The Creation of West Virginia


West Virginia was recognized by the U.S. government as the thirty-fifth state on June 20, 1863, an event that was the culmination of more than sixty years of heated sectional politics and legislative maneuverings. From the first political rumblings of new-state advocates at the turn of the nineteenth century through the formative sessions of the Wheeling conventions held from 1861 until 1863, the creation of West Virginia was a complex and contentious process that divided the residents, communities, and political leaders of Virginia. Spearheaded by northwestern Virginians, the statehood movement began as an effort to expand western political influence and the region’s growing industrial economy. Final approval of West Virginia’s statehood was forged amid the chaos and divisiveness of the secession debate and the bloodshed of the American Civil War (1861–1865).


Virginia Constitutional Convention

The sectional issues that culminated in the dismemberment of Virginia emerged during the revolutionary period. The Virginia Constitution of 1776 hampered western political participation by placing property-holding qualifications on voters and officeholders and allowing for disproportionate eastern political representation. Confronted with a tax code that benefited slaveholders and large landowners and eastern reluctance to dedicate taxes for western internal improvements, western Virginians clamored for reform. Following two reform conventions held in Staunton (in 1816 and 1825), western political leaders forced the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830 aimed at securing political concessions. Despite protestations from the outnumbered western delegates, the resulting constitution failed to include the expansion of the electorate or western legislative apportionment. Over the next twenty years, western political leaders secured concessions from easterners, including nineteen additional western counties and state funds for internal improvements. Despite these compromises, western politicians demanded another constitutional convention in 1850. The resulting constitution eased sectional tensions by offering westerners several political reforms, including universal white male suffrage, increased western political representation, and the direct election of state and local officials.


Enslaved Population in Virginia

Despite the sectional reconciliation, socioeconomic and political differences continued to divide eastern and western Virginia. The development of western industries (iron, coal, salt, and oil) that largely relied on free labor emerged in sharp contrast to eastern Virginia’s slave-based commercial agricultural economy. The emergence of an economically motivated western antislavery ideology threatened relations between the two sections. Finally, a series of events following the Constitutional Convention of 1850 exacerbated sectional tensions, including the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford U.S. Supreme Court decision and John Brown‘s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, in Jefferson County (in what is now West Virginia).

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president resulted in the secession of seven Southern states and on February 13, 1861, Governor John Letcher opened Virginia’s own secession convention. During the convention, Lincoln’s inaugural address, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina (April 12 and 13), and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers led to the passage of the Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861. Nearly two-thirds of the votes against secession came from northwestern Virginia.

The West Virginia Statehood Movement

The First and Second Wheeling Conventions

The passage of the Ordinance of Secession resulted in antisecession conventions across northwestern Virginia. The largest, held in Clarksburg in Harrison County, was led by John S. Carlile and produced the Clarksburg Resolutions denouncing secession and demanding that a convention be held to address Virginia’s political uncertainty. From May 13 until May 15, delegates met in Washington Hall in the pro-Union stronghold of Wheeling. Despite the efforts of new state advocates, the First Wheeling Convention resolved to work only to defeat the passage of the secession ordinance among Virginia’s voters and to reconvene if the ordinance passed.

On May 23, 1861, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved the Ordinance of Secession. The affirmative vote triggered the May 26 invasion of northwestern Virginia by Union troops commanded by Major General George B. McClellan in an effort to maintain Union control over strategically and economically critical western Virginia. The secession vote led to the calling of the Second Wheeling Convention, which met on June 11, 1861. During the first session (June 11–25), delegates passed an Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government (June 14) that declared all state offices vacated by Virginia Confederates and called for the reorganization of the state government. On June 20, 1861, Marion County lawyer Francis H. Pierpont was elected governor of the Restored state government, and during the next few days the remaining offices were filled.

An Appeal to the Men of Western Virginia

On August 6, the Second Wheeling Convention reassembled, staying in session until August 21. Members of the Committee on a Division of the State drafted and approved an ordinance to form a new state. The new state, originally named Kanawha, consisted of forty-eight western counties. Despite opposition from the southwestern counties, on October 24, 1861, western Virginians voted for the new state ordinance. On November 26, 1861, delegates gathered in Wheeling to draft a constitution for the proposed state. During the convention, delegates renamed the state West Virginia, added five additional counties, and adopted the policy of “negro exclusion,” which banned slaves and freedpeople from residing in the future state. On February 18, 1862, the convention delegates approved the constitution, and on April 24, 1862, western voters followed suit. As required by Article IV, section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, on May 6, Pierpont agreed to the dismemberment of Virginia.

