This past Monday marked the 159th anniversary of formation of the state of West Virginia. This column focuses on what occurred after Virginia seceded from the Union until April 1862 when voters in western Virginia approved a constitution for a proposed new state to be called West Virginia. A subsequent column will cover the birth of the new state in 1863.
On Thursday, April 4, 1861, the Virginia Secession Convention meeting in Richmond voted on a resolution that would determine if the commonwealth would remain in the Union. Forty-five delegates voted in favor of the resolution, and a resounding 85 delegates voted against secession. As there were other issues still to be resolved, the convention remained in session. For the time being, Virginia was still in the Union.
And then fate intervened. On the same day that the vote was taken, President Abraham Lincoln decided to “resupply but not to reinforce” Fort Sumter, which protected Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor. South Carolina had seceded in December 1860 and had sought control of U.S. forts on their soil. By January 1861 South Carolina controlled nearby Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie and had requested Major Robert Anderson, in command at Fort Sumter, to relinquish control.
Anderson sent word to Washington that if he was to remain at Fort Sumter, he would need both reinforcements and supplies. Lincoln’s decision “ to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only” prompted a showdown.
As Union ships laden with supplies set sail for Charleston, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard sent a message to Anderson asking him to surrender the fort. When Anderson declined, Beauregard ordered his artillery to fire on Fort Sumter and after more than 30 hours of shelling, Fort Sumter was surrendered on April 13. Word of the fort’s surrender prompted Lincoln on April 15 to issue a call for 75,000 militia troops “to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.”
Still in the Union, Virginia received the call to raise militia.
Like a mortar shell, news of the surrender of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for militia resounded through the Virginia Secession Convention. Pro-secessionists clamored for a re-vote on the secession resolution, and on Wednesday, April 17, Virginia’s statehood status once again hung in the balance. Union support withered at the president’s call for troops, and a resolution calling for a statewide secession referendum won the day by a vote of 88 in favor and 55 opposed. Union men clung to the hope that on Thursday, May 23, 1861, Virginians would vote against secession.
In response to the Secession Convention’s vote, on April 22, 1861, nearly 1,200 Harrison County citizens gathered at the courthouse in Clarksburg. Those in attendance criticized the actions taken by the convention, and a resolution offered by John Snyder Carlile called for delegates from all of Virginia’s northwestern counties to gather at Wheeling on May 13 for a larger convention. On that date, delegates from 27 western counties assembled at Washington Hall in Wheeling to consider how to respond to the Ordinance of Secession. It was decided that if the people of Virginia approved the Ordinance of Secession on May 23, western Virginians would send delegates to a second Wheeling convention on Tuesday, June 11, 1861.
On Monday, May 23,1861, the Virginia Secession Resolution received overwhelming support. 132,201 Virginians cast their vote in favor of leaving the Union while only 37,451 voted in opposition. This made it official: Virginia would be the eighth star in the flag of the Confederacy. This activated the resolution that called for a second meeting of pro-Union men to be held in Wheeling where they would consider what, if any, recourse they had.
Once again delegates gathered at Washington Hall in Wheeling on Tuesday, June 11, to determine a course of action for northwestern Virginia. On the 13th, the proceedings moved to the U.S. Customs House on Market Street. Here delegates considered a “Declaration of the People of Virginia” proposed by John Carlile, which proposed that “all acts of the Secession Convention tending to separate this Commonwealth from the United States, or to levy and carry-on war against them, are without authority and void.”
In addition, Carlile’s proposal declared that “the offices of all who adhere to the said Convention and Executive, whether legislative, executive or judicial, are vacated.” Following debate, on Wednesday, June 19 the “Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government” was approved. The ordinance voided the secession vote and vacated all of Virginia’s state offices.
The next day, June 20, the delegates took the bold step of electing men to fill the now vacant state offices. Francis Harrison Pierpont of Marion County was elected governor, Daniel Polsley of Mason County was elected lieutenant governor, and James Wheat of Wheeling was elected attorney general. Two weeks later on July 9th more positions were filled when Lucian Hagans became the secretary of the commonwealth, Samuel Crane was elected auditor of public accounts, and Campbell Tarr became the commonwealth’s new treasurer.
The last piece of the puzzle was the selection of Reorganized Virginia’s congressional delegation. John Snyder Carlile and Waitman Thomas Willey were elected to represent Reorganized Virginia in the U.S. Senate. In the U.S. House of Representatives Joseph Eggleston Segar, Charles Horace Upton and Jacob Beeson Blair represented the commonwealth. From June 20, 1861, until June 20, 1863, the Commonwealth of Virginia was represented by two sets of officials: Union officials based in Wheeling and Confederate officials based in Richmond.
The Second Session of the Second Wheeling Convention convened on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1861. On Aug. 13th delegates began debate on an “Ordinance to Provide for the Formation of a New State.” The final proposal called for the creation of a new state to be called Kanawha. It would include 39 counties formerly part of Virginia that lie west of the Allegheny Mountains. There was also a provision to include seven other counties (Berkeley, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Morgan and Pocahontas) if a majority of voters in those counties gave their consent. The proposal, which called for a statehood referendum to be held in 39 counties, was adopted by a vote of 50 in favor to 28 opposed.
The Statehood Referendum was held on Thursday, Oct. 24, 1861. 18,408 voters in 39 counties voted in favor of forming a new state called Kanawha with just 781 voters opposed. Voters also elected delegates to a constitutional convention, the next step in the statehood process.
The day after the election, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported that “we have never witnessed an election here in which there was so little interest.” The next day the paper reported that “so far as we have had reports from the election on Thursday they show an astonishing unanimity among the people in favor of a new state.”
