Jump to content
The Education Forum

West Virginia History

Shanet Clark

Recommended Posts








March 2006

New England Historical Association, Regis College April 2005

West Virginia,

with its fantastic vistas, surreal vegetation, and unusual topography—

along with its bear, bobcat, fox and beaver—

is today a living relic of the American frontier.

Rare old growth forests still stand along the high Allegheny ridgeline

as they did six, eight, ten generations ago, and they remain a beautiful

yet formidable force.

Many of the rural people resist the encroachments of modernity

and urbanization, the paradox of remote poverty linked with heavy industrial industry

haunt the values and expectations of the natives, both rich and poor, common and cosmopolitan.

West Virginia’s annals of geographic and geologic history,

and the study of Greater Virginia’s frontier geography since the seventeenth century,

reveal to us the strategic importance of West Virginia and the

Allegheny Mountain Ridge to the story of American history.

Nineteenth century American U.S. strategic forces turned upon a fulcrum (or pivot)

and this fulcrum was the mountainous Allegheny ridges of West Virginia,

a highlands region that protected the south- and west-bound Ohio River from

proximate Confederate control.

The history of West Virginia has been examined by many capable writers since the Civil War,

and the nineteenth century historiography of the new State stressed the

theme of loyal citizens showing loyalty to the Federal Union, this theme is especially strong in

the major work of the period by Union veteran and historian Theodore Lang,

West Virginia from 1861-1865.

In the early twentieth century this theme remained strong,

as shown by this passage by Charles Ambler in The Mountain State (1940):

“A barrier between pro-slavery and abolition, she refused to allow either to drive her to extremes

….Loyalty to the Union [during the 1860 election] was so intense that suggestions looking to its dismemberment appeared absurd.” The Civil War, and a strong Unionist point of view,

has always predominated in the written history of West Virginia;

U.S. regimental histories, unit histories, diaries and reports of the Adjutant General

are common from the 1860s to the present.

In the twentieth century every generation saw a new standard textbook history

of West Virginia emerge, and all four of the twentieth century textbooks are excellent.

James Morton Callahan wrote one in the 1920s and then

Charles Ambler’s comprehensive 1930s work was unsurpassed until the

1940 Works Project Administration history was published by the U.S. Government, Oxford University Press and the West Virginia State Board of Education.

The WPA textbook was followed in the late 1970s by the present day standard textbook,

written by Otis Rice, a distinguished scholar of the American frontier.

Two excellent general history books appeared in 1963,

the year of the West Virginia Centennial.

However, much of the history of West Virginia is anecdotal in content and non-standard in form.

Independent publishers such as The West Virginia Hillbilly’s editor Jim Comstock

provide a wealth of colorful details and authentic voices.

Recently West Virginia’s industrial history has been interpreted by a number of authors.

Coal mining and rapid industrialization have made their mark on the people and land of West Virginia and two recent scholarly works have grappled with this.

The brother-against-brother theme of a war-torn West Virginia has proved the most

durable topic in West Virginia history, however, and good scholars continue to investigate

the political polarity of the region during the Civil War. The recent consensus is that West Virginia was even more war-torn, and had greater Confederate sympathies than the Loyalist school had acknowleged.

Western Virginia occupied the center of the national demographic map for the first

six decades of the nineteenth century, and it was a central part of the American frontier

from the early 1700’s through the late antebellum era.

The most contested U.S. domestic issue in early nineteenth century was probably the

internal improvements debate. In 1817 President James Monroe found Federal capital

investment in postal and military roads to be both constitutional and politically palatable to a new

generation of national leaders, including Kentucky’s Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House.

Congress chartered the National Road, it stretched from Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio River

and passed through present day West Virginia. This extension of the settlers’ westbound Potomac River

route formed a strategic and developmental mainway from Baltimore and the Federal

capital city inland to the Ohio River, the Old Northwest Territory and the Mississippi Valley.

Forty-five years later, West Virginia seceded from Confederate Virginia to join the Union as a new

State, and as a result of this wartime development the Federal government gained the

strategic defense of the National Road, secured the 1853 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad along a

parallel route, and added the Potomac River itself and the western Shenandoah

waters west of the Allegheny Ridge to the Union, all essential to the safety of the capital,

Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland.

