Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860, and several Southern states seceded from the Union soon afterwards. Virginia Governor John Letcher came under pressure to call the Virginia legislature into special session to decide whether Virginia should join the seceding states. The special session was called to order on January 7, 1861, later than those favoring secession had wished but in keeping with Letcher’s desire to allow time for a national compromise that might save the Union.
Once in special session, the Virginia legislature took its own course and on January 14, 1861, authorized a convention to meet in Richmond in February. On January 21, the legislature adopted a joint resolution stating that if differences between the North and South couldn’t be settled, Virginia would join the Confederate States of America. On February 13, the Secession Convention, also known as the Virginia Convention of 1861, was called to order. While all counties were represented, the depth of representation varied. Some individual delegates represented two or three smaller counties, while more populous counties had two delegates each. Present West Virginia was part of Virginia at the time, and the region was well represented at the convention.
Western Virginia delegates, divided over secession, saw the convention as an opportunity to redress constitutional issues that had vexed residents of their region and had nothing to do with secession itself. At the convention they introduced proposals to increase taxation of slaves and to base legislative representation on white population. Such proposals favored Western Virginia, which had few slaves and a growing white population. Historian Otis Rice noted that the Richmond Enquirer newspaper accused delegates from Western Virginia of “blackmail in seeking redress of grievances before voting on an Ordinance of Secession.” Despite their efforts, however, no reforms were granted.
Regardless of what part of Virginia they came from, most of the 152 members of the convention were moderates and were initially opposed to secession or wanted to give ongoing peace efforts a chance. Smaller groups at opposite ends of the spectrum strongly favored either secession or remaining with the Union. However, almost all of the delegates opposed the use of federal force against any Southern state, a fact which would influence the final vote. And despite taking a cautious approach to secession, the convention was under considerable pressure to make a decision. A delegation from the newly formed Confederate States of America urged Virginia to join those states, and newspapers rallied one or the other side in the debate.
Not all Unionists were from what is now West Virginia, but delegates from that region, including John S. Carlile, Waitman T. Willey, George W. Summers and Caleb Boggess, were prominent in the anti-secession movement. The most ardent secessionists were led by the easterner and former governor, Henry A. Wise, but notably included Samuel Woods of Barbour County in present West Virginia.
While the convention moved relatively slowly, events outside Virginia influenced the course of the debate. The Washington “Peace Convention,” which Governor Letcher helped to organize, failed in February 1861. While ending in an eloquent plea for peaceful reconciliation, President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural speech on March 4 made clear his determination to bring the seceding states back into the Union, angering many Virginians who opposed coercion. After the Lincoln speech, Virginia secessionists on March 8 pushed for a vote, but Union supporters used parliamentary procedures to block it. A vote on April 4 went against the secessionists by a two-thirds majority. Delegates from counties in present West Virginia split on the April 4 vote, with those from Wetzel, Barbour, Jackson, Roane, Boone, Logan, Wyoming, and McDowell counties voting for secession.
Lincoln’s decision to send supplies to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, led to an attack on the fort by Confederate forces on April 12, 1861. The ensuing battle was seen by Virginia secessionists as evidence that Lincoln would not compromise on issues of states rights or slavery, and a vote on secession was demanded. The convention went into secret session April 16 to begin debating in earnest. On April 17, 1861, the delegates (whose numbers by this time had dwindled to 140 due to illness, demands of family and business, or expulsion) voted for secession by a margin of 85 to 55, with 32 of the delegates from Western Virginia voting against secession. The overall pro-secession vote from present West Virginia increased, however, as those westerners who had voted in favor of secession on April 4 were now joined by delegates from the counties of Fayette, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh, Ritchie, Randolph, Tucker, and Taylor. After the vote was recorded, 11 of the western delegates who had voted against secession changed their votes to yes as did four who were absent when the vote was taken.
The Ordinance of Secession required that secession be ratified by the people in an election on May 23. Seeing the results of the election as a foregone conclusion in favor of secession, Virginia elected representatives to the Confederate congress, made a treaty with the Confederate States, and formally entered the Confederacy on May 7. In June the Confederate capital moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond. Though its work was technically over, the convention remained in session for several weeks after the ordinance was ratified to support Governor Letcher in putting Virginia on a war footing.
Among the consequences to Virginia of these fateful actions of the spring of 1861 were four devastating years of war and the ultimate loss of a third of its territory to the new state of West Virginia. Western Virginia delegates who had opposed secession left Richmond and immediately called mass meetings to discuss ways to keep Virginia in the Union while working toward the separation of western and eastern parts of the state. The result was the First Wheeling Convention where members discussed the formation of a new state after the Virginia vote on the Ordinance of Secession was known. Following the vote that ratified the ordinance, the Second Wheeling Convention met on June 11, 1861, and proceeded to create the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which remained a loyal part of the United States and which later gave the necessary constitutional consent for the creation of West Virginia. On June 20, 1861, Francis H. Pierpont was elected governor of the Reorganized Government, which sat at Wheeling until West Virginia entered the Union two years later.
This Article was written by Kenneth R. Bailey
Last Revised on December 20, 2016
Curry, Richard O. A House Divided: Statehood Politics & the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.
Rice, Otis K. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Stealey, John E. III. West Virginia's Civil War-Era Constitution. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2013.
Cite This Article
Bailey, Kenneth R. "Secession of Virginia." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 December 2016. Web. 30 March 2017.