The amazing story of West Virginia’s statehood


On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state in the United States. After 152 years of statehood, the amazing story of how our state came into being still inspires awe and wonder. From the colonial era, the counties in Virginia west of the Allegheny Mountains and the counties east of the Allegheny Mountains developed differently. The east was an economic powerhouse full of agriculture and able to support large cities while the areas west of the Alleghenies were considered, at first, under the purview of the French, as rugged and untamed wilderness only inhabitable by mountaineers who were seeking something to call their own.

The seeds of a separate identity in the counties of Virginia west of the Allegheny Mountains (Trans-Allegheny region) began to grow as early as the 1760s. French influence west of the Alleghenies was waning and many thought splitting the large Virginia colony in two would make sense. The 14th colony of Vandalia was, however, not to be; vague boundaries with Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas made redrawing the map a burdensome proposition and the growing imperial overreach preceding the American Revolution acted as a unifying force among residents from the Old Dominion and Trans-Allegheny.

The sometimes drastic economic, social and cultural differences between the Old Dominion and the Trans-Allegheny simmered until May 1861 when Virginia joined the Confederate States of America. This action further increased the contrast between the Old Dominion and the Trans-Allegheny. In April and May of that year, John Carlyle organized meetings focused on statehood in Clarksburg and Wheeling respectively. That is not to say, however, that everyone in the Trans-Allegheny wanted to separate themselves from Virginia. Counties in the eastern panhandle and the southeast of the Trans-Allegheny abstained from sending representatives to the initial conventions on statehood. In Oct. 1861, a vote was held to test the waters of statehood in the Trans-Allegheny. Only 37 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot; however, 18, 406 people voted for statehood and 781 voted against. The secessionist counties of McDowell, Mercer, Pocahontas, Jefferson, Berkley and Monroe either abstained from voting all together or abstained from sending their votes to be counted.

Following the conventions, the Loyal, Restored or Reorganized (all three were used interchangeably) Government of Virginia officially came into effect July 1, 1861. This was not a new state — only a new government. The Restored Government of Virginia sought to represent both of the Old Dominion and the Trans-Allegheny regions of Virginia in the U.S. government. Francis Pierpont was elected governor of the Restored Government of Virginia. During this time Pierpont claims to govern and represent the entire state of Virginia and Confederate Governor of Virginia John Letcher does the same.

Immediately, the new government was tested by the first organized land battle of the Civil War — The Battle of Philippi — also known as The Philippi Races. Confederate troops had settled into Philippi and Union troops surrounded the city with hopes of blocking escape routes and bombarding the Confederates into submission. Without knowledge that the troops sent to block the Confederate’s escape had gotten lost, the Union troops began bombardment of Philippi with six pound guns. Confederate troops retreated to the south and Union troops followed with battles occurring at Belington, Beverly and Corrick’s Ford. At Corrick’s Ford, Confederate General Garrett was killed and the rest of his men were killed or captured leaving the newly formed government in Wheeling safe for the time being.

The assertion can easily be made that the area that would become the eastern panhandle would be the staging ground for much of the action between the Union and Confederate armies. Control of Harper’s Ferry changed hands more than 30 times and the town of Romney would go back and forth between the Confederates and Union armies a staggering 56 times.

The government in Wheeling also survived close calls from Confederate Generals Jones, Imboden and Jackson. In the months of April and May 1863, Generals Jones and Imboden took differing routes to Wheeling with the aim of terrorizing and demoralizing the new government. On their way to Wheeling, troops under Jones and Imboden steal livestock and money from residents of the Trans-Allegheny and manage to convince southern sympathizers into their ranks. At Cairo, Confederate troops set about 7.5 million gallons of oil of fire. The oil eventually made its way to the Little Kanawha River setting it on fire (think Cuyahoga). Eventually Jones makes it to Wheeling with 3,400 soldiers with 700 of them on horseback. Imboden’s troops swell the number by 2,800 mounted calvary units. Around 6,200 confederate troops where ready to siege the city of Wheeling; Jones and Imboden, however, were sure Wheeling had been well defended — their march of terror on the way to Wheeling, would have surely given the Union ample notice of their presence. Jones and Imboden eventually decide not to attempt to take Wheeling — a city that , in reality, had not been defended as Jones and Imboden had thought.

While famous native of the Trans-Allegheny Confederate General Stonewall Jackson controlled the area that would become the eastern panhandle, he was also in control of the railroad which would lead him directly to Wheeling. Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville before he was able to take advantage of modern transportation to Wheeling.

Within a matter months after Letcher took Virginia into the Confederacy, congress began considering the idea of creating a 35th state out of the Trans-Allegheny. By Dec. 15, 1862, the bill for statehood reached President Lincoln. Later that month, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting concerning statehood in the Trans-Allegheny that produced a split decision among cabinet members. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Post Master General Montgomery Blair and Attorney General Edward Bates contented that it would be best if statehood was put off until after the war was over and official permission for statehood could be granted from the government of Virginia. Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, however, stood for statehood as the outcome of the war was still unclear and there was an opinion that every opportunity for an advantage over the confederates should be taken.

On Dec. 31, 1862, Lincoln decided that the Trans-Allegheny could be granted statehood if it came into the Union as a state free of slavery and a state constitution was drafted. On it’s way to becoming a state, potential names for the Trans-Allegheny such as Vandalia, West Augusta, and Westsylvannia were bandied about before the the name West Virginia was chosen as an homage to the old bonds between the Trans-Allegheny and the Old Dominion. The newly formed state of West Virginia would also assume responsibly for a third of debt that the state of Virginia had amassed since 1783. Arthur Boreman was elected to be the first governor of West Virginia and began his term on the first day of official statehood on June 20, 1863.

From the colonial era to the Civil War, the development of the Trans-Allegheny and Old Dominion regions of Virginia were set on divergent paths. The rugged geography of the Allegheny Mountains formed a natural barrier that informed later cultural, social, economic and political divergence in the people on either side of the mountains. After 152 years, the story of West Virginia’s ascent to statehood is still astonishing. Through many hurdles and trials, the Trans-Allegheny became West Virginia, and since statehood, has held true to its motto through busts and booms — Mountaineers are always free.

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