West Virginia

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Map of Civil War Virginia
Credit en.wikipedia.org

Originally aired on January 16, 1998 - In part 177 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses the creation of the new state of West Virginia following the Civil War.

#177 – West Virginia

Virginia is the only state that lost territory directly as a result of the Civil War. Far more than a community or a county was involved. For decades citizens in the mountainous area in the western third of Virginia had complained of over-taxation and under-representation. Few of them owned slaves. Their economy and culture were more oriented with that of Ohio than with eastern Virginia.

The mountaineers traditionally felt like Virginia’s step-children. To them the state was controlled by tide-water snobs for tide-water benefits. Thus in April, 1861, when the Virginia Secession Convention voted 88 to 55 in favor of leaving the Union the over-whelming majority of negative votes came from convention delegates from the western counties.

In addition, western Virginians feared that secession might lead to war, in which case, they would be a quick and easy target for a Federal army crossing over the river from powerful Ohio. That is precisely what happened. Union officials ordered General George McClellan to move in with a small force. His orders were to protect potential lines of communication, as well as, “to support the Union sentiment in western Virginia”.

Most of McClellan’s ninety-day recruits were from Ohio. The majority marched with the enthusiasm of crusaders. Others in the ranks made disparaging remarks about the region’s being “a land of secession rattlesnakes, rough mountains, and bad whiskey”.  

For several months Union and Confederacy fought for title to the western Virginia lands. Much was at stake. If the Confederacy gained control, it could squelch the mountaineer Unionists and take the war all the way to the Ohio River. For the Federals, control of those counties gave Union forces a back door approach into the heart of Virginia.

A sprinkling of advances, retreats, skirmishes and sullen little mountain fights took place. Confederates were consistently the losers. While small bands of soldiers were shooting as each other in isolated places delegates from the western counties met in Wheeling. This convention nullified Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession and declared that the offices of the state government at Richmond were vacated. The delegates also voted funds to carry on the war for the Union; named Francis H. Pierpont Governor of The So-called Historic Government in Virginia; and appointed two men as U. S. Senators. Apparently on the theory that the only part of Virginia which then had legal existence in the Union was the part west of the blue-ridge mountains.

The Wheeling Assembly then called for a Constitutional Convention to meet in November to form a new state to be called Kanawha. This action was ratified by a popular referendum in which only those who took a Unionist oath could vote. The capital first at Wheeling, was for a time moved to Alexandria, Virginia, since that city was within Union lines and conveniently across the Potomac River from Washington.

The Federal Government eventually gave its consent to this state division. On April 20, 1863, fifty counties now calling themselves West Virginia were duly admitted to the Union as the 35th State. However, this separatist movement was carried out by a distinct minority of the population. Only 18,000 people out of a total voting class of 47,000 citizens ratified the West Virginia Constitution.

Two counties, Jefferson and Berkeley, were included in the new state despite the opposition of a majority of their residents. Thus a third of the proud “Old Dominion” was sheared away forever. One leading scholar saw an unnatural development at play here, he wrote: “Here was a paradox within a paradox: that Confederate Virginia, the product of secession, would fiercely condemn the withdrawal of its western counties, while the Federal government, sworn enemy of secession, would applaud and abet it within a state.” Secession was a strange act indeed.