With West Virginia, the Union firmed up control of the Border States.

Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky’s strategic security was assured and this

helped clear the Ohio River from the points north of Pittsburgh down to South Point, Ohio

and Kentucky. The Ohio River linked the Union and West Virginia completed the bloc of

loyal Border States.

West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountain watershed bears an important relationship to events

in Native American, French, and British eighteenth century history as well as to

these nineteenth century’s Union vs. Confederacy strategic realities.

The frontier, so important to U.S. history, is literally the ‘front tier,’ and the American

western frontier has deeply rooted geographic, cultural and strategic significance.

George Washington knew the crucial importance the old Virginia frontier area had

and he was familiar with the daunting aspects of trans-montagne transportation.

The French explorer known as LaSalle, or Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle (1643-1687)

developed his dreams of an empire in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, he made his way

to the Gulf from the Great Lakes and he was then named the French Governor

of greater Louisiana by the king, based on his exploits. Whether or not LaSalle

found the Ohio River in 1669 is not as important as France’s historical claim to the

Ohio Valley proper.

LaSalle, the founder of Chicago and St. Louis as European colonial outposts in the

seventeenth century, personified the sweeping frontier backdrop against which the

French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars were mapped. LaSalle’s actual routes are still

debated, but we know he ended up in Texas, and was killed in a mutiny heading north for Canada.

Because of LaSalle, the French laid claim to the Ohio Valley itself up until the Seven Years War,

when they gave it over to the British. Bienville, whose real name was Captain Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Blainville, explored the Ohio River and Ohio Valley in 1749.

He buried lead plates along the Ohio River, and these read:

A token of Renewal of possession heretofore taken of the aforesaid River Ohio, of all streams that fall into it and all lands on both sides to the source of the aforesaid streams, as the preceding kings of France have enjoyed, or ought to have enjoyed it, and which they have upheld by force of arms and by treaties, notably by those of Ryswick, Utrecht and Aix-la-Chapelle.

LaSalle’s theme of an independent southwestern American state,

essentially a brokered state with Spanish, French and possibly British and American intriguers participating, haunted the Ohio River Valley “and all streams that fall into it” for many years.

Aaron Burr developed a plot with Revolutionary War General James Wilkinson

and the Irish immigrant Harman Blennerhasset to establish rule over the old gulf coast.

This plot was hatched, deployed and snuffed out on Blennerhasset’s Island on the Ohio River,

within sight of the present day West Virginia shores.

This plot was not only a spectacular example of the strategic value of the Ohio River Valley,

but an enduring legacy of LaSalle and Bienville.

Similarly informing frontier history and geography,

the George Rogers Clark expeditions to take Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Vincennes

in the Revolutionary Was was part of this strategic history of the Ohio Valley,

and early ‘West’ Virginians participated in these efforts to secure the frontier.

General G.R. Clark and General Washington learned the importance of the

Ohio River Valley and its approaches (the related streams, trails, roads, gaps and portages)

while maintaining the integrity of Virginia and the American colonial interests.

The Early Years 1770-1784, Virginia Homesteads. " was said to have been the first white child born in Greenbriar. My father Dawson Wade, was an officer during the whole war. I think it was in 1770 that he went there. The people that first moved out into Greenbriar (sic) and spread over the western declivity of the Allegheny, took no precaution to form stations but settled all promiscuously throughout until the Indians became so bad . . ."

James Wade’s account is interesting on a number of counts,

but emphasis falls on the late date of frontier settlement in western Virginia. The Savage Grant, or

Fort Gay, on the Levisa River, was settled in 1796, and the Miami Shawnee American wars

were fought a few years later and miles farther west, in Ohio (then Northwest Territory).

Indian fighting in the trans-Allegheny was fierce in the 1780s and into the Washington Administrations.

Entire settlements, fortified homes, were destroyed by Indians and the settlers were often

sent falling back, with casualties, to the Blue Ridge valley, Staunton and the security of the Piedmont.

“Northeastern Woodsmen,” the Shawnee, the Illinois, the Miami, the Powhatan, the Delaware and the surviving Iroquois farmed, fished and hunted in the Ohio Valley.

