The Commonwealth of Virginia, from its founding in 1776 to the time of the Civil War, had virtually a split personality. Its eastern section featuring “the planters,” took great advantage of its plurality of delegates to the Legislature by electing their favorites to high positions in government. In fact, the first 31 of the state’s governors came from eastern Virginia.
Meanwhile its neighbors to the west, covering almost a third of the land mass of the Commonwealth and commonly called “the mountaineers” felt left out and discriminated against on practically every issue.
The vote by the delegates to the Secession Convention in April 1861 to secede from the Union was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The western Virginia delegates walked out and went home – to consider forming their own state. Their actions had actually been predicted before the vote by western Virginia Judge John J. Jackson. Jackson said emphatically before the vote that “if the State of Virginia secedes from the Union, as sure as there is a God in Heaven, northwestern Virginia will secede from the State of Virginia.”
The western Virginia representatives had two options: They had to decide whether to recreate a loyal Virginia government or to seek the creation of a new state. In practice, it proved necessary first to do the one and then the other.
There were difficulties with the idea of forming a new state. The U.S. Constitution addressed that very issue in Article IV, Section 3. It was clear and concise, saying “new states may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new state shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any state be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” Not many of the western Virginia leaders had any faith that Virginia would approve that happening.
The opening rounds of the discussion at the First Wheeling Convention were held from May 13 to 15, 1861. About the only thing accomplished was to schedule the Second Wheeling Convention for June 11 to 25. The second set of meetings formed the Restored or Reorganized Government of Virginia as a compromise.
Francis H. Pierpont from Marion County was elected as the governor. The new government was to become effective on July 1, 1861. The government was to become the loyalist, Union government for Virginia. It was believed that national offices, including the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate vacated due to the secession of Virginia, might be available to the newly formed government.
In the July legislative session of the new government, the delegates elected John S. Carlile and Waitman T. Willey to replace U.S. Sens. R. M. T. Hunter and James M. Mason, Virginia Senators who had resigned when Virginia seceded. Kellian V. Whaley, William G. Brown and Jacob B. Blair were elected as members of the House of Representatives to the 37th Congress.
Congress reconfirmed the recognition of the Restored and Reorganized Government of Wheeling, Va., as the House of Representatives accepted the new members on July 4. Nine days later the new U. S. senators were also officially received.
At the same time, Governor Pierpont applied to the Lincoln administration for statehood, sending in a map of the new state to the federal government. The map, called Kanawha, did not include the counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hardy, Pendleton and Hampshire, which could be added later if the citizens of those counties voted to join.
The statehood bill had to get passage in both sides of U.S. Congress and then be signed by the president. While that process got started, the delegation back in Wheeling started working on writing a state constitution.
As the war escalated, President Lincoln looked for Union enlistees from western Virginia. That happened much slower than expected. The Wellsburg Herald took the new state to task in an editorial, critical of its inability to recruit soldiers for the Union army. The newspaper editor said “a pretty condition Northwestern Virginia is in to establish herself as a separate state … after all the drumming and all the gas about a separate state she has actually organized in the field four not entire regiments of soldiers and one of these hails almost entirely from the Panhandle.”
In October 1861, voters from western Virginia were called on to vote as to whether they favored statehood. A 19,189 vote in favor and a 781 vote tally against offered little satisfaction. The 1860 election showed 65,634 eligible voters in the 48 counties of what comprised western Virginia, yet only 30 percent voted in this important election. In several counties less than 10 percent of the voters cast a ballot. And over 70 percent of the “aye” votes came from just 16 counties. Another 13 counties provided no vote at all. In one area, it was reported that Ohio soldiers had cast votes.
— Bob O’Connor writes from Jefferson County