Western Virginia Goes its Own Way

June 17, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 26 (36 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Western Virginia Goes its Own Way

June 19, 1861. Although one quarter of Virginia’s white population lived in 35 counties west of the Shenandoah Valley and north of the Kanawha river, the western part of the state was geographically, economically, and politically different from the rest of the Old Dominion.Its high mountains and narrow valleys were unsuitable for crops raised by slave labor and its citizens looked east to Pennsylvania and west to Ohio rather than to the tidewater.

Illustration depicting the split between eastern and western Virginia, courtesy Library of Congress. Click on image to see a larger size.

Illustration depicting the split between eastern and western Virginia, courtesy Library of Congress. Click on image to see a larger size.

Its major city, Wheeling, was less than sixty miles from Pittsburgh, but over 300 from Richmond. Dominated by slaveholding interests, the Virginia legislature taxed westerners heavily while giving themselves significant breaks: slaves were taxed at less than one-third market value, for example, while all other property was assessed at full value. Major investment in roads and railroads went to eastern counties.

In early 1861 a Clarksburg paper claimed that western Virginia had been more severely abused by easterners “than ever the Cotton States all put together have suffered from the North.”So it wasn’t surprising that westerners, having opposed Virginia’s secession, quickly seized upon the principle to seek separate statehood. Here, however, they ran into a major roadblock: the U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 3) prohibited the creation of a new state within an old one without the consent of the state legislature. Clearly, a Confederate Virginia wouldn’t consent to such a move.
The Wheeling Convention‘s solution to this problem was inventive. On June 19, it declared the Confederate legislature in Richmond illegal and appointed new state officials, led by Governor Francis Pierpont. Although skeptical of such Constitution-bending, President Lincoln was quick to grasp a political opportunity when it appeared. He recognized the Pierpont administration as Virginia’s legal government, paving the way for the election of two senators and three congressmen, who took their seats in July.

Actual statehood for West Virginia, however, would have to wait. Like many other border areas, western Virginia became contested ground: rebel guerrillas successfully resisted counterinsurgency efforts of over 40,000 Union troops in a bloody conflict similar to that of today’s Afghanistan.Governor Pierpont’s administration left Wheeling for the safety of Washington and remained there for the rest of the war. And the persistence of slavery in the region (roughly 4 percent of the people in the proposed new state were slaves) remained an insurmountable obstacle. Only when West Virginia accepted Congressional insistence that it mandate gradual emancipation in the state constitution was it admitted to the Union on July 20, 1863.– Submitted by Victor Henningsen

1861 map showing slave ownership in Virginia based on 1860 census data. Click on map for larger view. Courtesy Library of Congress.

1861 map showing slave ownership in Virginia based on 1860 census data. Click on map for larger view. Courtesy Library of Congress.

SOURCES:

1. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 297-299, 301-303; David Donald, Lincoln, 300-301; The New York Times Complete Civil War.

OTHER INTERESTING LINKS

West Virginia State Archives

How a Map Divided Virginia,” an opinion piece in the New York Times.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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