SOL: VS.7.a

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West Virginia, Creation of

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).

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Rockingham Rebellion

The Rockingham Rebellion in April 1862 occurred when several militiamen from Rockingham County, Virginia, violently resisted their incorporation into the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The incident came at a time when the Confederacy faced a crucial manpower challenge, but not all members of the state militia, in particular the German Baptists of the northern Shenandoah Valley, agreed with an executive order from Virginia governor John L. Letcher forcing them into Confederate service. Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson dispatched troops from his Valley Army to crush the rebellion, which they did after briefly shelling the militiamen’s hiding place at Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jackson had a reputation for discipline, but, more important, the incident marked the Confederacy’s willingness to use force against dissidents, in some instances even going after civilians who were harboring deserters.

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Martinsburg during the Civil War

Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the county seat of Berkeley County, was in 1860 the Shenandoah Valley‘s second largest town, with a population of 3,364. Located in the northern portion of the valley, Martinsburg enjoyed a booming economy because of its location along the paved Valley Pike and because it was a major depot along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The same strategic location that made Martinsburg economically prosperous prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), however, also spelled its wartime demise. The town changed hands between Confederate and Union forces thirty-seven times, was the site of two battles, and played host for a time to the intrigue of Confederate spy Belle Boyd, who was born there.

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Constitutional Convention, Virginia (1864)

The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1864, called by the loyal Restored government meeting in Alexandria during the American Civil War (1861–1865), adopted the Constitution of 1864, which finally accomplished a number of changes that reformers had agitated for since at least the 1820s. It abolished slavery, provided a way of funding primary and free schools, and required voting by paper ballot for state officers and members of the General Assembly. It also put an end to longstanding friction over regional differences by recognizing the creation of West Virginia as a separate state. Members of the convention proclaimed the new constitution in effect, rather than submitting it to voters for approval in a popular referendum. Initially only the areas of northern and eastern Virginia then under Union control recognized the authority of the Constitution of 1864, but after the fall of the Confederacy in May 1865 it became effective for all of Virginia and remained in effect until July 1869.

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Causes of Confederate Defeat in the Civil War

The surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively ended the American Civil War (1861–1865). But why did Lee surrender? And why in the spring of 1865? Historians have argued over the answers to these questions since that day at Appomattox. Explanations for Confederate defeat in the Civil War can be broken into two categories: some historians argue that the Confederacy collapsed largely because of social divisions within Southern society, while others emphasize the Union’s military defeat of Confederate armies. These arguments are not mutually exclusive—no historian would deny that Southern society was riven by racial, class, gender, and regional antagonisms and, similarly, all historians recognize the enormous force brought to bear by Northern armies and the high casualties suffered by Confederate soldiers. Nonetheless, the disagreement has produced sharply different explanations for why the Civil War ended as it did.

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Civil War in Virginia, The American

The American Civil War was fought from 1861 until 1865. It began after Virginia and ten other states in the southern United States seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president in 1860. Worried that Lincoln would interfere with slavery and citing states’ rights as a justification, Southern leaders established the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as its president and Richmond as its capital. After Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the war moved to Virginia. Union forces made several failed attempts to capture Richmond, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee twice invaded the North, only to be defeated in battle. Most, but not all, Virginians supported the Confederacy. In 1863, Unionists in the western part of the state established West Virginia. On the home front, both white and African American families suffered food shortages or were forced to flee their homes. The Confederate government instituted a draft, or conscription law, and in some cases impressed, or confiscated, private property. By the time Lee surrendered in 1865, much of the state had been ravaged by war. But the end of fighting also meant emancipation, or freedom, for enslaved African Americans. In the years that followed, many white Virginians saw their fight for independence as the Lost Cause, while black Virginians struggled to overcome institutionalized white supremacy and earn full citizenship rights.

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Civil Liberties in Virginia during the Civil War

Virginians willingly sacrificed various civil liberties during the American Civil War (1861–1865) in hopes that a victory would establish greater security and liberty in the future. During the course of the war, Virginians interacted with three governments: the Virginia state government, the Confederate government, and the United States government. All curtailed the freedoms protected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, subsequently, Article 1, section 9 of the Confederate Constitution, including the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress (petition). Civil liberties have also traditionally included concerns among white Southerners over their ability to reasonably do as they please without government interference. Although historians would, for many years, claim that the Confederacy did not curtail rights in the fashion of the U.S. government, there were, in fact, many such instances. Both the Virginia General Assembly and the Confederate Congress passed drafts and restricted property rights. Travel also was restricted. The Confederate Congress declared martial law, prohibited the sale of alcohol, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. An entire Habeas Corpus Commission was established whose commissioners could arrest any Confederate citizen and question his or her loyalty. Although there were protests, mostly directed at the Confederate government, most Virginia citizens accepted these limits on their freedoms as the price of military victory.

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Brown, John (1800–1859)

John Brown was a fervent abolitionist who was accused of massacring pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856 and who, in 1859, led an unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in what is now West Virginia), in an attempt to start a slave insurrection. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his men occupied the federal arsenal in the northern Shenandoah Valley and were quickly surrounded by the combined forces of local militias and a detachment of United States marines led by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart. After a thirty-six-hour shoot-out, Brown and his surviving men surrendered. At the insistence of Virginia governor Henry Wise, Brown was tried in state, not federal, court. At the end of a gripping trial held in Charles Town, he was found guilty of conspiracy, of inciting servile insurrection, and of treason against the state. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. Brown’s raid (and the fact that five of his “soldiers” were African Americans) touched off a frenzy among Southern slave-owners and, in the estimation of many historians, set the nation on an irreversible course toward the American Civil War (1861–1865).

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