Seceding from Secession

WEEREAD: Seceding From Secession — The Civil War, Politics and the Creation of West Virginia

Editor’s note: This book was featured at a recent Lunch With Books Livestream from the Ohio County Public Library. Authors Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr., originally from Belmont County, Ohio, and Eric J. Wittenberg appeared at the July 7 event.

The very hour that [West Virginia] is admitted as a free state, there will be a great influx of capital, and instead of having four or five mills rolling up smoke, you [Wheeling] will have a dozen of them and millions and millions of capital will come here. The face of the country will be changed. Industry, wealth, population, power, education, and moral influence will concentrate in your hills, and we will flourish.” – Waitman T. Willey, 1863

A former governor of Virginia referred to it as “The Bastard Child of a Political Rape.” Historians have referred to it as “A Species of Legal Fiction.” Theodore Lang, in his authoritative history, Loyal West Virginia, referred to it simply as “The Child of the Storm.” These examples are illustrative of the tangled, complex, and often downright messy, history behind West Virginia’s statehood.

For those of us — and by “those” I mean “most” — without a background in constitutional law, it can be difficult to understand the complexities of West Virginia statehood. And that’s not to say that achieving statehood has been tidy for other states. Some territories floundered for years before admission to the Union, while in Kansas scores were killed in vicious fighting to determine how the state would be admitted. And yet, it seems as though it is West Virginia’s legitimacy that is most often debated among historians.

To help untangle this web, attorney Eric J. Wittenberg, judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. (formerly of Belmont County, Ohio) and attorney Penny Barrick have authored through Savas Beatie, a leading publisher of Civil War titles, Seceding From Secession: The Civil War, Politics and the Creation of West Virginia. Whereas several recent books have capably covered the various military campaigns in West Virginia during the Civil War, we have sorely needed a modern treatment on the politics of West Virginia statehood — I’m talking how our founders devised statehood, how they moved the process through Congress, and how they later defended the state’s legitimacy against legal challenges at the highest levels. With Seceding from Secession, we got that and more.

Wittenberg, Sargus and Barrick begin by examining the differences between the eastern (tidewater) and western portions of Virginia, themselves a microcosm of the country’s larger issues fomenting civil war. Readers are also introduced to the history of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and its impact on statehood. Running nearly 200 miles through Virginia, the B&O was a vital lifeline to the west for Washington and the Lincoln administration, and was thus a constant target for Confederate troops. Lincoln’s determination to hold the B&O would ultimately impact West Virginia’s statehood right down to the very shape of our state.

The book next examines reactions to Virginia’s secession, including right here in Wheeling. In what should have been a telltale sign of the Unionist sentiment in western Virginia, governor John Letcher in Richmond sent a telegram to Wheeling mayor Andrew Sweeney, instructing him to “seize … the custom house, the post office, and all public buildings and documents in the name of the sovereign state of Virginia.” Sweeney responded that he had seized the custom house, post office, and all public buildings and documents “in the name of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, whose property they are.”

In short order, two conventions would be called in Wheeling — the first in May 1861, and the second a month later — to begin the process of creating a new state, loyal to the Union. These conventions would result in the formation of the Reorganized Government of Virginia, with Francis Pierpont — who today stands proudly at the corner of 16th & Market streets — serving as its first governor.

The referendums that followed in late 1861 and in April 1862 approved a constitution for a new state, West Virginia, to be admitted to the Union. From there, a statehood bill would need to pass through Congress. Passing legislation in the 1860s was no easier than today. In the Senate, John Carlile of Clarksburg and Waitman Willey of Morgantown offered competing proposals. Carlile, an early proponent of statehood (and namesake of Camp Carlile in Wheeling Island), would ultimately attempt to upset the statehood process in the Senate, while Senator Willey of Morgantown offered a competing proposal (known as the Willey Amendment) which, while calling for gradual emancipation of the approximately 18,000 slaves living in the area west of the Allegheny Mountain, still set an ultimate and definitive end for slavery in West Virginia. Wheeling responded to Carlile’s defection by renaming the military camp on Wheeling Island as Camp Willey.

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After further debate and provisions, the statehood bill passed the Senate in July 1862 and the House in December 1862, passed on to the Executive Mansion (the White House) for Abraham Lincoln’s signature. Chapter Seven of Seceding From Secession examines the dramatic debates between Lincoln and his cabinet as to the merits and legality of West Virginia’s statehood. The cabinet was evenly divided — three to three — leaving Lincoln to his own judgment, ultimately crafting what the authors describe as a “well-reasoned opinion to justify his decision to admit West Virginia to the Union,” which he signed on Dec. 31, 1862. West Virginia voters approved the Willey Amendment on April 3, 1863, the results certified by Lincoln on April 20 with statehood to take effect 60 days later — June 20 — a day we still celebrate today as West Virginia Day. Arthur Boreman of Parkersburg would serve as West Virginia’s first governor.

In the first 120 or so pages, the book offers a fast-moving, thorough examination of West Virginia’s statehood. What sets this book apart from other studies, and where the authors really shine, are the later chapters and appendices carrying the story past June 20. The authors take us through the many hurdles the new state faced post-statehood. In 1866, Virginia attempted to reclaim Jefferson and Berkeley counties in the Eastern Panhandle. Later that year, Virginia filed suit against West Virginia in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the court ruling in favor of West Virginia in December 1870. The two states again landed in the Supreme Court in 1911 relating to debts incurred by Virginia between 1820- 1861 for internal improvements in the area that became West Virginia.

The book closes with a look at how statehood issues continue to reverberate, noting a comical resolution passed in the West Virginia State Senate in January 2020 inviting neighboring Frederick County, Virginia, to join West Virginia. A member of the board of supervisors of Frederick County appropriately responded to West Virginia … “you’re wasting your time.”

So often when you read history books, you’re reading about something that happened somewhere else. You look at photos and use your imagination to envision what it must have been like when something happened long ago. But for us here in Wheeling, so much of it played out right here in our backyard. You can visit West Virginia Independence Hall and stand in the room where statehood was debated. You can step outside and visit the impressive statue of Francis Pierpont, the “Father of West Virginia,” and the Soldiers & Sailors monument, dedicated to Ohio countians who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Just a few blocks away is the first state capitol building. The decisions that had a critical impact on United States history happened here.

I would encourage you, especially in these pandemic times that seem to keep us closer to home, to examine our local history and those places that you might drive past everyday but never seem to stop.

To be certain, West Virginians saw themselves as a people set apart from their eastern counterparts, and that pride, that independent streak carries over to this day, this in the face of all the negative stereotypes and stigmas we often face. I have had the privilege of living in several states, and a previous career in sales allowed me to travel to every corner of our country and around the world. No matter where I go, I have never found a people more proud of where they are from than West Virginians.

As Wheelingites and West Virginians we would all do well to have a copy of this book, so that the next time a sportscaster calls us “Western Virginia” or the next time someone tells you they didn’t know West Virginia was a state, you can lay some knowledge on them.

Jon-Erik Gilot is a graduate of Bethany College and Kent State University, and has spent the past 15 years working in the fields of archives and preservation. He is a contributing author with Emerging Civil War and a board member at the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation. His first book, detailing John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, will be published next year by Savas Beatie.