On June 20th, 1863 West Virginia became the 35th star on the flag of the USA. President Lincoln signed the legislation on December 31, 1862. The voters approved the proposed state’s Constitution on March 26, 1863, and those votes were certified on April 20, 1863, with the state’s existence commencing in 60 days. West Virginia holds several ironies. It is the only state derived from another state. It is the last slave-state admitted, but was pro-Union. And, while it’s Constitutionality has been questioned, it has never been directly challenged nor confirmed in a court of law. So, what happened to Kanawha?
To understand how West Virginia was formed, first we must look at geography. The eastern regions are mostly mountains and valleys, and the western regions rolling hills to the Ohio River. For Native Americans, the mountains were hunting grounds, but not places for year-round settlements. At the same time, those mountains created a western boundary to the Virginia colonists. While the royal charters gave tracks of land, much of what would become West Virginia was the “Frontier”. After the French and Indian war, colonists were not supposed to move into these regions, but when have laws and treaties ever stopped migration of people who see better opportunities elsewhere?
The Virginia colony and later Commenwealth of Virginia spread eventually from the Atlantic Ocean and rivers of the Piedmont with it’s plantations, across the Blue Ridge, Alleghany, and Mongahella mountains to the Ohio River valley. In the early 19th century, the Northwest Treaties, Louisiana Purchase, and Spanish-American war added acreage across the continent. All this territory was being formed into states, which provoked the slave-free state politics, such as the Missouri Compromise. This eventually culminated in southern secession states.
Virginia’s legislators were slow to move toward secession. Part of the delay was the geography of the state as this relates to its population. The Piedmont region had the most population and large slave holding economic concerns. The Ohio Valley leaned toward free state status. The mountains were mixed, with smaller, family farms and a small numbers of slaves per farm. As the debates about secession drifted toward the split from the Union, the delegates from the western counties returned home with their protest votes. Thus, Virginia’s secession, on May 23, 1861 appeared more popular than might have actually been represented by the state as a whole (some years later, the vote was determined to be suspect because ballots from western counties were not counted).
The delegates from the western counties formed the Restored Government of Virginia, in Wheeling, on June 11, 1861. For the next couple of years, the leaders of this parallel government would petition the federal government to pursue the formation of a separate state. Major issues in the debate were the borders of the state, whether it would be free or slave with an emancipation clause built into the state’s Constitution, and whether formation of the state would meet federal constitutional challenge.
As to geography, the Restored Government of Virginia proposed using the Alleghany mountains as the boundary, leaving the Piedmont planes and Shenandoah Valley to Virginia. The Eastern Panhandle region (e.g. around Harpers Ferry) would be included, even though this was generally pro-Confederacy. This was at the request of the railroad companies, which were looking for the deeper pockets which would fund rebuilding the railroad lines torn up by the armies marching up and down the Shenandoah Valley. The railroad owners already expected the Union to ultimately prevail, and thus be a better partner.
In a tit-for-tat fashion, when votes were gathered for support of statehood, the ballots from the Eastern Panhandle were not counted, in as much as it was not safe for delegates from these counties to cross the mountains and battle lines to get to Wheeling for the vote. Virginia seceded from the Union without consent of the western counties. West Virginia seceded from Virginia without consent of the eastern counties.
To gather support, both among the counties to be included in West Virginia and Congress, the Constitution of the proposed state would need to address slavery. The leaders of the Restored Government of Virginia were mostly fervent Abolitionists. They wanted West Virginia to be a free state. However, as the legislation was debated in Congress before the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, such an abolitionist stance would like derail the process. The compromise was to include a clause for permitting West Virginia to be admitted as a slave state, but with an emancipation process over some years.
Regarding the Constitutional process for establishing a new states, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 reads, “New States my be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other States… without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress” Now, this would be a road block, for the Virginia legislature in Richmond would not consent to splitting the land, but the Restored Government of Virginia claimed the be the true authority. Furthermore, Congress itself, meeting without the representation of the congressmen from those states that has seceded, was technically in session for several years without full representation of the states.
President Lincoln was troubled enough by the Constitutional implications that he consulted his cabinet, which turned out to be split on the issues. A few months later, when Lincoln signed the legislation, he reasoned, “…there is still a difference between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.” With this backing, the Restored Government of Virginia followed the procedures to gather votes. Even after West Virginia was accepted as a state, the Civil War toiled on for a couple more years. The campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley continued, with occasional skirmishes slipping into our mountain valleys around Romney, Moorefield, Petersburg, and Franklin, all now part of the new state.
But, geographic boundaries that are made without regard to the social affiliations rarely lead to peace and cohesion. When we began to build our cabin. Most of the local Civil War re-enactment groups in this region identify with the Confederacy. On Memorial Day, etc. the local cemeteries are spruced up, and decorated with the local Sons of Confederate Soldiers group. A few Christmas’ ago, a Union re-enactment group’s holiday dinner was “raided” by McNeal’s Rangers, who, in jest, granted them pardon for bringing war to their valley.
As to that constitutional question, no case has every directly challenged West Virginia’s existence. After the Civil War, there was a petition to return two counties in the Eastern Panhandle back to Virginia. The court upheld their inclusion in West Virginia, suggesting that the state was a legitimate entity.
But, as our politics goes, those in power point to the voters to claim authority for acting in their behalf. If so, West Virginia would be called “Kanawha”, for this was the name, among several offered, selected by the voters. However, those same leaders seems to not want to name a state — formed, questionably from another state, during a war, as a slave state with an emancipation clause, with a rigged election process — for a Native American word.