An Odd Little State

Traveling is always an experience. Last week, I was afforded the pleasure of traveling to West Virginia – a place I had driven through repeatedly but never fully explored. This time around, I had five full days.

Depiction of the small mountain town Mannington, WV in 1897

My experience began in Mannington, a tiny town nestled amongst the hills featuring little more than a grocery, a gun shop, and a McDonald’s. Cell service was spotty at best. To many, this may seem boring. To me, it was the perfect place to explore. 

I felt the region’s uniqueness as I drove down State Highway 250, a winding route that connects numerous small communities. The people living in those communities were friendly and polite. Every person I passed waved and smiled, giving a sense of simplicity and peace. 

“What an odd little state!” I told my friend as we drove by another so-called “hot spot.”

As a historian, I have long known that the state of West Virginia was birthed by the Civil War (breaking from Virginia when the latter succeeded from the Union). Met with the reality of the place, I started to wonder how West Virginia became its own state. Surely its origin story was more complex than other states that existed in 1860. 

Down the rabbit hole I went. 

It started with the election of Abraham Lincoln (1860) and the secession of seven US states over the question of slavery. At the time, the political divide in the state of Virginia was nearly as deep as the one threatening to break the United States apart. A special convention was held in Richmond to determine on which side Virginia stood. Though initially it seemed Virginia wished to stay with President Lincoln and the Union, the events of April 12, 1861 caused the state to change its mind. 

Mittchell map showing Virginia and North Carolina prior to the creation of West Virginia

The Civil War began when the South Carolina Militia artillery fired on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter. President Lincoln called on the loyal states for volunteers to help suppress this “southern rebellion.” Five days later, Virginia’s convention approved secession with a vote of 88 to 55. It’s important to note that 28 of the 55 “nay” votes came from delegates living in counties that would later become part of West Virginia.

Almost immediately, Virginia began to mobilize its county militias to begin service in the Confederate Army. 

Most Virginia counties went along with the call-to-arms, even if they had voted against secession. The only exception was Wheeling, a community located roughly 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, PA, where young men formed companies loyal to the Union. 

Eleven days after the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Union leaders gathered in the town of Clarksburg (the birthplace of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson) to plan another convention. The plan was to hold a meeting in Wheeling on May 13th and overturn the state’s decision to secede from the Union. 

The plan was abandoned as it became clear they would not have the numbers in vote to reverse the decision.  

Waitman T. Willey from Morgantown, WV

Despite its status as a Confederate state, the western region of Virginia emerged as a safe haven for Union supporters and troops. As Unionists in East Tennessee were driven north, Federal troops poured over the Ohio River and – with the help of Virginia’s Union volunteers – started to push back the Confederate forces from Grafton and other areas. 

By the time another convention was held (in Wheeling in June 1861), the conversation had shifted from overturning the vote to secede to what on Earth the remaining loyalists were going to do. Many pushed to form a new state, while others cautioned such a change was too risky during wartime.

Waitman T. Willey, a resident of Morgantown, proposed a compromise in which the Unionists within Virginia’s standing government would form a separate and loyal state government. This plan, approved by the Lincoln Administration, allowed for the creation of a pro-Union government in western Virginia while keeping the state itself intact.

Nonetheless, Unionists in Virginia voted for a “dismemberment ordinance” in August 1861 that described the creation of a new state, called “Kanawha,” that would be led by the Reorganized Government of Virginia and Governor Francis H. Pierpont.

Governor Francis H. Pierpont of West Virginia 1861-1868 “The Father of West Virginia”

Union politicians met again in November to write the Kanawha’s constitution. During the meeting, 5 counties were added to the state’s existing 39 and the name was changed from Kanawha to West Virginia. 

West Virginia was officially recognized by the US Congress roughly six months later in May 1862, with slavery being completely abolished within the new state’s borders. 

The Lincoln Administration did not fully support West Virginia statehood, with high-level individuals including Attorney General Edward Bates opposing the decision on the basis that too few individuals had participated in the referendum. 

President Lincoln made the final decision in favor of statehood on December 31, 1862, saying:

It is a universal practice in the popular elections in all these States to give no legal consideration whatever to those who do not choose to vote, as against the effect of the votes of those who do choose to vote. Hence it is not the qualified voters, but the qualified voters, who choose to vote, that constitute the political power of the State. … The idea that the new state was in danger of being admitted without its own consent, was not provided against, because it was not thought of, as I conceive. It is said, the devil takes care of his own. Much more should a good spirit – the spirit of the Constitution and the Union – take care of its own. I think it can not do less, and live.

Sign welcoming travelers to West Virginia

West Virginia’s anti-slavery constitutional amendment was ratified in April 1863. At the time, President Lincoln proclaimed the new state was ready to become a part of the Union. The state was officially recognized by the US Government on June 20, 1863. 

