by BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The American Civil War proved to be an opportunity for political leaders in the developing Trans-Allegheny counties of western Virginia to sever ties with the Old Dominion and seek independence. The movement to form a separate state dates back to the time of the American Revolution when western settlers in the area west of the Allegheny Mountain Range sought, and for a time, gained independence from Virginia.
From 1774-76, the District of West Augusta, with its capital in Washington County, Pa., attempted to operate as an independent political entity, although it was made up of land claimed by Pennsylvania and Virginia. That effort was short lived and the colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia settled their differences and divided their lands on the extended Mason-Dixon Line, and the dispute was over. However, the issues that precipitated the dispute in the first place — the fact that Richmond, Va., was separated from the region by distance as well as the formidable mountain range barrier, continued to grow as the region’s population slowly grew.
In 1858, three years before the start of the Civil War, the Virginia General Assembly chartered two new counties — McDowell and Buchanan. There were fewer that 300 householders in all of McDowell County at the time, and Buchanan was about the same. Just days before the war started, the General Assembly chartered Bland County, but it was not formally organized until the hostilities began. Those three counties, along with other counties in the region including Mercer, Monroe, Pocahontas, Greenbrier and eventually, even Wise and Buchanan counties in Virginia, were among the counties that Judge James Henry Brown proposed for inclusion in the new state in 1861.
Mercer County, Va., was chartered in 1837, and was well organized in 1861 when the Commonwealth of Virginia was looking into the secession movement. In 1861, the Virginia General Assembly called for a convention to make a decision on the matter. On April 4, 1861, a motion for Virginia to secede was defeated on an 89-45 vote, with delegates from western counties opposing the motion. On April 15, 1861, after news of the Confederate Army’s attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina reached Richmond, public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of secession. While the western counties — including Mercer — voted against seceding from the Union, secessionists carried the motion 88-55, with 32 of the 55 opposition votes coming from the western counties.
That action set the stage for the First Wheeling Convention on May 13, 1861. Southern counties including Mercer were known to be 90 percent sympathetic to the southern cause, with 25 percent of the population serving in the Confederate Army, according to Kyle McCormick, director of the West Virginia Department of Archives and History in the late 1950s. According to McCormick, during the West Virginia constitutional convention in 1861, Brown emerged as a leader in the effort to include the southern counties.
“While the strong abolitionists and Republicans wanted none of the so-called slave counties into the new state, Judge Brown wanted as many as he could get,” McCormick wrote in his book, “The History of Mercer County.” “It may have been that Judge Brown was looking ahead when a movement would be afoot to move the state capital from Wheeling to Charleston, and it may have been that he wanted more opposition to the radical Republicans, but the judge put up a fight and won in the case of five counties.” Of course, Buchanan and Wise counties were omitted from the proposal for the new state.
While Brown’s motivation may have been politically motivated as McCormick suggested, in truth, there was a much more practical concern among Mountain State founders than politics — safety. In the 1860s, there were no rivers to transport supplies and personnel from the Valley of the Virginias into the heart of what is now West Virginia. No railroads penetrated the Allegheny Mountain Range and most of the roads leading into the region followed Native American trails that were meant for walking — not for transporting cannons and troops.
Early on, the state-makers rejected Brown’s push to include the southern counties, and Brown eventually acquiesced on Buchanan and Wise counties when confronted with the reasoning that the government would never admit a state with three panhandles, but the five southern counties made the final cut. According to McCormick, Mercer and McDowell counties weren’t even represented by residents in the vote to create the state. McCormick noted that a Baptist preacher who was living in Wyoming County, Richard Madison Cook, said he represented Mercer County at the convention. Likewise, Johanis P. Hoback, also of Wyoming County, claimed to represent McDowell County. The name, West Virginia won out as the name for the new state over Kanawha, Western Virginia and Augusta, a name that only received one vote.
President Abraham Lincoln took his time in approving admission of the new state after both houses of Congress had approved the admission. “The admission of a new state turns that much slave soil to free; and thus, is a certain, and irrevocable encroachment upon the cause of the revolution,” Lincoln wrote. “The division of a state is dreaded as a precedent. But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is sad that the admission of West Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution. I believe the admission of West Virginia into the Union is expedient,” Lincoln wrote, according to information contained in “Lincoln and West Virginia Statehood” by Duane Squires, published by West Virginia Archives and History.
Lincoln signed the West Virginia statehood bill one day before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. The proposed West Virginia constitution was vague on the issue of freedom for the slaves. Lincoln insisted that language he included in the Emancipation Proclamation also be included in the West Virginia constitution, requiring a gradual emancipation in West Virginia scheduled to begin on July 4, 1863. The West Virginia Constitutional Convention reconvened in February 1863, and on March 26, 1863, voters in the non-Confederate occupied portions of the proposed state ratified the constitution by a 27,749 to 572 vote.
On April 20, 1863, Lincoln issued the proclamation making West Virginia the 35th state and the only state admitted to the Union during the American Civil War. In his proclamation, Lincoln stated that West Virginia statehood “shall take effect and be in force, from and after sixty days from the date hereof.” That date was June 20, 1863.
Pete Ballard of Peterstown shares an interesting story about how his great grandfather, Lewis Ballard and his great uncle, Frank Ballard came to be part of the Parkersburg Convention in 1863.
“He and Mr. Hall decided they were going to join the Union army,” Ballard said. “I thought all of my ancestors were Confederates, but I found out differently. Some Ballard brothers went North and some went South.” Ballard said as Lewis Ballard and Mr. Hall were headed east, they were captured by Confederate soldiers and were sentenced to be hanged.
According to Ballard, his Union-leaning ancestor escaped from the Confederates, returned to Peterstown, and traveled to Charleston as part of a group of “the refugee citizens from Monroe, Greenbrier, Raleigh, Mercer and Wyoming counties that was held on April 22, 1863. The two Ballard brothers as well as William Chambers, Lewis Crawford and William E. Jones were selected as delegates to the Parkersburg convention from Monroe County. Joseph Shropp and Thomas Little were also chosen from the refugee group to represent Mercer County in Parkersburg.”
It’s interesting to note that West Virginia statehood and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation are forever entwined in history. In addition, Lincoln’s insistence that West Virginia begin its gradual emancipation process on July 4, 1863, ties that process with the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, often called the turning point of the American Civil War.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org