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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.