The creation of West Virginia was an outcome of the Civil War. Statehood was preceded by decades of sectional conflict between leaders of eastern and western Virginia, but sectionalism was a staple of politics in many other states (and still is in many places, including modern West Virginia). But while other states saw occasional calls for ‘‘dismemberment,’’ only one—Virginia—actually split. East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and North Georgia remained geographical expressions. West Virginia became the name of a state.
The process of West Virginia’s formation was shaped by both the war’s political and military contexts. Politically, the election of Abraham Lincoln, followed by the secession of seven Deep South states to form a southern Confederacy, precipitated a crisis in Virginia. A special convention sitting in Richmond to consider the issue seemed at first to favor keeping Virginia in the Union, but when Confederates attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and President Lincoln called on the states for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the Richmond Convention approved secession by a vote of 88 to 55, with delegates from counties later included in West Virginia casting 28 of the negative votes. In theory secession would not take effect until voters had ratified it in the regular spring election on May 23, but Virginia authorities began acting as though the matter were settled. State officials called county militias into state service on May 1 and directed them to gather at key railroad junctions, such as Grafton. Most local authorities, even in Western Virginia, went along with these actions, though in effect they made Virginia the ally of a Confederacy that it had not yet formally joined. The exception was in the Wheeling area, where local government continued to function and young men left the state militia to form companies of Union volunteers.
Unionist leaders rallied in Clarksburg on April 22, 1861, and summoned their own convention to meet in Wheeling on May 13. Initially, they concentrated on defeating the Virginia secession ordinance at the polls. When this failed, they debated other options. Meanwhile, federal troops crossed the Ohio River and joined with Unionist Virginia volunteers to push Confederate forces back from Grafton and eventually, at the Battle of Rich Mountain on July 11, from the entire northwest corner of the state. A parallel invasion in the Kanawha Valley shortly followed. The swift Union conquest gave pro-Union politicians a safe place to deliberate, in contrast to East Tennessee, where despite a large Unionist majority activists were by this time going underground or fleeing northward for their lives.
A Second Wheeling Convention met in June 1861 to consider Western Virginia’s options. Some leaders wanted to proceed directly to the formation of a new state; others thought it unwise to take such a step during wartime. A third group led by Waitman T. Willey of Morgantown effected a compromise whereby the Unionist remnant of Virginia’s government was reconstituted as a ‘‘loyal’’ or ‘‘restored’’ state government, complete with governor, legislature, and representation in Congress. Key members of the Lincoln administration indicated their approval of this strategy, but sent ambiguous signals about the notion of a new state.
Nevertheless, a majority led by Willey decided to follow the complicated procedures that the U.S. Constitution requires for the formation of a new state out of the territory of another. While the Unionist Reorganized Government of Virginia under Governor Francis H. Pierpont worked to raise troops and to restore local government, the Second Wheeling Convention approved a ‘‘dismemberment ordinance’’ in August. It provided for a new state called ‘‘Kanawha’’ consisting of 39 counties extending from the Kanawha Valley north and east to Randolph, Tucker and Preston counties.
In November 1861, a third convention assembled in Wheeling to write a constitution for the new state. This convention changed the name to West Virginia and added five more counties in December and another four in April 1862, even though some of the additions, which form the present border with Virginia, were still under Confederate control. In May the Reorganized Virginia legislature gave dismemberment its approval, as did the U.S. Congress after the Constitutional Convention took steps to abolish slavery within the borders of the state.
President Lincoln’s cabinet divided evenly on the issue of West Virginia statehood, with Attorney General Edward Bates leading the opposition while Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase defended the process as both constitutional and politically wise. Finally, on December 31, 1862, Lincoln decided in favor of statehood.
Countering the argument that relatively few voters had participated in the referenda that punctuated various steps of the statehood process, Lincoln pointed out that it was customary everywhere ‘‘to give no legal consideration whatever to those who do not choose to vote,’’ for whatever reason. ‘‘The division of a state is dreaded as a precedent,’’ he added. ‘‘But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we can call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution, and secession in favor of the Constitution.’’ Following the ratification of West Virginia’s anti-slavery amendment, in April Lincoln proclaimed West Virginia ready to take its place in the Union, which it did on June 20, 1863. Two additional counties (Berkeley and Jefferson) were transferred to the new state later that year.
The new state was constructed from blocks of counties, preserving the established borders with Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland and creating a new border with Virginia based on existing county lines. Thus, while sectional differences and mountain barriers were often cited to justify the dismemberment, in fact the new border cut diagonally across geographical features in many places and followed the dividing ridge between eastern and western rivers for only 75 miles out of 400. Nevertheless, this was the only permanent boundary change to result from the Civil War.
This Article was written by John Alexander Williams
Last Revised on November 07, 2010
Ambler, Charles H. Francis H. Pierpont: Union War Governor of Virginia and Father of West Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.
Crofts, Daniel W. Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists and the Secession Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Williams, John Alexander. "The Birth of a State: West Virginia and the Civil War," in Altina Waller, ed, True Stories from the American Past. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994.