Reconstruction was the period after the Civil War, when the nation attempted to ‘‘reconstruct’’ the returning Southern states. West Virginia’s Reconstruction experience was unique. As a former slave state it underwent some of the readjustments of other such states. But West Virginia had been created by the war, as a Union state in opposition to the secession of Virginia. Thus its Reconstruction most resembles the experience of the border slave states that did not secede, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. While not subject to the harsh measures applied farther south, these states suffered a legacy of bitterness from the often violent competition between Union and Confederate loyalists during the post-war years.
As in all the former slave states, there was an attempt after the war by men who had been political outsiders to democratize and modernize the political system. In West Virginia, however, the outsiders were not ‘‘carpetbaggers’’ or freed slaves but local white politicians long held down by Virginia’s laws of representation and taxation. West Virginia Unionists were sharply divided between traditional states’ rights Democrats, who feared federal power and racial change, and unconditional Unionists, soon to be Republicans, who accepted federal dictates on emancipation in return for guarantees of statehood. The new state government’s attempts to eliminate the old county court system of local government, to establish public education, and to reform property assessments and taxation were rooted in earlier, failed efforts to free the mountain sections of Virginia from slaveholder control. Much of what the new West Virginians wanted from Reconstruction was what they had for decades wanted from Virginia.
There was some fear that the young state would be lost, reabsorbed into Virginia after the war. These concerns were exacerbated by Virginia’s recalcitrance and the decision of the statemakers to include within West Virginia a southern tier of counties that had supported secession and the Confederacy. There was also a lingering residue of guerrilla warfare. So the new Unionists’ treatment of Confederate sympathizers was linked not to freedmen’s rights or to Republican economic programs as it was in the Deep South, but to the fate of the state itself.
The result was that oaths attesting to past Union loyalty, harshly enforced to eliminate the votes of former Confederates, stood at the heart of political Reconstruction in West Virginia. The conservative orientation of many state makers meant the Republican majority created by these voting restrictions was not used to promote black freedom, however. The end to slavery, the grant of basic civil rights, and the black vote all came because of federal pressure, and never were allowed to threaten preexisting racial relations. While spared the worst of the Jim Crow period that followed, African-Americans emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction as second-class citizens in West Virginia.
By 1870, when it was clear that the state’s survival was assured, that anti-Confederate restrictions could not be maintained, and that common interests in industrial development could unite moderates of all factions, the test oaths were rescinded. An amendment to the state constitution, formalizing these changes, was passed by the voters in 1871. Their voting strength thus bolstered, Democrats took power. As in other “redeemed” states, Reconstruction changes were not completely swept away in West Virginia. Although the less-than democratic county court system returned and support for black institutions waned, public schools remained, as did the secret ballot, and the young state moved toward an industrial, not agrarian, future.
This Article was written by Ralph Mann
Last Revised on October 22, 2010