John Brown’s raid, 150 years ago, was a practical failure with massive ramifications. It lit the fuse leading to the Civil War, and, as MARY MILEY THEOBALD writes, set in motion the creation of the 35th state, “West, by God, Virginia.”
Courtesy of the Virginia Historical society
Pre-1863 Virginia map
An 1856 map of Virginia.
Pity West Virginia schoolchildren, having to study two state histories! They must first learn about Virginia’s origins in 1607 and then, when the teacher reaches the Civil War, begin anew with the birth of their own breakaway state. Not only that, but they must also try to make sense of what is surely the most complicated creation story of all the states in America, layered as it is with dubious elections, conventions and referendums, questionable legalities, parallel governments, appalling wartime violence and enough political factions to make the Balkans look harmonious.
One might start in 1859 with abolitionist John Brown, leader of the infamous Harpers Ferry raid and poster child for the unattributed saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Brown and his followers attacked the arsenal at Harpers Ferry 150 years ago to seize weapons for the slaves and abolitionists who, he was sure, would rush to join his crusade. The raid was a practical failure—the attackers killed innocent bystanders (some of them black, ironically), and Brown himself was captured, convicted of treason and hanged—but it had massive ramifications. The ambush heightened tensions across the country, making civil war all but inevitable, and set in motion the creation of West Virginia, one of two “war-born” states to emerge from the Civil War (Nevada was the other).
But the story of West Virginia begins much earlier. Shorthand history has it that disagreements over slavery split Virginia, but that is only partly true. To be sure, relatively few in Virginia’s western counties owned slaves, and those same counties were quick to side with the Union during the Civil War. But, according to West Virginia University history professor Kenneth Fones-Wolf, western Virginians actually differed little from eastern Virginians in their attitudes toward slavery. “There were not many slaveholders in western Virginia, but most people were not particularly upset by slavery either. John Brown certainly miscalculated this. He expected that the Appalachian Mountains might become a great highway of freedom [after his raid], with white support, for enslaved persons.” That didn’t happen.
Virginia’s western counties did have a very real grudge against the state government in Richmond, simmering since colonial times. Those residents bitterly resented the political and economic domination of the Tidewater and Piedmont “aristocracy.” Control was held by men who owned the vast tobacco plantations dependent upon slaves and international trade—men loath to share power with backwoodsmen on small farms that had no need of slave labor.
But by the early 19th century, the western counties and their leaders were becoming more assertive. Abundant natural resources in the west—timber, coal, salt and iron—presaged a more industrial lifestyle. Because no transportation routes led to the Atlantic, westerners looked to the Ohio and Mississippi waterways for trade. What’s more, Virginia’s population was steadily shifting in their direction.
These trends didn’t impress the eastern planters who dominated the General Assembly. They held to the state’s original 1776 constitution, which allowed only large landowners to vote and counted slaves when figuring representation, which resulted in the underrepresention of the west. Many white men who owned small farms in western counties and who had served in the military and paid taxes claimed that denying them the vote amounted to “taxation without representation.”
After decades of pressure, Virginia’s legislature finally agreed in 1830 to a constitutional convention. Westerners were optimistic—at last a chance at reform! After weeks of acrimonious debate, the westerners’ demands were firmly quashed by the ruling elite, including James Madison, James Monroe, and John Marshall. “The republican ideals of the founders did not include universal white male suffrage, to say nothing of denying votes to women and minorities,” explains Fones-Wolf. Eastern conservatives narrowly defeated western proposals to elect the governor and judges by popular vote and also rejected apportioning representation on the basis of white-only population.
These outcomes outraged westerners, who noted that Virginia was the only state still adhering to land ownership as a qualification for the vote. With its limited political clout, the western region received little money for roads, canals, schools and railroads. Some westerners proposed that a dozen of the northernmost counties secede and join Pennsylvania or Ohio. Others talked of a separate state. Twenty years passed before a second Virginia convention finally gave all white males over age 21 the right to vote. It was too little, too late. Tensions cooled but did not die. Nine years later, John Brown’s raid reignited the embers of discontent.
Then came a signal moment. In April of 1861, after Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the South Carolina rebellion, a majority of Virginia’s legislators voted to secede. Virginia joined the Confederacy. Most delegates from the northwestern counties voted against seceding from the Union—then promptly returned home to plan their own secession from Virginia itself.
One has only to look at a map to grasp why Wheeling, then the largest city in western Virginia, and the northwestern counties were reluctant to secede. Wheeling is located in the northernmost strip of land wedged between Pennsylvania and Ohio, and, says Fones-Wolf, “it was becoming an industrial city that wanted infrastructure improvements, banking, capital investments, education and tax reform that the government in Richmond was slow to provide.”
In June of 1861, delegates from 38 Virginia counties gathered in Wheeling to decide how to break away from the eastern and central half of the state. Representation was spotty. Two political entities that would not, ultimately, become part of the new state, Fairfax and the city of Alexandria, sent delegates, yet 15 counties that would become part of the new state did not participate at all. Instead of seceding immediately, the delegates created something called the Restored Government of Virginia, with Francis Pierpont as governor.