Unanimity in spite of “ill advised letters” written by “people abroad” begging their friends in western Virginia “not to vote for division.” With the statehood referendum on the books, “the election is over” and “our whole energies should now be given to putting in shape the destinies of the new state.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1861, the men elected to serve at the constitutional convention met in Wheeling. The creation of a constitution was an important first step in the establishment of a new state. In August, the delegates had settled on a state comprised of 39 counties called Kanawha, but there had been neither discussion nor a decision regarding slavery. Some of the delegates at the constitutional convention voiced opposition to the name Kanawha, so that issue was re-visited.
Senator Willey was in attendance and jokingly added that the word Kanawha was both hard to pronounce and hard to spell. In addition to Kanawha, several new names were proposed: Allegheny, Augusta, and both Western and West Virginia. On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the delegates voted to choose a name, and West Virginia received 30 votes, Kanawha nine, Western Virginia and Allegheny both had two, and Augusta got just one vote. The new state would be called West Virginia.
The next item on the agenda was to decide which counties would be included in the new state. The referendum called for the inclusion of 39 western counties, but there was interest in expanding that number. The Committee on Boundary proposed that an additional 15 counties be added, including several counties on the eastern side of the Alleghenies.
The inclusion of Shenandoah Valley counties prompted Willey to weigh in. He reminded the delegates that the original proposal “fixed the Alleghany mountains as the natural barrier” not only because the mountains were a “natural barrier, because they divided the commercial, industrial and social relations of the State,” but also because the mountains “were the natural barrier between the desire of the people who wished to be erected into a new State, and the desire of those people who were opposed to being included within the new State.”
The convention adopted a compromise which expanded the number to forty-four counties, all west of the Alleghenies, with a caveat creating expansion east of the mountain “if their voters approved.”
In the midst of the debate over the new state’s boundaries, Reverend Robert Hagar, a Methodist Episcopal minister from Boone County, introduced a resolution to end slavery in the proposed new state. Hagar told the assemblage “Negro slavery is the origin and foundation of our national troubles, and the cause of the terrible rebellion in our midst.” His resolution called for “making the proposed new State a free state” and that the new constitution provide “for the gradual emancipation of all the slaves within the proposed boundary of the new State.”
No immediate action was taken on Hagar’s resolution.
Although Virginia’s constitution served as a model, the delegates at the Wheeling convention proposed several changes. In Virginia, votes were cast using the viva voce method of voting. White men eligible to vote approached a commissioner and cast their vote by word of mouth. The new constitution proposed using paper ballots. A major change was the switch from the county court system to the township system. Piece by piece the new constitution was taking shape.
On Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1862, Reverend Gordon Battelle, a Methodist Episcopal minister who represented Ohio County, offered an anti-slavery resolution. Following debate and a vote on a report from the Committee on Taxation and Finance, Battelle proposed first that if the new constitution was adopted, “no slave shall be brought, or free person of color come, into this State for permanent residence.” Regarding the enslaved currently living within the new state, he proposed that “all children born of slave mothers after the year eighteen hundred and seventy, shall be free” with the caveat that males would be free after the age of 28 and females after the age of 18.
The next day, Feb. 13, following a vote on the requirements for the formation of new counties, Joseph Pomeroy, a minister from Hancock County, “suggested that as they now had nothing else before them” the delegates consider the resolutions offered by Battelle on the previous day. Battelle rose to protest taking action saying that he had spoken that morning with “a gentleman on the other side” who inquired if Battelle’s resolution would be considered that day. The gentleman “on the other side” advised Battelle that he was unable to attend on the 13th, and Battelle assured him that “so far as I was concerned, that there should be no action on this question in his absence.”
Pomeroy persisted, and as a compromise it was decided that if a vote was taken, men absent would “have an opportunity of recording their votes on this subject if they thought proper, either to-day or to-morrow.”
John Dille, an attorney from Preston County, moved that the convention adopt the first clause of Battelle’s resolution, namely that “No slave shall be brought or free person of color come into this State for permanent residence after this Constitution goes into operation.” By a vote of 48 yeas to one nay, the resolution was adopted.
Desiring a unanimous vote, the delegates prevailed on the lone no vote to vote yea, but farmer William Brumfield from Wayne County declined to change his vote, saying that unlike others he didn’t “take as much part in the discussions as some of the members” but that he always “did his own voting.” The vote on Battelle’s resolution remained unchanged.
On Wednesday, Feb. 18, Peter Van Winkle, an attorney from Wood County, rose to remind his fellow delegates that they had yet to adopt the proposed constitution. All of the proposed amendments had been dealt with, and in Van Winkle’s words, “the question recurs now, according to parliamentary usage, on the adoption of the Constitution as amended. I therefore move it.”
The vote was called to “adopt the Constitution as amended,” which was approved unanimously by the 52 delegates in attendance. Thursday, April 3, 1862, was set as the date for the constitution referendum.
The day before the vote, an editorial in The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer encouraged “all who possibly can interest themselves in getting out as full a vote as possible.” The writer noted that “the people are absorbed and distracted by a thousand other considerations” adding that “anything else but the elections is in their minds.”
On Thursday, April 3, the proposed constitution of the new state of West Virginia was approved by a vote of 18,862 in favor with 514 opposed. The official return noted that in Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties there was a combined total of 465 votes in favor of the constitution versus three votes opposed. There were “No returns” in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.
A group of men from the western counties of Virginia refused to accept Virginia’s secession from the Union. In less than a year, they succeeded in reorganizing Virginia as a Union state, elected a slate of pro-Union officials, established a committee to form a new state, and drew up a constitution for the proposed new state. With that accomplished, the action shifted from capital of Virginia in Wheeling to the nation’s capital in Washington.
Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson.