May 13, 1861. In 10 days, Virginia voters would decide whether to ratify an ordinance to sever ties with the Union, drafted a month earlier during a secession convention in Richmond. An ad hoc delegation from 27 western Virginia counties assembled at Wheeling in the far northwestern corner of the state. There, the 436 delegates now gathered in Washington Hall, Wheeling’s Masonic building, debated whether the northwest—that area west of the Alleghenies and north of the Big Kanawha River—would agree to secede.
The most radical delegates wanted to break away from the Old Dominion and form a new Union-loyal state, an unprecedented course that would cut the region loose from its moorings to sail an uncharted sea with no guarantee of safe harbor. A banner above 65 delegates from Wood County, along the Ohio River, read, “New Virginia, now or never.” Urging on the “now or never” crowd was John S. Carlile of Clarksburg, 35 miles south of the Pennsylvania line. He had believed for a decade western Virginia should shake loose from the east.
Moderates advocated merely drafting resolutions condemning secession and detailing a history of wrongs the government at Richmond had inflicted on the west. Carlile reminded them that Richmond had already called for Confederate militia to be raised in the northwest. “No people who contented themselves with paper resolves, while bayonets were bristling all around them…ever maintained their freedom,” he thundered.
Waitman T. Willey, an attorney from Morgantown—just below the Pennsylvania border—cautioned that forming a new state would be considered “triple treason: treason against the United States, treason against Virginia, and treason against the Confederate States of America.”
Two days later the delegates, most of whom were not yet ready to give up on Virginia, declared the ordinance of secession null and void. They returned home to work for its defeat, but if secession passed they would ask their counties to formally elect delegates to a second Wheeling convention, one likely to produce more than “paper resolves.”
Differences in topography and culture between the two regions of Virginia had long caused political conflict. Western rivers flowed north and west, strengthening ties of commerce and culture with Pennsylvania and Ohio rather than with Tidewater Virginia. Between 1831 and 1853, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut its way from Harpers Ferry to Wheeling, opening trade between northwestern Virginia and Baltimore, not Richmond. Easterners complained the railroad had “abolitionized” the west.
The biggest bones of contention were slavery and legislative representation. Each Virginia county got two representatives in the House of Delegates. That gave control to the east, where there were far more counties. Eastern Virginia also enjoyed the majority of senatorial districts. Suffrage was exclusive to property owners, and absentee land speculators owned much of the west.
Many easterners felt the rugged west was fit only for half-wild barbarians. They agreed with Benjamin Watkins Leigh, a politician from south of Richmond, who sniffed, “What real share, so far as mind is concerned, could the peasantry of the West be supposed to take in the affairs of the state?”
The east’s sprawling plantations employed extensive slave labor. The small farms of the mountains did not, so slaves in the west were primarily found on larger farms along river valleys and in Kanawha County’s salt and coal mines. Western farmers, craftsmen and laborers believed slave labor only denied them opportunities and depressed wages.
By 1829, the howls for their own state from the west’s “yokels” grew loud enough to force a constitutional convention. Base legislative representation on white population, they demanded—the west’s white population had swollen nearly 370 percent between 1790 and 1829, while the east’s had declined. Disconnect voting rights from property ownership. While we’re at it, let’s abolish the viva voce system so voters don’t have to speak their choices aloud, and let’s establish free public schools for all white children.
Easterners were aghast. Separate voting from land ownership? That was “the most crying injustice ever attempted in any land,” Leigh said, against property rights. Secret voting? No good could come from that. Free schools in the west to be supported by the east, which bore the brunt of the tax burden—absurd!
The 1829-30 convention changed little beyond modestly expanding suffrage. Increasingly, the west perceived Richmond as the place where its tax money went and where laws were written to benefit the eastern aristocracy.
The growing rift was obvious, even to outsiders. After South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun raised the specter of disunion in 1850, a secession movement began in eastern Virginia—prompting Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts to appeal to the loyalty of western Virginians. “What man in his senses would suppose that you would remain a part and parcel of Virginia a month after Virginia ceased to be part and parcel of the United States?” he observed in a Fourth of July speech in 1851.
“West Virginia belongs to the Mississippi Valley,” declared Henry Winter Davis, an American Party congressman from Maryland, who predicted, “Virginia can never withdraw from the existing confederacy undivided.”
In this atmosphere, eastern Virginians finally heeded the west’s longstanding demands for a new constitutional convention, and acquiesced to a number of reforms. The governor and other state and local officials would henceforth be chosen by direct vote of all white males over 21, regardless of property ownership. In the first direct election, Virginians—for the first and only time—chose a westerner as governor: Joseph Johnson, a slaveowner from Harrison County, the place John S. Carlile called home.
The two houses of the Legislature were given equal power, with apportionment for the House based on white population; the west got 83 delegates, the east 69. The east got 30 Senate districts to the west’s 20.
“Huzzah, three cheers and a tiger!” should have echoed through the mountains after those victories, but the new constitution also changed tax laws. White men would pay a head tax, merchants were taxed via a licensing system, and all property would be taxed at average market value—except slaves. Slaveowners would pay no taxes on slaves younger than 12. All other slaves would be taxed at a fixed amount equal to the tax on $300 worth of land. Land was taxed at a lower rate than other kinds of property, such as livestock; tying the tax on slaves to the equivalent of $300 worth of land meant that a western farmer’s cows were taxed at 40 cents per $100 of value, while the tax on slaves, most of whom were in the east, was just 11 cents per $100.
The east still paid more taxes than the west, but taxing slaves at market value would have pumped lifeblood into Virginia’s anemic, debt-ridden treasury. The market price was soaring due to demand in the Deep South, but slave property valued at $234 million brought taxes of only $326,000 into the state’s coffers. Taxing slaves as other property was taxed might have paid for infrastructure westerners wanted, such as more railroads. The new tax system nullified their satisfaction with the other constitutional changes.
The fraying rope binding Virginia’s two regions unraveled rapidly after seven other Southern states seceded from the Union, beginning in December 1860. Within days, the Clarksburg Guard warned that if the Virginia Legislature called for a secession convention, westerners should take steps “for forming a new State in the Union.”
On New Year’s Day, pro-Unionists meeting in Parkersburg concluded, “The doctrine of secession has no warrant in the Constitution.” At a similar meeting in Wellsburg, another Ohio River town, attendees declared, “No ties bind us to Eastern Virginia but the unjust laws they have made. In no way are we, nor ever can be, of them.” On the other hand, the rabidly pro-South, pro-slavery Kanawha Valley Star salivated over the prospect of Kanawha coal being sold without paying the federal government a 24 percent tariff, if Virginia seceded.
A convention to address secession met in Richmond on February 14, 1861. One member—Waitman T. Willey, who would soon warn westerners about triple treason—reminded delegates that for nearly 400 miles, western Virginia bordered two of the North’s most militarily powerful states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Secession almost certainly meant war, which would turn northwestern Virginia’s valleys into slaughter pens. “How would we stand in a Southern Confederacy? Why, sir, we would be swept by the enemy from the face of the earth before the news of an attack could reach our eastern friends.”
On April 17, after the attack on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the Richmond convention passed articles of secession—pending approval by the state’s voters on May 23. Mobs roamed Richmond’s streets, trampling the U.S. flag, dangling nooses from trees near western delegates’ lodgings and hanging one delegate in effigy. Most westerners fled home.
Beyond the mountains, secession was most popular wherever the most slaves were found, which was primarily the southern and eastern sections. Anti-secession feeling was strongest in the northwest, where industry was taking root. The previous July 4, Wheeling’s Republican-leaning newspaper, the Intelligencer, noted a Lincoln-Hamlin election banner floated over a house there “as proudly on a Virginia breeze as it would on the winds of New Hampshire.” But opinion was divided everywhere. At Fairmont in the northwest, pro-secessionists stormed a Union meeting, resulting in a free-for-all with at least 80 fist-swinging combatants on each side.
Without waiting for the May referendum, Governor John Letcher ordered the seizure of federal property throughout Virginia. Wheeling Mayor Andrew Sweeney, ordered to secure the custom house, post office and all public buildings and documents in that city, informed the governor, “I have seized them in the name of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, whose property they are.”
Statewide, secession was approved 125,950 to 29,373, but results from more than 30 counties were never counted. The Intelligencer printed voting results that showed the northwest rejected secession by nearly 5 to 1. The Kanawha Valley Star reported seven southern counties approved secession while five rejected it. In some places, anyone voting against secession risked being lynched; the system of casting votes verbally made their feelings public knowledge.
The Second Wheeling Convention convened on June 11. After two days it moved from Washington Hall to the custom house/post office Mayor Sweeney had secured in defiance of Governor Letcher. Representatives from 32 counties were prepared to create a new state, but Article IV of the U.S. Constitution required the parent state’s approval. They therefore annulled the Richmond government, saying it had usurped the people’s power by, among other things, canceling elections that had been scheduled for early March to select the state’s representatives to the U.S. Congress, and by placing Virginia’s military under the control of the president of the Confederate states before the May 23 referendum on secession. They organized the Restored Government of Virginia with Fairmont attorney Francis H. Pierpont as governor and crossed their fingers, hoping Washington would validate their actions. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case stemming from Rhode Island’s 1842 Dorr Rebellion, had given Congress and the president the power to decide which of two competing governments within a state was the legitimate one.