Fast-forward 161 years and I’m driving down a small mountain road, waving to the ancestors of the people who made the formation of West Virginia both necessary and possible. My thoughts linger on how this beautiful state came to be. It’s certainly eye-opening to see so many people oppose their state in an era when nationalism had not yet taken hold. General Robert E. Lee clearly stated his loyalties were to his state first and the United States second. But from the same state to which he stayed loyal; a new state was born from the need to separate. 

Many Americans and visitors now seek out the mountains of West Virginia as a peaceful escape. It’s a place where lightning bugs sparkle amidst the trees on hot summer evenings and things seem a bit simpler. What an odd little state indeed.

8 Responses to An Odd Little State

  1. I’m from Virginia but have lived the last several years in West Virginia, in a place called Fairmont, only a few minutes from Mannington. I hope you were able to visit Fairmont (the site of an 1863 battle) and nearby Phillipi, the site of the first land battle of the war. Also, I hope you discovered, like I did, that seemingly half the surnames there are Italian, due to the large influx of miners from Italy starting in the 1850s. Senator Manchin (original name Mancina) is a testament to that. It seems there are more pizza places per citizen in northern West Virginia than in Jersey.
    “Odd” and “little” comes off as a bit snobbish though. I’ve never had problems with cell service in that part of WV, where there’s a cell tower on every other hill. I have Verizon though.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Fairmont, other than driving through. I mean no offense by calling it an “odd little state.” I found the area very pleasant and welcoming and certainly look forward to being back in the area to explore more. Being from Indiana, I do not hesitate to call my hometown and state odd as well. Perhaps unique may have been a better word choice. I also have Verizon and as long as I was in town cell service was fine, however, once out in the more rural areas it was a bit of a struggle, though I did not mind the break from technology!

  2. You are, sadly, correct. A state that is “very pleasant and welconing” in today’s world is indeed odd. Being thus odd is, to me, a good, very good, thing.

  3. thanks Caroline for this article on the great state of West Virginia … like you, I am regularly surprised by the beauty of the state and the unexpected (odd) hospitality of the great Americans who live their … on one road trip we stopped at a motel in Berkley WV for the night and my wife and i got invited to a gypsy wedding reception.

      1. Definitely wasn’t the county … so, must have Beckley, not Berkley … perhaps a little too much imbibing at the reception 🙂

  4. So many things wrong with the history here. West Virginia did not secede from Virginia, it was a fabrication. Half of the counties had voted to secede from the Union and had no intention to leave Virginia for a Wheeling scheme. They were cherry-picked into the new state by a group of unelected “delegates” who wanted a big state. People only tell half the story when they tell West Virginia’s history. Yes, many of the “no” votes at the Richmond secession convention were from western delegates, but the entry of Union soldiers into West Virginia at the end of May changed everything. Most of West Virginia’s delegates returned to Richmond in June and signed the ordinance of secession, their names are clearly on the document, 29 of the 49 delegates signed. Of the remaining 20 Unionist delegates about 7 dropped out for various reasons, leaving about a baker’s dozen who supported the Wheeling government. The new state ordinance was created by men who were basically self-appointed or credited by petition. There were NO votes for anything done by Wheeling until the Unionist election held for state offices in May 22, 1862 and that was just for supporters of Wheeling and not the full electorate. There was an electorate of 79,515 according to the 8th census, and less than 19,000 voted for a new state.

    Wheeling struggled to get men enlisted in its regiments and had agents working in Ohio and Pennsylvania to sign up recruits. The adjutant general of Ohio , CP Buckingham, complained to Pierpont “Your permit for raising regiments from Ohio embarrasses us severely”. Close to 5 regiments of Ohioans, as well as several thousand Pennsylvanians, have been counted as loyal “West Virginians”. If you add in the more than 2000 civilians arrested by Wheeling and Union authorities and sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, you have a populace that lived under occupation and fear at the polls. When the new state government was installed on June 20, 1863, a newspaper in Morgantown printed that day- “Less than half the territory of West Virginia can be reached by our authorities.”
    The Confederate recruits from West Virginia made up a significant portion of the Army of Northern Virginia, but few historians are aware of this. Indeed, the last paymaster of the Confederacy, Joseph Broun, was from Charleston, WV, and accompanied Jefferson Davis on his retreat from Danville. Almost all the tellings of the state’s creation are bogus.

  5. Nice to see West Virginia get some air time. Incredibly beautiful, especially in the Gauley Bridge area. It was cruelly divided by the war, and only had a gloss of Unionist loyalty, with many of the secessionists “going south”. It does appear that the Union regimental ranks were “enhanced” by “volunteers” from adjacent states. A key indication of this fence sitting is the rapidity with which it disappeared into the Democratic party’s ranks.

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