The “Southeastern Farmers,” the Cherokee, Tuscarora, Catawba, Chickasaw and Creek Indians also farmed, fished and hunted from their towns south of the Appalachian crest. Both the Iroquois and Cherokee confederations would be found in the Kentucky and West Virginia buffer zone, but Gail Roberts and others divide the boundary between the Cherokee and the Shawnee nations right at the Allegheny Divide (in the late eighteenth century).

In 1785 the Potomac Company was incorporated to connect the Potomac River with the

Cheat River (of present day West Virginia) via a canal,

and at the same time the James River Company was incorporated to construct a canal from the James River to the Great Kanawha (this was never completed as a canal, only as a road).

George Washington was made President of both chartered companies,

he was interested in developing and securing the U.S. frontier,

then located between the Atlantic Piedmont and the Ohio Valley.

The National Road was completed from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, Virginia

on the Ohio River in 1818, while the first commercial steamboat on the Ohio River dated to 1817.

The Staunton to Parkersburg Road from the Great Valley to the Ohio River was established

between 1823 and 1847. The Winchester to Parkersburg Road was completed in the 1830’s.

Germans, Scots, Irish and various pioneers migrated southwest from Baltimore, Philadelphia

or New England, and the western Virginians shared little of the Anglican Virginians’ tobacco plantation interests.

Good roads pushed through the interior hollows during the Clay-Jackson period, these developed and improved the economy. “We landed at Guyandot [Huntington] and proceded by stage the next morning to Charleston, on the Kanawha River. The road, all the way to the [White Sulfur] Springs, is marvelously good for so wild a part of the country.”

It is significant that the United States Census of 1820, 1830, 1840 and 1850 show the center of U.S. population moving west over time across present day West Virginia, like a slow wagon of popular political weight moving west from the colonial area into the Ohio Valley, and by 1860 the center of population moved into nearby Ohio and the northwest territory.

The completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the winter of 1852-1853 brought a quickening of market prosperity for the mixed agricultural families now less dependent on game. As hard pioneer conditions abated in much of western Virginia, due to new steam-powered river transports, wood- and coal-fired railroads, new roads and bridges, the region’s cultural and political establishment reached new heights. West Virginia was both made and unmade by the war.

River, rail and road transport had promised Victorian prosperity and this hope was tragically dashed in the

early 1860s.

The New River, the Kanawha River and other rivers in the Ohio-Mississippi-Gulf system;

the Cheat River, the Guyandotte, the Elk River, the Gauley River and the Greenbrier River

are all interesting for their effects on important trade, development and political boundary decisions in the French and Indian, Revolutionary and antebellum periods.

When Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy in 1861, the people of these western river valleys mobilized immediately for resistance and Union statehood. Western Virginia political leaders were recognized by the Lincoln Administration, and sat in the wartime House and Senate as loyalists, or “Reformed Virginia.” By 1863 a series of conventions and lop-sided elections had established the new state, West Virginia. Marked by its sprawling, irregular shape and mountainous terrain, West Virginia is poorly understood by many 19th century and Civil War historians, probably because no great armies ever fought there. Strategically, however, the severance of the northwest half of Virginia had great impact on the Confederacy and the Union. This minor general theater of campaign, West Virginia, had a major railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, and the river systems mentioned above.

As John Shaffer states:

Federal success in Western Virginia gave the north its most important victory of the first year of the war. A third of Virginia had been won to the Union, territory from which its Armies could be launched deep into the Confederacy. In the spring of 1862 the U.S. high command launched a 2-pronged attack into the Shenandoah Valley from Western Virginia.

