained in session, voted to secede by 88 votes to 55. The decision was later ratified by 132,201 votes to 37,451. Essex County's support for secession was unanimous. In the counties bordering the Rappahannock River, men rushed to defend their new country and the 55th Virginia Regiment was born.