John Snyder Carlile

On May 29, 1862, Virginia’s U.S. senator Waitman T. Willey presented the new state memorial to the Senate. The memorial was referred to the Committee on Territories, where Virginia senator John S. Carlile drafted the statehood bill. On July 4, after a lengthy debate over the state’s boundaries and slavery policy, Willey presented a revised statehood bill (known as the Willey Amendment) that excluded several controversial counties and constitutionally provided for gradual slave emancipation.

On July 14, 1862, the U.S. Senate approved the West Virginia Statehood Bill and the House of Representatives did the same on December 10, 1862. Lincoln received the statehood bill on December 15 and conferred with his cabinet about its constitutionality. Despite divisions within his cabinet, Lincoln signed the bill on December 31, 1862. After receiving word that the Wheeling delegates (February 17) and western voters (March 26) had approved the revised state constitution, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that on June 20, 1863, West Virginia would officially become a state. After being elected the state’s first governor, on June 20, 1863, Wood County resident Arthur I. Boreman officially declared West Virginia America’s thirty-fifth state.

Map of Western Virginia

The creation of the state of West Virginia exacerbated the bitter internal factionalism that had characterized western Virginia politics in the years leading up to the Civil War. As leaders of the statehood movement, largely concentrated in the northwestern portion of the state, assumed prominent positions within the state government, southern West Virginia Confederates and opponents of statehood escalated the “bushwhacker,” or guerrilla, form of warfare across the region in an attempt to undermine the new state government. Despite the absence of large-scale pitched battles within the state, Confederate raids into the Union strongholds of northern West Virginia terrorized mountain communities and threatened the new state’s stability.

Governor Boreman informed Lincoln that it was not “safe for a loyal man to go into the interior [of West Virginia] out of sight of the Ohio River” and that West Virginia Confederates aimed to “decry the general government, bring it to disrepute, and to defeat the new state.” Despite these efforts to topple the new state, political and economic support from Washington, D.C., and Union military successes outside of the region ensured the survival of the state of West Virginia but failed to ease partisan tensions among the state’s residents. The bitter partisanship of the interwar years extended into the postwar reconstruction of West Virginia and eventually resulted in the resurgence of many former Confederates and statehood opponents into influential political positions within the West Virginia state government. Despite the state of Virginia’s effort to force the reunification of the two states legally in 1871 (Virginia v. West Virginia) and lingering resentment among former Confederates regarding their political disfranchisement and property losses, the state of West Virginia retained its sovereignty. Its residents, meanwhile, were about to experience a period of remarkable socioeconomic transformation brought about by the expansion of the state’s rail lines and the rise of the coal and timber industries.