In setting up this parallel government, the delegates were paving the way for statehood. They knew that what they were doing was illegal—a violation of the U.S. Constitution. They understood that Richmond was not going to permit one-third of its counties to break away, so they created an alternate Virginia government that was certain to consent to the division, knowing full well that, with Union soldiers in control of the region, there was nothing Richmond could do. Next, Pierpont called a session of the General Assembly in Wheeling of all who were still loyal to the Union, read a letter from President Lincoln pledging “full protection” to the loyal people of western Virginia, and sent two senators, John Carlile and Waitman Willey, to Washington.
Delegates at the Wheeling Convention debated issues related to their new state, including its name—which they decided would be Kanawha—and its boundaries. The decisions were then put before the voters. In a surprisingly low turnout considering the importance of the issue, only 34 percent of eligible men voted. Of those, 18,408 voted for the creation of the state of Kanawha, 781 against. The lopsided vote seems evidence of overwhelming agreement, but according to historian Otis K. Rice in his 1972 book West Virginia: The State and Its People, there was a lot of “irregular” voting and intimidation as well. For example, 11 counties did not record a single vote in opposition, and six provided no election returns at all.
Two months later, a different group of delegates met to write Kanawha’s constitution. Most of them did not like the approved name. It was confusing, some argued. There were already two rivers and one county in the region named Kanawha. Several spoke of their pride in being Virginians and wanted the word Virginia in the state’s name. Senator Willey drew laughter when he said some of his constituents found Kanawha too hard to spell. Alternatives were proposed: New Virginia and Columbia received no votes, Augusta got one, Allegheny and Western Virginia each got two, and Kanawha nine. West Virginia won with 30.
The boundary issue was harder to resolve. Delegates rejected some counties because they had too many slaves or too much public debt. In the end, the delegates voted 44 counties into the new state, with seven more contingent upon voter approval.
Slavery remained the most contentious issue. Should West Virginia free its slaves as its northern neighbors had done years earlier? Provide for gradual emancipation? Compensate slave owners for their loss? Bar black people from the state altogether? The strong pro-slavery contingent refused to bend, though it seemed obvious that Congress would never, as one Wheeling newspaper editor put it, “consent to the subdivision of a slave State simply that two slave States may be made out of it.” Nonetheless, the constitution was approved with slavery still legal. After passing handily with the voters of the affected counties, it was sent to Washington in May of 1862.
There, Senator Willey enraged both pro-slavery West Virginians and northern Radical Republicans, who were demanding instant emancipation, by unilaterally amending the document to provide for gradual emancipation. Congress approved, and Lincoln, after fretting over the hypocrisy of going to war to prevent secession and then participating in secession when it was “expedient,” overlooked the dodgy legalities and signed a proclamation that made West Virginia the 35th state effective June 20, 1863. “We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle,” the pragmatic president wrote; “much less can we afford to have her against us, in Congress and in the field. Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials.”
No matter their loyalties, the war fell harshly on all of West Virginia’s citizens. Confederate soldiers conducted fierce raids trying to destroy the B&O railroad. Bushwhacking, murder and guerilla activity devastated the countryside. The town of Romney, near the Maryland border, famously changed hands 56 times during the war. Entire counties fell into anarchy, rendering the series of elections that took place in 1861-1863 so chaotic and fraudulent that historians consider them unreliable indications of sentiment. Richard Orr Curry, author of A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia (1964), contends that at least 24 of the counties that ended up in West Virginia—roughly half—would have voted to stay in Virginia had the elections been fair. Henry A. Wise, the Virginia governor, voiced the anger of many when he described West Virginia as the “bastard child of a political rape.”
Several months after Lincoln’s 1863 statehood proclamation, elections in Berkeley and Jefferson counties (the eastern panhandle) indicated they wished to join the new state. However, historians doubt the integrity of these elections because they were conducted while the area was occupied by Union troops and most of the eligible voters were away serving in the Confederate army. But the B&O railroad ran through these counties on its way to the Ohio River, and Congress did not want to leave such a vital transportation link in Confederate Virginia, so it permitted Berkeley and Jefferson to join the new state. After the Civil War, Virginia sued in the Supreme Court for their return—without success.
West Virginia authorities anticipated trouble when the defeated Confederate soldiers returned home. A population of about 250,000 people in the northwestern counties who were largely loyal to the Union found themselves bound to about 110,000 people in the south and east who were mostly Confederates. To preserve their own power, legislators passed a constitutional amendment denying voting rights to anyone who had aided the rebellion, effectively disenfranchising a third of the state, much as they had been disenfranchised by Richmond before the war.
John Brown cared nothing for the economic and political grievances of western Virginia when he attacked Harpers Ferry. But the man whom Lincoln described as a “misguided fanatic” set in motion events that split apart the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America. And that’s a story that all schoolchildren learn, no matter their home state. •