A few battles and countless skirmishes cemented the new border, which carefully followed the high ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. For many miles the border shares its identity with the actual watershed between the Ohio River (or Mississippi Gulf-bound tributary waters) and the Chesapeake Bay (or the Atlantic Ocean-bound mountain headwaters). Here in the less populated cold and rugged hinterlands, both the Union and the Confederacy could tacitly utilize the high defensive wall of the Allegheny Ridge to their tactical and strategic advantage, or stalemate. But the Union gained more than the Confederacy. The Union gained the Ohio River itself, the Potomac River, the route of the old National Road and the 1853 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, plus the northern panhandle of old Virginia near Pittsburg, Harpers Ferry (strategic river/rail confluence) and the old buffalo cattle trail roadway across the mountains from Lewisburg into the Kanawha and Ohio Valleys, “the Midland Trail.” By November 1863 the U.S. General William A. Averell had defeated the Confederates at Droop Mountain and ended rebel control of the Greenbriar River Valley. This produced a considerable degree of harmony between the boundaries of the new state of West Virginia and the ground actually under the control of its new government.

The 20th century French historians Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch understood that geographic factors and la longue duree might in some ways dominate human industry, culture and political behaviour. George Washington, Peter Jefferson and his son Thomas Jefferson were cartographic surveyors, and the history of the Colonial and Federal (eastern) frontier is one of competing land claims and jurisdictional issues in which an accurate knowledge of space, terrain and remote topography were of central importance. Human agency is restrained by physical factors in the environment—floating down a river is easy, climbing over a mountain is much more difficult. Braudel’s theory of geographic determinism is a good approach to the history of the trans-Allegheny region. Time passes in different cycles in the rural mountains, between rural small towns and the coal and chemical producing cities. The events horizon of recent history is formed by a longer pattern, and the Olympian (or Braudelian) view of the old frontier can show us these high mountain ridges and their swift river systems influenced history and divided the Colonial and Federal era frontier peoples, more or less neatly. Human agency is determined in some degree by forbidding or compelling geographic realities. The importance of the mountain watershed over the long term cannot be underestimated. It forms the background on which political conjunctures occur.

The Shawnee and the Cherokee are known to have used the border states of Kentucky and West Virginia as a buffer zone during the first European contact period. When the Proclamation Line of 1763 was promulgated by George III to end the westward frontier expansion into the freshly conquered northwest territories, the line followed the high ridge of the Alleghenies, from the southwest to the northeast, incorporating nearly the present border of West Virginia and Virginia. The Southern Methodists’ break from the Northern Methodists in 1844 also followed this line. The French, following up on LaSalle’s ambitious expeditions, laid claim to the Ohio tributaries from the River to their highest sources, i.e. the French claimed the West Virginia part of old Virginia in the 18th century up until 1763. One of the oldest and most simple maps of this region labels West Virginia and Kentucky simply as “Part of Florida,” showing a primitive Spanish claim. The political names Vandalia and Westsylvania were also superimposed, prematurely, on maps of western Virginia during the 18th century, these attempts at a new political entity in West Virginia failed until the Civil War made division of the Old Dominion possible.

The Ohio River is a very plain demarcation, but the high ridge is less manifest to the eye. Confronting the Allegheny massif, a forbidding front broken by gaps, western explorers were steered around present day West Virginia. The Warrior Road became the Great (Shenandoah) Valley Road and it trailed off to the southwest to pass through the Cumberland Gap as the Wilderness Road to the Bluegrass; here Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone’s route led rustic Virginians out of old Virginia, and into the Ohio Valley. The Shenandoah Valley, enduring the General Stonewall Jackson’s campaign theater, was not enrolled in the new state in 1863; the Great Valley, east of the high Allegheny watershed ridge but west of the mighty Blue Ridge, remained with the Confederacy and the Old Dominion, in its geographic and Atlantic-bound waters’ region. Just as the southwest Wilderness Road forced settlers south through the Cumberland Gap, the Allegheny massif also propelled all but the hardiest westbound explorers and frontier families north, avoiding the Alleghenies. Settlers went north through Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburgh, where the mighty Ohio River would carry them southwest through the Ohio Valley, again bypassing western Virginia -- unless they disembarked on the left bank before reaching Kentucky, at present South Point, Ohio. The Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road route both worked in the other direction as well, during the Lewis and Clark expedition an envoy of Osage Indians led by Peter Choteau went “eastward from St. Louis to Vincennes, Louisville, Frankfort, Lexington, through the Cumberland Gap and then [north] down the Shenandoah to Winchester, and on to Shepherdstown [now W.Va.], Maryland, Harpers Ferry [now W.Va.] and Frederick [Md.] to Washington.”

