The South seceded from the Union in 1861, but western Virginia upstarts seceded from the South— and took a vital railroad with them.
The dreaded moment had arrived: President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion in the spring of 1861 pushed the Commonwealth of Virginia off the fence it had tried to straddle between North and South. On May 23, Virginia voters passed a referendum to secede from the Union—but a majority of those in the state’s western counties, on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, had voted against it. Their pro-Union feelings reflected old and bitter differences between Virginia’s eastern and western regions over representation in the state government, infrastructure improvements, public education and a tax system that favored slave owners. In 1860 the western counties were home to nearly 34 percent of Virginia’s white population but held less than 4 percent of the state’s 490,865 slaves. Although few whites there sympathized with “troublemaking abolitionists,” slavery wasn’t a sacred cow in this mountainous region, where land was unsuitable for large farms. Instead, the western counties were building a diversified economy around mining and manufacturing. Western rivers ran into the American heartland, giving the region stronger commercial and cultural ties with northern and western states than with coastal Virginia. So when eastern planters entreated westerners to join the Confederacy, the invitation was spurned.
The Alexandria Gazette had warned, “It would take a hundred thousand bayonets from a Southern Confederacy to force Western Virginia into a union with the Cotton States.” In fact, galvanized by the secession issue, 39 western counties started their own rebellion. Delegates convened at Wheeling in the Northern Panhandle, some 40 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, and declared the Richmond government void. In June 1861, they set up the Restored Government of Virginia, with Francis Pierpont as governor, and authorized the creation of a new state, fashioned from the original.
Yet more than two years of maneuvering and drama would pass before “West Virginia” was officially admitted into the United States on June 20, 1863. A lot of the wrangling was political, but a vital transportation link also figured in the strategic planning. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad snaked its way through the eastern mountains on the Virginia-Maryland border, from where it entered Virginia at Harpers Ferry, to Wheeling on the Ohio River. The B&O and its spur, the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, carried passengers, produce and manufactured goods between the Ohio Valley and the East Coast.
When Virginia seceded, shippers in states west of the Ohio River, fearing disruption of service, began using alternative rail routes through Northern states to get goods to market. The loss of business alarmed John W. Garrett, president of the B&O. In 1860 he had proclaimed the B&O “a Southern railroad” capable of carrying 10,000 (presumably Southern) troops a day. But mounting financial losses changed his perspective. His “Southern friends” became “our misguided friends,” and finally “rebels.” Shortly after hostilities broke out, the railroad replaced pro-Southern employees in western Virginia with dependable Union loyalists.
The Richmond government had long been hostile to the B&O, repeatedly denying it permission to expand. For one thing, the powerful lobby for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal perceived the B&O as competition, and some in Richmond resented that the railroad was shifting commerce to Maryland. But the westerners realized this conduit, most of it within the breakaway counties, was critical to their new state’s future—and perhaps to the survival of the Union. Worried that the railroad was vulnerable to Confederate troops and that Virginia might at some point revoke the railroad’s charter, the westerners shrewdly conspired to grab every inch of the track.
The federal government was not a disinterested bystander. The B&O was the only direct route for moving troops and materiel between the Washington-Baltimore area and the war’s Western Theater. Additionally, the western counties were loaded with valuable commodities—coal, oil, salt, timber—and the region’s significant industries, including the burgeoning iron mills of Wheeling, were poised to serve the North. In 1862 the Wheeling Intelligencer reported that the Hamilton & Clark iron works alone turned out 40 13-inch shells a day. The western counties also offered the prospect of more soldiers, although the citizenry was deeply divided and thousands fought for each side.
Still, West Virginia statehood was no foregone conclusion in Washington. Article IV, Section 3.1 of the U.S. Constitution says a state’s legislature has to approve the creation of a new state from its territory. Congress bickered over whether the Pierpont government had that authority. First the Senate and then the House of Representatives decided that it did and voted in late 1862 to authorize statehood—provided the new state changed its constitution to emancipate its slaves gradually. Western voters agreed and amended their proposed constitution to begin the gradual emancipation of slaves under the age of 21 on July 4, 1863.
The legislation then moved to the president’s desk. Lincoln fretted over the constitutionality and expedience of the matter. He surveyed his Cabinet and found they were evenly divided. He held the statehood bill for several days before coming down on the side of expediency, signing it on December 31, 1862, a day before issuing his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln noted: “It is said, the devil takes care of his own. Much more should a good spirit—the spirit of the Constitution and the Union—take care of its own. I think it can not do less, and live….We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West-Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us.”
The importance of the Union retaining the B&O was tacitly understood. Originally, West Virginia was to comprise just 39 counties but the number ultimately grew to 50, including six that the Pierpont government annexed in the northern Shenandoah Valley—thereby claiming more B&O tracks for West Virginia. Four of the six voted in April 1862 to approve the annexation, but in the two easternmost, Berkeley and Jefferson, the military situation wasn’t stable enough for voting until after West Virginia was admitted to the Union. Those two counties, which had about 5,500 slaves and stronger ties to eastern Virginia, eventually voted to become part of West Virginia, but the polling was controversial. The turnout was very light, and many county residents who opposed joining the new state claimed they were kept prisoner in their homes on voting day. The state’s boundaries had been conditionally defined when it was admitted to the Union, but in March 1866 Congress officially approved adding the two eastern counties. The six new counties formed a second panhandle, giving West Virginia its unusual shape—and control of its railroad.
The row over West Virginia didn’t end with the war. On December 5, 1865, the postwar government in Richmond repealed the Restored Government of Virginia’s acts that authorized statehood and annexed Berkeley and Jefferson counties. In the resulting lawsuit, Virginia v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-3 against Virginia, but without addressing the key issue of whether West Virginia’s creation was constitutional. Expediency had won again.
Gerald D. Swick is the author of Historic Photos of West Virginia and writes a weekly newspaper column about West Virginia history.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.