West Virginia was created in conflict. Our New Home For Liberty program dramatized some of the key moments from the formation of the state, as West Virginia tried to decide whether to leave behind the institution of slavery and gain independence. Learn more about the program here.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, in what is now the state of West Virginia, there were about 12,000 African American slaves, and about 3,000 free African Americans. In what is now Virginia both the total numbers and proportion of slaves were much higher, and so the economy in what would then have been thought of as eastern Virginia was more entwined with the institution of slavery than in western Virginia.
This, along with longstanding grievances towards the wealthy planters who controlled Virginia politics, helps explain the pragmatic reasons why West Virginia chose to break away from Virginia during the Civil War. However, for some it was a matter of principle – forming a “new home for liberty” where all citizens would be free.
On April 17th, 1861, Virginia voted to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy. On June 11th of the same year, representatives loyal to the Union voted to create the new state of West Virginia and set about forming a new government. Congress voted to approve West Virginia’s statehood in 1862, on the condition that West Virginia abolish slavery, and in 1863 the Wheeling Convention took place in West Virginia. West Virginians had already agreed to form their own state but the Wheeling Convention focused on abolition – would West Virginians accept the end of slavery as a condition of their independence?
The debate over slavery had been going on in West Virginia well before war broke out. In 1847, Henry Ruffner of Kanawha County published a controversial anti-slavery pamphlet, and many of the abolitionist delegates to the Wheeling convention cherished their copies. Ruffner claimed that slave states were destined for “stagnation and decay” and that the institution was “pernicious to the public welfare” because free laborers would never be able to make a livable wage if they were competing with unpaid labor.
The heated debates of the Wheeling Convention were recorded by Granville Hall in his first-hand account, “The Rending of Virginia”. Hall was himself from an abolitionist family, and although hired merely as a record-keeper, had some strong opinions about the proceedings, writing that “nothing could go right in Virginia until the concealed but evil influence of slavery had been removed”.
The pro-abolition faction was led by Gordon Battelle, an educator and minister from Clarksburg. Following the convention he went on to be a Captain in the Union army, and died while serving in the First West Virginia Infantry. Battelle made the argument that the institution of slavery did not just hurt those enslaved but also degraded the larger culture by censoring speech and forcing anti-slavery whites to act against their conscience.
Francis Pierpont, a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and West Virginia statehood, served as head of the interim government as West Virginia found its footing and built its state Constitution. Although Pierpont was a school teacher, he had a strong interest in growing business in the state, and felt that the eradication of slavery would help the state prosper. Along with his wife, Julia Pierpont, he created and taught at a school for freed slaves after the end of the Civil War.
Outside of the halls of politics, war raged. J.R. Clifford was one of many African American soldiers who fought for the Union, and he wrote that the war was an opportunity for the formerly enslaved to “hammer the shackles off their heels”, although he later became disillusioned with the lack of progress in the reconstruction era. Martin Delany (pictured below), who was born in Charlestown, became a Major in the Union army, the highest rank achieved by an African American during that era. In 1865 he met President Lincoln to argue that black officers were needed to keep up morale and inspire black soldiers. Although that idea had been proposed unsuccessfully before, Lincoln agreed this time, and described Delany as “a most extraordinary and intelligent man”.
If the restrictions of the military were a challenge for African American men who wanted to help the Union, it was worse for African American women like Susan Taylor. Despite being more educated than many of the soldiers, Taylor was hired as a laundress for the 33rd Regiment, and taught reading and writing to the troops outside of her official duties. Most of the camp workers left little in the way of written records, and although we looked for an example more rooted in West Virginia, we haven’t found much yet. Taylor, who was from Georgia, is unique in that she wrote a book about her experience in the war, titled “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd US Colored Troops”.
Ultimately, West Virginia accepted the abolition of slavery, and officially became a state in 1863. The original plan was to gradually phase out slavery in order to avoid economic upheaval, but on February 3rd, 1865, the West Virginia legislature voted for complete abolition. Although prejudice and discrimination persisted, West Virginians had looser voting requirements than neighboring states, a critical benefit during the Jim Crow era. The map below shows the differences in voter turnout between West Virginia’s eastern panhandle and neighboring Virginia counties, where Virginia’s stricter requirements kept both African Americans and poor whites away from the polls.
The state’s border was drawn while the war was ongoing, and reflects military strategy, ensuring that the Union held onto the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and other key assets. It is hard to imagine that at the time many people thought West Virginia’s border was being drawn between two separate countries.