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 delighted with the state’s secession, the Virginians who lived west of the Alleghenies, weren’t happy to secede from the Union.
These two parts of Virginia that were separated physically by the Alleghenies, were also separated from one another in other ways. Western Virginia was composed of thirty-five counties located west of the Shenandoah Valley and north of the Kanawa River. This region of Virginia’s geography is very rough country made up largely of hills and steep mountainsides with narrow valleys. The geography of western Virginia split it significantly in the more lowland eastern tidewater part of the state. It is fair to say that Western Virginia was a land of mountaineers.
The western part of Virginia was more closely tied by streets and rivers to its northern neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania than it was to eastern Virginia. The two segments 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’s a mere 60 miles from Pittsburgh. An important difference between eastern and western Virginia was that it was uncommon to find slave owners and slaves from 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 country, the mountaineers were underrepresented in the state legislature. The Virginia state legislature had passed taxes and laws that preferred 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 instead often found their way to the tidewater aristocrat’s eastern portion of the state.
Discord had been stewing for years among both segments 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 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 just increased. Only five of the thirty-one delegates from northwestern Virginia voted for the Virginia secession ordinance on April 17, 1861. The Virginian mountaineers had little interest in secession from the Union, but it came because of 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 the convention was different statehood for western Virginia. But, there was a barrier 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. Now, as hard as it may be to believe, the Confederate legislature over in Richmond was not eager to permit western Virginia to become a separate state… and one which would be from the Union to boot. For those mountaineers and their quest for their own nation, there simply had to be a solution for this United States Constitution problem, someway, somehow.
You see, that Confederate legislature over east in Richmond, that secessionist one, is illegal and thus the Wheeling mountaineers announced all state offices empty. The Wheeling conference appointed new state officials on June 20. All these changes, as far as the Unionist western Virginia mountaineers were concerned, restored the state of Virginia.
Though this new Virginia legislature was set up, 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 those 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 authorities in Richmond with its patronage of”tidewater aristocrats” who had seceded from the Union. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the Pierpoint government as the government of Virginia. Obviously, President Lincoln was not going to recognize Virginia’s Confederate version of government as valid.
The Wheeling convention ended, and then it reconvened in August, 1861. Currently a lengthy debate started between separatists and a conservative minded faction who believed it improper that the new legislature was claiming to represent the entire state. Nevertheless, in spite of this debate, the Wheeling convention continued to move forward with its agenda… to form a new state.
On August 20, the Wheeling convention adopted what was known as an”ordinance of dismemberment.” An ordinance for separate statehood had now been created. This ordinance will be subject to ratification on October 24, 1861 from the voters. Voters would also be able at this time to elect delegates for a constitutional convention, the purpose of which was for the creation of a new state to be named”Kanawha.” [The title”Kanawha” is an Native American word. It’s thought to mean a place of Critter Control Round Rock TX.”]
Now, there were some military concerns that had to be managed concurrently with this new nation conventioning and creation going on in western Virginia. Important military assets such as 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 adequate enough to rid the region 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 important. Indeed, without Union military dominance over Rebel troops in western Virginia, the formation of a new state would not have been possible.
Union military success in western Virginia allowed the October 24, 1861 referendum to happen. Voter turn-out was little, and voters (those of a Rebel ilk) in over 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 instead West Virginia. On May 23, 1862 West Virginia was sanctioned by the revived legislature of Virginia.
The United States Congress would not permit a slave state to enter the Union, so first a bill requiring emancipation in West Virginia was passed in the United States Senate in July, 1862. It passed in the United States House of Representatives the following 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.
I have been blogging about American Civil War stories and history since 2005. The history and lessons of the Civil War are always important to learn and know about. There is something about America’s Civil War that catches and holds our interest and creativity, it is truly an amazing story.