November 6, 1860
Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, is elected U.S. president. He wins 1 percent of the vote in Virginia. While John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party wins the state overall, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge wins the trans-Allegheny counties of western Virginia.
December 1860
The state of South Carolina leads seven states, including Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, out of the Union. The seceded states form the Confederate States of America.
February 13, 1861
The Virginia Convention convenes in the Mechanics Institute at the foot of Capitol Hill in Richmond.
March 4, 1861
President Abraham Lincoln delivers his inaugural address in Washington, D.C.
April 12, 1861
G. T. Beauregard orders the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after his former West Point instructor Robert Anderson refuses to meet the conditions for a Union surrender. The Union garrison is evacuated the next day.
April 15, 1861
In response to the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issues a call for 75,000 troops—2,340 of which are to come from Virginia—"to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, repel invasions."
April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
April 22, 1861
The Clarksburg Resolutions are issued in Clarksburg, Harrison County. They call for the convening of a meeting in the city of Wheeling to address the passage of the Ordinance of Secession and to plot the future political course for the Unionist trans-Allegheny counties of Virginia.
May 13—15, 1861
The First Wheeling Convention meets in Washington Hall in Wheeling. Delegates reject creation of a new state and agree to convene another session if the Ordinance of Secession is passed by Virginia's voters.
May 23, 1861
The Ordinance of Secession is approved by Virginia voters by a vote of 125,950 to 20,373, with many western Virginia votes being discarded from the tally.
May 26, 1861
Union general George B. McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio, leads troops into western Virginia in an attempt to keep the state in the Union.
June 3, 1861
The Battle of Philippi, or Philippi Races, takes place. Union forces under the command of Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley defeat Confederate forces under the command of Colonel George A. Porterfield.
June 11—25, 1861
At the Second Wheeling Convention in Wheeling Custom House, delegates issue "A Declaration of the People of Virginia" in the wake of the state's secession. It calls for the reorganization of the Virginia government on the grounds that all state government offices have been vacated.
June 20, 1861
During the Second Wheeling Convention, Francis Harrison Pierpont is unanimously elected governor of the reorganized Virginia government still loyal to the Union.
July 11, 1861
The Battle of Rich Mountain takes place. Union forces under the command of Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans defeat Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, who is killed in the fighting.
July 13, 1861
The Battle of Corrick's Ford takes place near Beverly. The Union victory allows the Second Session of the Second Wheeling Convention in northwestern Virginia to be held in August in relative safety.
August 6—21, 1861
During the Second Session of the Second Wheeling Convention, delegates draft and eventually approve the ordinance to form the new U.S. state of Kanawha, consisting of thirty-nine western counties and seven additional counties to be added after the vote on statehood ordinance.
October 24, 1861
Voters in western Virginia overwhelmingly pass a new state ordinance. It would form the new U.S. state of Kanawha, consisting of thirty-nine western counties and seven additional counties to be added after the vote on statehood ordinance.
November 26, 1861
Delegates convene in Wheeling to draft a state constitution. They name the new state West Virginia, add five additional counties to the state boundary (bringing the total to forty-four), and adopt the policy of "negro exclusion," which bans slaves and freedman from residing in the future state.
February 18, 1862
Constitutional convention delegates assembled in Wheeling approve a constitution for the new state of West Virginia.
April 24, 1862
Trans-Alleghany voters overwhelmingly approve a constitution for the new state of West Virginia.
May 6, 1862
Reorganized Virginia governor Francis Harrison Pierpont approves the formation of a new state according to Article IV, section 3, of the U.S. Constitution.
May 29, 1862
U.S. senator Waitman T. Willey of Virginia presents a memorial to the U.S. Senate to create a new state. The memorial is referred to the Committee on Territories, where John S. Carlile of Virginia drafts the first version of the statehood bill for West Virginia.
June 23, 1862
The West Virginia statehood bill is presented to the full U.S. Senate. It includes fifteen additional counties in the Shenandoah Valley, the gradual emancipation of slaves, and a new state constitutional convention. The senators immediately offer revisions to the bill calling for immediate emancipation.
July 1, 1862
U.S. senator Waitman Willey of Virginia proposes a compromise West Virginia statehood bill, subsequently known as the Willey Amendment, that establishes gradual slave emancipation and removes fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties.
July 14, 1862
The West Virginia statehood bill passes through the U.S. Senate, thanks to the Willey Amendment, named for Waitman T. Willey.
December 10, 1862
The West Virginia statehood bill passes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
December 15, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln receives the West Virginia statehood bill and requests that his cabinet review the legislation and make recommendations. Lincoln's cabinet ultimately splits three to three over the legislation.
December 31, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln signs the West Virginia statehood bill, despite reservations about its constitutionality.
February 12, 1863
West Virginia Constitutional Convention delegates again gather at Wheeling to debate the Willey Amendment changes to the West Virginia Constitution. These changes would remove fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties and call for the gradual emancipation of slaves.
February 17, 1863
West Virginia Constitutional Convention delegates at Wheeling accept the Willey Amendment changes to the West Virginia Constitution. These changes remove fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties and call for the gradual emancipation of slaves.
March 26, 1863
West Virginia voters approve amendments to the new state constitution.
April 20, 1863
President Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation that West Virginia will become the thirty-fifth state in the Union on June 20, 1863.
May 28, 1863
West Virginia voters hold state elections and elect Arthur I. Boreman of Wood County as the first governor of the state of West Virginia.
June 20, 1863
The newly elected governor, Arthur I. Boreman, in front of Wheeling delegates, proclaims West Virginia the thirty-fifth state. Only forty-eight of the fifty existing counties become part of the new state. The other two, Berkeley and Jefferson, will be added in 1866.
  • Ambler, Charles H. Francis H. Pierpont: Union War Governor of Virginia and Father of West Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1937.
  • Curry, Richard Orr. A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.
  • Link, William A. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Rice, Otis K., and Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington, The University of Kentucky Press, 1985.
  • Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A History. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2001.
APA Citation:
Barksdale, Kevin. The Creation of West Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/west-virginia-creation-of.
MLA Citation:
Barksdale, Kevin. "The Creation of West Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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