Delegates saw hopeful signs. When the postal service cut off mail to seceding states, it made an exception for northwestern Virginia. More important, after Virginians approved secession, Lincoln’s War Department took the leash off Ohio and Indiana volunteers, who crossed the Ohio River and joined forces with the 1st Virginia Infantry (Union) that had been forming on Wheeling Island. In the pre-dawn hours of June 3, they surprised and drove off a small Confederate force at Philippi in the first inland battle of the war. (See America’s Civil War, May 2011.) On July 11, at Rich Mountain, the Federals won again, securing the northwest. Soon blue uniforms walked the streets of Harpers Ferry, and by September Confederate forces would be pushed out of the Big Kanawha Valley.
Ominously, however, U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates warned the Wheeling government, “The formation of a new State out of Western Virginia is an original act of revolution….Any attempt to carry it out involves a plain breech of both the Constitutions of Virginia and of the Nation.”
Regardless, Pierpont’s government continued its hazardous voyage. To establish a state treasury, he and delegate Peter Van Winkle arranged a $10,000 loan from Wheeling banks on their personal endorsement, and he sent the 7th Ohio Infantry to seize $27,000 in gold from a bank in Weston, appropriated by the Richmond government for constructing the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
The Restored Government selected two new U.S. senators—Carlile and Willey—who were presented to the Senate on July 13 by Democratic Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Delaware’s Democratic Senator James Bayard Jr., who would be forced from office in 1864 for refusing to take a loyalty oath, protested. Even if Virginia were in a state of rebellion, creating a new state out of an existing one would be authorizing insurrection, he declared. John P. Hale, a Free Soiler from New Hampshire, disagreed. Admitting the new senators would recognize the loyal Virginians who clung to the Union and the Constitution.
An objection that Carlile and Willey had been elected two days before the Senate expelled their predecessors, James Mason and Robert M.T. Hunter, was short-lived. Mason and Hunter had resigned months earlier to join the Confederacy, and as Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois argued, it was customary to elect senators before a vacancy occurred. Ultimately, a reduced Senate, with most of its Southern members long gone, voted 35–5 to admit Carlile and Willey.
At Wheeling, the convention pondered boundaries for the new state and what its name would be. On August 20, a committee recommended 39 counties and the name Kanawha. Eleven counties were added later to provide a defensive barrier along the mountains against Confederate invasion and in the lower Shenandoah Valley to protect the B&O.
Western Virginia voters ratified the proposed new state 18,408 to 781 on October 24, 1862, despite the low turnout. Many men were away fighting for one side or the other, and some Southern sympathizers, like former Governor Joseph Johnson, had moved to Confederate Virginia. Union soldiers were posted at polling places, and a loyalty oath was required to vote. Some opponents of the new state claimed they were kept captive in their homes on election day.
Even those favoring a new state didn’t like the name Kanawha, associated only with the region of Kanawha County and the Big Kanawha and Little Kanawha rivers. When a convention opened in Wheeling on November 26 to write a constitution, it rejected Kanawha, New Virginia, Western Virginia, Allegheny and Augusta before settling on West Virginia.
Two weeks into the constitutional convention, the hydra of slavery lifted its serpent heads. The 1860 census showed nearly 430,000 whites and fewer than 13,000 slaves in West Virginia’s counties, compared to some 400,000 whites and nearly 410,000 slaves east of the mountains—but western slaveowners were not prepared to relinquish their human property.
“The Wheeling Constitutional Convention is becoming, with us, an enigma. What it will finally do we think is beyond the reach of mortal ken. We believe, however, that there is enough conservatism in that body to keep out the everlasting negro clause,” opined Clarksburg’s National Telegraph. “We regard it as the imperative duty of all legislative bodies to protect the rights of all, and the interests of every man in his property of whatever kind it may be….Negroes, according to the laws of Virginia are property, and no just legislation can reach them except by way of remuneration to the owners. This would be implicit and impractical at present. Let the Convention quietly give the negro the go by.”
Accordingly, the constitution voters ratified on April 24, 1862, said nothing about slaves already living in West Virginia but barred “persons of color, slave or free” from entering the state for permanent residence.
