Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861 to become part of the Confederate States of America. While the people of Virginia east of the Allegheny Mountains were pleased with the state’s secession, the Virginians who lived west of the Alleghenies, weren’t pleased to secede from the Union.
These two parts of Virginia which were separated by the Alleghenies, were separated from one another in other ways. Western Virginia was made up of thirty-five counties located west of the Shenandoah Valley and north of the Kanawa River. In 1860, this part of Virginia had one quarter of Virginia’s white inhabitants. This area of Virginia’s geography is extremely rough country composed largely of hills and steep mountainsides with narrow valleys. The geography of western Virginia split it significantly in the lowland eastern tidewater component of the state. It is fair to say that Western Virginia was a property of mountaineers.
The western part of Virginia was closely tied by streets and rivers to its northern neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania than it had been to eastern Virginia. The two sections of Virginia were different in culture, geography, and economics as the western part identified more with Ohio and Pennsylvania in those regards. The western Virginia city of Wheeling was the greatest city in that region and it is a mere 60 miles from Pittsburgh. In contrast, from Wheeling to Richmond it was 330 miles! An important difference between western and eastern Virginia was that it was rare to find slave owners and slaves in the rocky country of the mountaineers.
The mountaineers looked at the people of eastern Virginia as”tidewater aristocrats” and because of the larger population in the eastern portion of the state, the mountaineers were underrepresented in the state legislature. The tidewater aristocrats dominated Virginia’s state government. The Virginia state legislature had passed laws and taxes that favored the eastern tidewater aristocrats more so than they did the mountaineers of western Virginia. The mountaineers needed more roads and railroads, and other internal improvements, that rather often found their way into the tidewater aristocrat’s eastern portion of the state.
Discord had been stewing for years amongst the two sections of Virginia before Virginia seceded from the Union. Separate statehood for western Virginia wasn’t a new idea at the onset of the Civil War, and now it would come to the vanguard. With Virginia’s secession from the Union, the unhappiness and disagreement between the mountaineers and the tidewater aristocrats of Virginia only improved. Only five of the thirty-one delegates from northwestern Virginia voted for the Virginia secession ordinance on April 17, 1861. The mountaineer people of Virginia refused the secession ordinance ratification by a margin of three to one. The Virginian mountaineers had little interest in secession from the Union, but it came due to the domination of representation and votes of the pro-secession eastern portion of Virginia.
On June 11, 1861 mountaineer Unionists met at a convention in Wheeling. The focus of this convention was different statehood for western Virginia. But, there was a hurdle that stood in the way of western Virginia’s statehood, it was something called the United States Constitution.
Seems that Article IV, Section 3, of the United States Constitution requires permission of the legislature to form a new state from the territory of an existing one. But as hard as it might be to believe, the Confederate legislature over in Richmond wasn’t eager to permit western Virginia to become another state… and one that would be from the Union to boot. For the mountaineers and their quest for their own state, there just had to be a solution for this United States Constitution problem, someway, somehow.
The answer for western Virginia was for the Wheeling convention to ingeniously form its own Virginia”restored government” You see, that Confederate legislature over east in Richmond, that secessionist one, is prohibited and thus the Wheeling mountaineers declared all state offices vacant. The Wheeling conference appointed new state officials on June 20. Francis Pierpoint was now governor of Virginia, and the new state capital was now in Wheeling. All these changes, so far as the Unionist western Virginia mountaineers were worried, restored the state of Virginia.
Although this new Virginia legislature was in place, it really represented only one-fifth of Virginia, that being the mountaineers of the northwest counties. Nonetheless, it elected two United States senators from Virginia, and on July 13, 1861 these senators were seated by the United States Senate.
In effect, there was a Union Virginia claiming to represent all of Virginia, but actually only being composed of the mountaineer northwest part of the state, and there was a Confederate Virginia with its government in Richmond with its patronage of”tidewater aristocrats” who had seceded from the Union. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the Pierpoint administration as the government of Virginia. Obviously, President Lincoln wasn’t going to recognize Virginia’s Confederate model of government as legitimate.
The Wheeling convention ended, then it reconvened in August, 1861. Currently a long debate began between separatists and a conservative minded faction who thought it improper that the new legislature was claiming to represent the entire state. Nevertheless, in spite of this debate, the Wheeling convention continued to proceed with its agenda… to form a new nation.
An ordinance for separate statehood had been created. This ordinance will be subject to ratification on October 24, 1861 by the voters. Voters would also be able at this time to select delegates for a constitutional convention, the objective of which was for the formation of a new state to be termed”Kanawha.” [The name”Kanawha” is an Native American word. It is believed to mean a place of white rock.”]
Now, there were several military concerns that had to be handled simultaneously with this new state conventioning and formation happening in western Virginia. Important military assets like the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Ohio River were integral to western Virginia and their control was desired by both Yankees and Rebels. Suffice it to say for now, that Union military efforts in western Virginia were sufficient enough to rid the area of Confederate military difficulties, thus clearing the way for a new state to come about. This brief mention of the military operations in western Virginia is to not short-change them, they were significant. Really, without Union military dominance over Rebel troops in western Virginia, the creation of a new state wouldn’t have been possible.
Union military victory in western Virginia allowed the October 24, 1861 referendum to occur. Voter turn-out was little, and voters (those of a Rebel ilk) in more than a dozen counties actually boycotted the election. The end result however, was that the creation of a new state was strongly endorsed.
Boundaries for the new state were set during the constitutional convention held in January, 1862. There could be fifty counties in the new state and the new state wouldn’t be called Kanawha, but rather West Virginia. On May 23, 1862 West Virginia was sanctioned by the restored legislature of Virginia.
It passed in the United States House of Representatives the next December. West Virginia accepted emancipation as a requirement to statehood.
The eastern aristocrats still had their Confederate state of Virginia, but they lost some state land according to July 4, 1863, the new state of West Virginia joined the Union.
West Virginia became the 35th state of the Union.
I have been blogging about American Civil War history and stories since 2005. The history and lessons of the Civil War are always important to know and learn about. There is something about America’s Civil War that captures and holds our interest and imagination, it is truly an amazing story.