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.
Both of these parts of Virginia which were separated by the Alleghenies, were separated from one another in different 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 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 into its northern neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania than it had been to eastern Virginia. Both segments of Virginia were different in culture, geography, and economics since the western part identified more with Ohio and Pennsylvania in those regards. The western Virginia town 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 due to the larger population from 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 rather often found their way into 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. Independent statehood for western Virginia wasn’t a new idea at the onset of the Civil War, and it would arrive at the vanguard. With Virginia’s secession from the Union, the unhappiness and debate between the mountaineers and the tidewater aristocrats of Virginia just improved. The Virginian mountaineers had little interest in secession from the Union, but it arrived 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 seminar in Wheeling. The focus of the convention was different statehood for western Virginia.
Appears that Article IV, Section 3, of the United States Constitution requires permission of the legislature to form a new state from the land of an existing one. But as hard as it may be to believe, the Confederate legislature over in Richmond was not eager to permit western Virginia to become another state… and one which would be from the Union to boot. For those mountaineers and their quest for their own nation, there simply was a solution for this United States Constitution problem, someway, somehow.
You see, that Confederate legislature over east in Richmond, that secessionist one, is prohibited and thus the Wheeling mountaineers announced all state offices empty. The Wheeling conference appointed new state officials on June 20. All these changes, so far as the Unionist western Virginia mountaineers were worried, revived the state of Virginia.
Though this new Virginia legislature was set up, it really represented just 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 from the United States Senate.
In effect, there was a Union Virginia claiming to represent all of Virginia, but really only being composed of the mountaineer northwest part of the country, 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 wasn’t going to recognize Virginia’s Confederate model of government as valid.
The Wheeling convention ended, 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 whole 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 from the voters. Voters would also have the ability at this time to select delegates for a constitutional convention, the objective of which was for the creation of a new state to be termed”Kanawha.” [The title”Kanawha” is an Native American word. It’s thought to mean a place of white rock.”]
Now, there were several military concerns that needed to be managed simultaneously with this new nation conventioning and creation happening in western Virginia. Important military assets like the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Ohio River were integral to western Virginia and their management was wanted 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. 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 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 introduction of a new state was strongly endorsed.
Boundaries for the new state were put 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 revived 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 dropped some state land according to July 4, 1863, the new state of West Virginia joined the Union.
I’ve 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’s something about America’s Civil War which catches and keeps our interest and creativity, it is truly an awesome story.