On June 23, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Territories reported a bill recommending West Virginia statehood. John S. Carlile was on that committee. He had been itching for a new state since 1850, but he suddenly performed a double backflip and landed in the camp of those trying to prevent West Virginia’s statehood. He amended the bill to emancipate all children of slaves in the state after July 4, 1863, and tacked on 13 pro-Confederate Shenandoah Valley counties, changes guaranteed to abort statehood.
He never gave a reason for changing his stance, but it killed his political future. Delegates from Wheeling rushed to Washington and convinced the Territories chairman, radical abolitionist Benjamin Wade of Ohio, to drop the amendments.
The slavery issue remained a stumbling block. “There might not be many slaves,” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner said, “but it takes very little slavery to make a slave state with all the virus of slavery.” He regarded the West Virginia statehood question as perhaps the greatest ever put before the Senate, encompassing the issues of slavery, states’ rights and the prosecution of the war.
To mollify abolitionists in the Senate, Willey proposed an amendment to West Virginia’s constitution: freedom at birth for all children of slaves born after July 4, 1863, and gradual emancipation for slaves under age 25. Though older slaves remained in bondage, the Senate narrowly approved statehood 23–17.
The House postponed consideration until December 9, when the usual arguments ensued: West Virginia statehood was just a punitive measure to chastise Virginia; not even a third of the Old Dominion’s population and less than one-fourth of its 160 counties had given their assent; it was a mockery to say Virginia had consented to the division.
Ohio’s John A. Bingham said Virginia had reduced itself to the status of a territory by its treason, eliminating the constitutional arguments, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dorr Rebellion case gave Congress the power to decide which government of Virginia was the legitimate one.
Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens didn’t believe the Constitution gave Congress the right to admit West Virginia but said he would vote to do so anyway, “under an absolute power which the laws of war give us.”
Constitutional wrangling aside, there were practical considerations. The people of every mountainous area of Dixie had opposed secession; rejecting West Virginia would tell these loyalists they could expect no succor from the federal government if they, too, attempted to break away from the Confederacy. Furthermore, West Virginia offered timber, salt, coal and oil, and thousands of its sons were already under arms in the Union cause.
Chugging through the debates were the trains of the B&O, carrying men, animals and war materiel along the only contiguous link between the East Coast and the Midwest. Its president, John W. Garrett, whom Lincoln called “the right arm of the Federal Government,” was urging Congress to keep his railroad safely in Union hands by accepting West Virginia.
The House approved statehood 96–55, but one more tall hurdle remained: Abraham Lincoln. If he refused to sign the bill, there was virtually no chance of getting it through both houses of Congress a second time.
On December 23, the president asked his Cabinet two questions: Was admitting West Virginia constitutional? Was it expedient?
They split down the middle. William Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edwin Stanton approved, Seward stating, “The first duty of the United States is protection to loyalty wherever it is found.” Montgomery Blair, Gideon Welles and Edward Bates found the proposal neither constitutional nor expedient. Bates called it “a mere abuse…hardly valid under the flimsy forms of law.”
Christmas came and went. Time was running out. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Lincoln signed the statehood bill, contingent on West Virginia’s voters approving Willey’s gradual emancipation amendment. “It is said that the admission of West-Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution,” he reasoned.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the state’s amended constitution on March 26; in April, Lincoln authorized West Virginia to become the 35th state on June 20, 1863. At the end of April, Confederate cavalry under William “Grumble” Jones and John D. Imboden galloped out of the Shenandoah Valley on a two-pronged raid that spread terror through the western counties.
Jones’ men took Pierpont’s library from his home in Fairmont and burned it in the streets. They destroyed bridges, damaged railroads and carried out history’s first military raid on an oil field, sending some 150,000 barrels’ worth floating down the Little Kanawha in flames—but they couldn’t halt statehood.
The sun was shining in Wheeling on June 20. In front of the Linsly Institute, which would serve as the state capitol for the next seven years, Governor Arthur I. Boreman and other state officials were sworn in atop a platform draped in red, white and blue. With the new West Virginia government in place, Pierpont relocated the Restored Government of Virginia to Alexandria and later to Richmond to administer Union-controlled territory east of the mountains.
On February 3, 1865, the state legislature abolished slavery. It set up a system of free public schools without regard to race, but a later constitution, adopted after former Confederates regained the right to vote and hold office, segregated schools.
The Supreme Court turned back Virginia’s postwar attempts to reclaim its lost territory, but debate about the legitimacy of the state’s creation has never ended. West Virginians summed up their opinion with the words on their state seal—Montani Semper Liberi: Mountaineers are always free.
Gerald D. Swick is the author of Historic Photos of West Virginia and a weekly newspaper column of West Virginia history. His work has appeared in Wonderful West Virginia, Blue Ridge Country and Lincoln Lore.