The Potomac River was the original corridor into the ‘west,’ and by 1818 the National Road ran from Baltimore along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland and on to Wheeling, on the Ohio River, in present day West Virginia. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad reached the same spot by 1853, along a similar route. Both the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky and the later National Road through Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio Valley by-passed western Virginia and propelled settlers to points west, north and south of the trans-Allegheny Virginia hinterland. This is the central historic impact of the Allegheny High Ridge on U.S. history in the antebellum and colonial contact periods. The Allegheny ridge carried northeastern peoples southwest, where they would exhibit loyalty to the Union during the secession crisis.

Indeed, there were some early 19th century trails and a cattle roads into the trans-Allegheny, or today’s West Virginia. The Native American Midland Trail linked Staunton, in Augusta County Virginia in the southern Shenandoah Valley, with the Greenbrier and Kanawha River valleys in West Virginia. Between the Valley and the farmland near Kanawha Falls lay nearly impenetrable ravines, forested escarpments, the New River Gorge and the wild Gauley River rapids. Only animal trails, widened by cattle traders, carried frontier farmers through the southeast section of today’s West Virginia, until road building began in earnest in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Another rugged 19th century road led from Monterey to Beverly, but these were little more than trails until 1830. “The usual way of going to these lands, as well as those on the Great Kanawha as to those on the Ohio is by Fort Cumberland and thence down the Ohio River [via] Pittsburg, the distance being, by that route to the mouth of the Kanawha about 560 miles [from Mount Vernon] but of this 75 only is land transportation. The other route by Greenbrier and Kanhawa [sic] court house [route 60] to the same place, is a third shorter; and 80 miles of it water carriage – the other part is, as I am informed, a good waggon road.” So the old buffalo trail and cattle drovers’ route was passable (in summer), but Washington preferred the northern Ohio River route of 560 miles to the southern Allegheny Mountain route, which was only 370 miles or so in distance.

George Washington recognized the importance of linking the settled parts of Virginia to the rich farmland in the Ohio Valley during the late eighteenth century, “I aver, most seriously, that I wd not give my tract of 10,990 acres on the Kanawha for 50,000 acres back of it, and adjoining thereto, nor for any 50,000 acres of the common land of the country, which I have seen, back from the water and in one body.” Washington understood his river bottoms to be “extremely valuable” and worth five times the inland tracts. Washington states that common western Virginia land values in the Adams administration to be “half a dollar or less per acre.” Washington also owned large tracts of land in the Great Bend of the Ohio River and his family was prominent in the Harpers Ferry and Berkeley Springs part of what later would become West Virginia. Washington leased out lands, successfully, in the Fauquier, Loudon, Frederick and Berkeley Counties of Virginia up until his death. “[in] February 1796 George Washington advertised for sale four tracts of land on the Ohio River totaling 9,744 acres, four tracts on either bank of the Great Kanawha River just above its confluence with the Ohio, totaling 23,266 acres…”

With the completion of the National Road, then the James and Kanawha Turnpike [route 60] and finally the Staunton to Parkersburg Road the ‘west’ was settled and secured. West Virginia entered into a period of false expectations, little knowing the destruction that the 1860s would bring. A series of constitutional conventions shows that the western denizens held bitter feelings for the Richmond government long before the Confederacy Secession crisis of 1861. In the 1840s less than ten percent of University of Virginia students hailed from the western counties. Poll taxes discriminated against the low income Westerners and the tax on property included a bias in favor of slave-holding interests. “Eastern Virginia interests fought with all their power in the General Assembly to impeded [the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from 1827-1852].” With state government offices and banks centered in Richmond the people of the west felt the sting of poor government services and high travel expenses, on top of tax and representation imbalances. The high remote hinterlands, a band of counties along and in the Allegheny highlands, sharply divided political opinion in the period before secession.

