Why West Virginia? Part 2
After the vote in Richmond of secession, the western delegates left the capital and returned to find its citizens beginning to divide on their loyalties. Some believed the federal government had no rights to tell states what they may do. Others believed that it was not a question of north and south, but one of east and west. Western Virginia had not been given a fair representation in governing the state to which it belonged for many years. The question of slavery was not a separate issue, but one that was woven into many other questions to be answered by the states citizens.
Delegates came home to a convention in Clarksburg to determine what action should be taken in a rapidly changing western Virginia. It was decided that each county should send five of its best leaders to Wheeling in May 1961. At that time it would be determined the course of action that should be taken as the divide between the north and south widen with each drum beat of war. Small groups of confederates were already roaming the countryside and causing problems with those in favor of staying in the union.
Delegates numbering 436 from 27 counties met in Wheeling and greatly debated the formation of a new state. The passion for its long awaited creation was strong, but those men who helped guide the way understood that a new state could not officially be formed from another without the parent state’s approval. Western Virginia may proclaim to be a new state, but by law the federal government could not and would not formally recognize its existence.
Before a new state could be born it must first be decided by the people if they wanted to be part of Virginia and succeed or stand with the union. A vote must be taken and the people, not the politicians, would decide before deciding the question of a new state. As the delegates returned home to have elections, brothers were dividing and joining the armies preparing to fight over the more fundamental question of what they believed. Some wore the blue uniforms of the north and some the gray of the south. It was the beginning of a war that divided not only a country, but the people of the mountains more than any other state.
The question of secession was given to the people of Virginia and the vote was taken. The total vote was 125,950 for secession and 20,373 against. The counties in the northwestern part of the state were not counted, 44,000 voted against and 4,000 for secession. Once again those west of the mountains were ignored when it came to governing the state. It was now time and the decision was made, in Wheeling the second convention would be held on in June to begin the work of building a new state. A “Declaration of Rights” was adopted and signed by 86 delegates. If I understand it correctly, the delegates decided the Virginia government in Richmond had violated its own state’s “Bill of Rights” in voting to secede from the union and take arms against the federal government. Since this action violated state law, the men in western Virginia could, in their judgment, legally create a reorganized government of the commonwealth. After a new government had been put into place, the act of dismemberment of Virginia could begin.
Over the coming months the war began shaping battle lines and forming the new state. Confederate forces were pushed from the northwest after the battle of Rich Mountain and Corricks Ford. General Wise and his men were forced from the Kanawha Valley. Wise being pushed out was seen as a major victory in the heart of the state.
Over the next couple of years the land that would be part of the reorganized state was traded back and forth in war and in the halls of politics. Some counties wanted to be included by their geographic location. Others were strategic in the railroads and transportation and many in the new state wanted them in their territory.
The number of troops that West Virginia sent to war is hard to know for sure. But estimates of those in federal service place the number at over 30,000. Number in the service of the confederate is estimate at less than 10,000. The exact number that took part in the fighting do not account for those who were sympathizers on both sides. Some were called bush-whacker and others were squirrel hunters. Either way, many took part in the fighting, whether from the battle line or from behind a squirrel tree.
In the fall of 1861 the dismemberment ordinance of the state of Virginia was ratified by a vote of 18,408 to 781. At that point it was decided to set about defining the borders. Confederate forces had been defeated at Carnifax Ferry and Cheat Mountain. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were now under federal control. These events played into where the borders would hope to be established. Those men defining the map of the new state of Kanawha were not happy with the present boundaries and want properly defined borders. They also want to change the name to “West Virginia”.
In May 1862 the Reorganized Government of Virginia approved the formation of West Virginia. The next step was to present to the Thirty-seventh Congress its proposal for state hood. The request was forwarded to the committee on territories. Bill No. 365 not only proposed statehood, but added more counties to the state’s request. It also called for the new state to hold a convention for the formation of a new constitution.
In July 1862 the Senate voted 23 to 17 for the new state’s bill. When the bill arrived before the house, Joseph Segar of Virginia opposed the purposed dismemberment. Segar supported the union, but was not in favor of dividing his state. He was able to have the bill tabled until December. After much debate that month about the state and the problems of the dismemberment, the new state prevailed by 96 votes for and 55 against.
The last step was to be carried out by President Abraham Lincoln. In my opinion he was not as interested in a new state as he was in a Free State. In his words “Admission of the new State turns that much slave soil to free: and thus, is a certain and irrevocable encroachment upon the cause of the rebellion.” The news of his approval was a New Year’s gift to supporters of West Virginia, 1863.
Six months later the Fourth and Fifth West Virginia Regiments accompanied the new governor to Linsly Institute where the inaugural ceremonies were held. Francis H. Pierpoint, Governor of Virginia, introduced our new state as “One among the United States of America.” Moments later Arthur I. Boreman, West Virginia’s first Governor, addresses the gathered crowd for his modest inaugural address. The band played the “Star Spangled Banner” and West Virginia became the 35th state in the union. As the music faded, the armies of the north and south marched toward Gettysburg. Those events in early July would change the course of the war. The struggle would go on for nearly two more years. Soldiers from West Virginia would continue to fight and die for their beliefs on both sides.
Unlike any other state, ours came into being because the people and its leaders decided not only to form a new state, but they helped to preserve the union. The question of national rights versus states rights is still a question we hear today. Democracy is never an easy task that free men and women have chosen for themselves. One hundred and fifty years ago, our state and country spilled the blood of Americans to build and preserve the ideals of democracy. Those sacrifices are why we live in The United States of America. Happy Birthday West Virginia, as we look back Through the Lens.