Jefferson County slow to embrace its move into West Virginia

CHARLES TOWN – The masthead of a framed copy of the Spirit of Jefferson from 1865, two full years after the creation of the state of West Virginia, still states the paper was published in Charlestown, Virginia.

[cleeng_content id="836063887" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]That was a political statement, explains Doug Perks, president of the Jefferson County Historical Society, and one that would not change until the U.S. Supreme Court finally denied a challenge to the ruling that the county had seceded from the state of Virginia in 1871.

It would take a few more years for the county to begin accepting the new situation, Perks says.

Jefferson County holds a unique place in the history of West Virginia. It was the last of the 55 counties to become a part of the state, due to a referendum process established by the original state constitution.

This process first allowed the counties of Hardy, Hampshire, Pendleton and Morgan to vote on whether to join the new state in severing its ties to Virginia during the 1862 elections. After they had sided with the infant state, Berkeley and Jefferson Counties were to be given the chance to vote, as would present-day Frederick County, Va.

“On May 28, 1863, when the new state of West Virginia was electing officials, they also held votes in Jefferson and Berkeley Counties for the single purpose of determining whether or not they would be part of the state,” Perks said.

Ostensibly, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of separating from Virginia. But Perks said there are reasons to be suspicious.

“A simple premise: if the 1,600 men who had left the county to serve in the Confederate army had been there on May 28, 1863, it is our contention that a majority of them would have voted in favor of remaining in Virginia,” Perks said.

Jefferson County was under military occupation at the time, and the two polling places established for the vote were in the heavily fortified towns of Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown.

“The thing we don’t think much about was how disruptive that time was in the lives of everyday people like you and me,” he said. “It is bad enough for the soldiers to leave their homes and wind up far away sleeping on the ground. But it is another thing for a county like Jefferson, with the history and cultural ties that it had, to be in Union occupied territory.

“In 1863, you had to have a pass that you presented to any Union soldier that said you had permission to be on the road, where you were headed and what your business was.”

Perks said that diaries from residents at the time show no mention of a vote being held.

“After the war, Alexander Boteler, who lived in Shepherdstown, examined the vote there and could not verify more than 20 or so voters,” Perks said. “There were major differences between the people who voted for president in 1860 and the people who voted (for secession).”

Perks said Jefferson County felt strong ties to Virginia, and that a vocal group of residents centered in the southern part of the county quickly attempted to challenge the decision to secede both through the legislature and the courts.

“It was primarily people from the Charles Town and Middleway area,” Perks said. The dynamic was that, because of damage to the courthouse, the county court had been moved to Shepherdstown. They were not considering going back to Virginia.”

The ties to Virginia, Perks says, were of two kinds.

“It was certainly economic,” Perks said. “In the debate over the state of West Virginia, one of the things that was talked about was having the economy linked more closely with the Ohio River than the Potomac River.”

“There was also a cultural aspect,” he added. “Jefferson County sends men into five companies of infantry, four cavalry companies and one artillery company. Those men marched from Jefferson County in Virginia and returned to Jefferson County in West Virginia. They couldn’t vote. There had been 400 men from Charles Town vote in the last presidential election. Now they had only 21 qualified to vote.”

Perks said it took years for many residents in the county to become reconciled with the new situation. The most important catalyst was the lifting of laws that forbid former Confederate soldiers from voting.

These laws also imposed economic hardships, he said.

“There had been so much activity here – so much destruction: homes, barns, farms, livestock. It was an economic depression,” Perks said. “You couldn’t be a practicing attorney, a physician – anything that required licensure.

“If you read the editorials of the Spirit of Jefferson, by the mid-1870s when the punitive act (was lifted) that took the right to vote of the people who fought, and once politics became more representative of the electorate, you began to see the tone change,” Perks said.

Now, of course, he says, most residents of Jefferson County have fully adopted a West Virginian identity.

“It was 150 years ago.”[/cleeng_content]

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