“Secession by Virginia would expose her western sections to devastation and ruin,” Waitman Willey had warned in December 1860. Soon the Governor of Virginia would lose the battle of relative character in the eyes of posterity. Governor Henry Wise, in Richmond to lead the Secession movement in Virginia “drew a pistol from his bosom and laid it before him, and proceeded to harangue the body in the most violent and denunciatory manner” on April 16, 1861. The convention on April 17, 1861 voted to dissolve the federal constitution within Virginia 85 to 55; the 47 delegates from the west voted (with four abstentions) eleven for Confederacy and thirty-two for Union, the status quo, loyalism, which was a dangerous position to take in 1861 in Richmond, Virginia.

Chester Hubbard quietly slipped out of the secession convention at Richmond and traveled warily back to Wheeling where he was chosen Colonel of the Home Guard and in a mass meeting Hubbard asked for military units to be formed. John Carlile spoke at a similar mass meeting in Clarksburg, and Campbell Tarr led a loyalist rally at Wellsburg. Tarr formed a Committee and asked U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron for 2,000 guns, which the committee received. A newspaper editor named Archibald Campbell, the publisher of the Wheeling Intelligencer, gained national prominence at this time. “Many historians are of the opinion that he should be termed “Father of West Virginia.” (Campbell’s speech at the 1880 Republican Convention prevented Ulysses S. Grant from being nominated for a third term, and this shows his national stature and persuasiveness). “The most influential champion of the Union in this State was the Wheeling Intelligencer which gained nation-wide attention under the editorship of Archibald Campbell.” Campbell himself is on record as stating “Northwestern Virginia will never submit to be wrenched from under the flag of the Federal Government by the secession traitors at Richmond”

In the wartime partition of Virginia into Union and Confederate halves, a constitutional contract formed between the Union government and the political leadership of the Trans-Allegheny at Wheeling. The contract extended to a region that the West Virginians could lead into statehood against the Old Dominion’s Richmond government, approximately fifty counties. The Union negotiated with the seceding Westerners, who conducted overwhelming polls against the Richmond governments. The fact that a State could not be formed without permission of its ‘mother’ State was dismissed by the reality of the Rebellion.

By the chances of war, the same men who desired to create the new State were wielding the entire political power of Virginia, and they could naturally grant permission to themselves to erect a State free from objectionable jurisdiction…the Pierpont government [the loyalist or “Reformed Virginia” government in Alexandria, near Washington, D.C.] adopted an ordinance on the 20th of August, 1861, providing ‘for the formation of a new State out of a portion of the territory of this State.

With the “Reformed Virginia” ordinance of permission, and the Convention and state electoral results in hand, the Wheeling Union loyalists met with an enthusiastic reception in wartime Washington. Congressman Benjamin Wade steered a Statehood Bill through the House, and Cabinet members William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edwin Stanton advised President Abraham Lincoln to sign it. Editor Archibald Campbell, Governor of “Reformed” Virginia Francis H. Pierpont and the eloquent U.S. Senator Waitman T. Willey are West Virginia’s native founders.

West Virginia at that time had a population of 373,321, farm values were about eight dollars an acre and there was about $12,000,000 worth of livestock (while $2,000,000 worth was annually slaughtered). One million dollars worth of wool, eight million bushels of corn, two million bushels of wheat and a million bushels of oats were also tallied. The new Constitution banned squatters and made some efforts to reform the tort and real estate laws that had retarded development and caused countless ugly lawsuits and feuds. Free public schools were started, and the new Constitution made tax and electoral policy more fair than any previous Richmond-dominated policy ever had. Voice votes were ended in favor of the paper ballot, the old county court system that had held power in eastern families’ hands was ended, “a supremely antiquated folly.”

On February 18, 1862 the Wheeling Convention approved the new constitution by unanimous vote. Later in 1862 the convention voted on the name of the new State. Augusta, the name of much of western Virginia’s ‘mother’ county, earned one vote. Allegheny, the mountain areas regional name, earned two votes. Western Virginia, the choice of grammatical sticklers, tied with Allegheny with two votes. Kanawha, the principal interior River system in the state, was the strongest challenger, with nine votes, while West Virginia carried the day with forty-four votes.

Two “founders” in fact foundered, in the eyes of history. John Hall of Mason County, the President of the Convention, had to resign before the reconvening after shooting the editor of the Point Pleasant West Virginia newspaper in the hiatus. John Carlile also squandered his fame. John Carlile, born near Winchester, had served as a Virginia State Senator from 1847 to 1851 and had sat in the U.S. House from 1855 to 1857. He had attended the 1850 Convention as a westerner. “Although destined to be the Judas of the new state movement, Carlile was at the height of his career during the crucial months of 1861.” By 1863, Carlile had become too conservative to break with the Old Dominion, and his House bill for statehood (which included counties the Wheeling Convention had not agreed to enroll) was replaced by one agreeable to chairman Wade, Senator Waitman Willey, “Reformed Virginia” Congressmen William G. Brown and Jacob B. Blair, and the general Wheeling State Convention’s consensus. The details of the committee work that led up to this embarrassing sidetrack are complex, but the final roll of counties was firm and Carlile was evidently trying to stop Statehood by submitting the “Grossedeutsch” bill, with fifteen extra slave-holding, high African-American population counties added into it. Hall and Carlile are remembered, but not honored.

Waitman T. Willey made a number of powerful pleas for statehood and organized the overall statehood effort between Washington and Wheeling. The final state-wide vote on March 26, 1863 yielded 28,321 in favor of the new West Virginia Constitution and Statehood -- with 572 opposed. The present day West Virginia jurisdictions of Calhoun County, Greenbrier County, Logan County, McDowell County, Mercer County, Pocahontas County, Raleigh County, Webster County and Wyoming County sent no returns from the polls, and they were represented in Wheeling by refugee community leaders. The convention was recalled in February 1863 to vote on an amended Constitution, which included emancipation of slaves, and on April 20, 1863 Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation. Within sixty days the populace held elections for Senate, House, Judges of the Supreme Court of Appeals, new Circuit Court judges and other county offices. Sixty days from the first proclamation, with the positions filled, West Virginia officially became a State, on June 20, 1863.

Here it is necessary to quote Waitman Willey on the floor of the Senate:

“I desire to correct a misapprehension . . . it seems to be supposed that this movement for a new State has been conceived since the breaking out of the Rebellion, and was a consequence of it . . . [that] the effort was prompted simply by a desire to dissolve the connection between the loyal and disloyal sections of the state. Not so, sir. The question of dividing the State of Virginia, either by the Blue Ridge Mountains or by the Alleghenies has been mooted [put about] for fifty years . . . it has frequently been agitated with such vehemence as to seriously threaten the public peace. It has been a matter of constant strife and bitterness in the legislature of the State. The animosity existing at this time between the North and South is hardly greater than what has at times distinguished the relations between east and West Virginia, arising from a diversity of interests and geographical antagonisms. Indeed, so incompatible was the union of the territory lying west of the Allegheny Mountains with the territory lying east . . . so long ago as 1781 several of the States insisted that Virginia should include in her Act of Cession all her trans-Allegheny territory, making the Allegheny Mountains her western, as they were her natural, boundary . . . [Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland] retained latent views confining Virginia to the Allegheny Mountains.

Union arms had simultaneously secured the bulk of the state to the Union militarily, and by June 23, 1863 the new State had full status in the Union. The Trans-Allegheny was joined to a secure corridor of eastern counties and a smaller northbound salient. The “Eastern Panhandle” of the new state secured the Potomac River and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad access to Washington, while the “Northern Panhandle” protected the industrialized ironworks at Weirton and Wheeling and also the Union’s southbound Ohio River. So both the eastern and northern irregularities are seen as wartime strategic corridors, essential to the Union’s transportation needs, the Ohio River, the Potomac River, The Ironworks of Wheeling/Weirton and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad beds were all secured by the new arrangement of loyal and confederate counties in what was once Virginia.

Marked by a few high mountain gaps, the new border formed a defensive wall, which was amenable to the South after they were pushed out, and it formed a defensive wall for the Union forces in West Virginia, as well. As a strategic conquest, the West Virginia counter-secession must rank with CSA General Joseph E. Johnson’s precipitous retreat from northern Virginia in 1861 or Sherman’s March in 1864.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad played an important part in West Virginia and Civil War history. Running from Baltimore to Wheeling, 379 miles, the B & O represented a $31,000,000 (northern) investment. It had twelve repair stations, thirty three repair shops, ninety-eight water stations, thirty telegraph stations (with three lines of wire) and 12,694 feet of tunnel inside its 14 tunnels. With 5,000 officers and employees, over 4,000 cars and 238 engines, the strategic meaning of the B & O was always on the minds of Union and Confederate commanders—most critically, the 186 bridges had to be protected (or destroyed, as the case may be).

Numerous historians have noted that the fate of the Border States decided the war, and this new Border State marked a significant strategic conquest on the part of the north, as it secured the Ohio River, its Virginia tributaries, the iron works at Wheeling, much of the Potomac River System and the Baltimore and Ohio rail beds. Of course vulnerable bridges and towns along the B&O were raided and West Virginia towns such as Martinsburg, Romney and Harper’s Ferry changed hands repeatedly, but the borders held to the Union’s advantage. Later the action came to center more on points south and east, after the Battle of Gettysburg, but in 1862 decisive battles at Rich Creek, Scary and Droop Mountain were important in clearing most Confederates from West Virginia.

The highest ridges were linked to encompass the Ohio River waters inside the new State, and that line marked the watershed of the Atlantic Ocean versus the Gulf of Mexico runoffs; south and east of the line the rainwater runs through the Greater James and Rappahannock systems, while north and west of the watershed border line the New River and the Kanawha waters rolled down to the Ohio River, then into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the politically stable Atlantic Northeast was joined to a massive inland Ohio Valley region. The Northeast and Old Northwest Territory States ‘enrolled’ the south bank of the Ohio River (i.e., West Virginia and Kentucky) into its Union government. Radically dissenting political forces, in the heat of an unprecedented Civil War, decided upon the watershed at the high Allegheny dividing ridge to be the ultimate extent of the new Federal State.

County by county, the Union power was strongest along the Ohio and points north and was contested more convincingly inland, upland, and to the south. The new State’s founders rejected counties lying now in Virginia, counties along the border and in the Shenandoah Valley. The West Virginia founders knew that Secessionist interest was stronger in these counties, which were closer to Richmond and had greater concentrations of pure Virginia descendants. The number of slaves and free blacks in these Valley counties were also an issue. Waitman T. Willey and the other founders limited the state to the trans-Allegheny counties with strong white majorities. Lincoln’s government sent the State bill back to the Wheeling Convention demanding an emancipation clause be placed in the new West Virginia Constitution, and this was added before the final vote then which led to Lincoln’s signature. The final settlement of emancipation, black voting and ex-Confederate’s rights was settled by the Flick Amendment to the West Virginia Constitution in 1869. By allowing blacks and ex-Confederates to vote, the Flick amendment hastened the Resurgence of the Democrats, or Redeemers to State political power in the 1870s.

Ultimately, geography determines political junctures because of strategic imperatives inherent in the topography. By late 1862 the Union could realistically lay military claim to the high ridge of the Alleghenies and the Ohio Valley of old Virginia, and the differences in settlement patterns, labor and crop approaches, informed by the terrain, reached their conclusion in the new State. As John Shaffer shows clearly, the west Virginians of 1861-1863 who joined the Confederacy as individuals had a high proportion of Virginia native ancestors, while the loyalist had northern roots.

The unique shape of West Virginia, its geometrically irregular and sprawling non-compact form actually follows from common sense geographic principles. Strategically the new State aided the Union by: securing the defense of Washington D.C. and the Potomac River; in the defense of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the National Road and the Chesapeake and Ohio canals along the old Virginia-Maryland border; it cleared the Ohio from north of Pittsburg down to South Point Ohio, while it firmed up Southern Ohio and Southern Pennsylvania’s situation, relative to Maryland and Kentucky, the true Border States, and the new State meant the loss of steel producing of Weirton/Wheeling and the Pittsburg area of north Virginia salient to the Confederacy. The southern border provided a wall of defense. The three concepts of rivers, high watersheds and strategic corridors explain the panhandles and ‘teapot’ shape. Armed with geographic, climate, elevation, rail, road and river topographic facts, the political and social events leading up to counter-secession and West Virginia statehood can be understood.

Notes on Sources

Edited by Shanet Clark
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...