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State of division: how West Virginia broke away from Virginia

State of division: how West Virginia broke away from Virginia

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Virginia used to be a much larger state. We asked Virginia Humanities for insight into why and how West Virginia cleaved off from our commonwealth in 1863. Here are excerpts from the organization's Encyclopedia Virginia.



* Sectional issues in Virginia emerged during the Revolutionary period. The Virginia Constitution of 1776 hampered western influence: It placed property-holding qualifications on voters and officeholders, which boosted eastern political representation.

* Western Virginians faced a tax code that benefited slaveholders and large landowners, as well as eastern reluctance to dedicate taxes for western internal improvements. So westerners clamored for change.

* After reform conventions in Staunton (in 1816 and 1825), western leaders forced the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30 and sought political concessions. The western delegates were outnumbered, and the resulting constitution failed to include expansion of the electorate or western legislative apportionment.

* Over the next 20 years, western leaders did secure concessions, including 19 additional western counties and state funds for internal improvements. But western politicians demanded another constitutional convention in 1850.

* The resulting constitution eased sectional tensions by offering westerners several political reforms. They included universal white male suffrage, increased political representation and the direct election of state and local officials.


* Still, differences divided Virginia. Western industries – iron, coal, salt and oil – largely relied on free labor, while eastern Virginia's commercial agriculture relied on slave labor. The emergence of western anti-slavery ideology, motivated by economics, threatened relations.

* Events that followed the 1850 constitutional convention exacerbated sectional tension. They included the 1857 Dred Scott ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court and John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County (in what is now West Virginia).

* The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president led to the secession of seven Southern states. On Feb. 13, 1861, Gov. John Letcher opened Virginia's own secession convention.

* During the convention, several events – Lincoln's inaugural address, the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers – led to passage of the Ordinance of Secession on April 17. But nearly two-thirds of the votes against secession came from northwestern Virginia.


* Anti-secession conventions developed across northwestern Virginia. The largest was led by John S. Carlile and produced the Clarksburg Resolutions: They denounced secession and demanded that a convention be held to address Virginia's political uncertainty.

* In May 1861, delegates met in the pro-Union stronghold of Wheeling. Despite efforts of new-state advocates, the First Wheeling Convention resolved to work only to defeat passage of the secession ordinance among Virginia's voters – and to reconvene if the ordinance passed.

* On May 23, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved the secession ordinance. The vote triggered the May 26 invasion of northwestern Virginia by Union troops to maintain control over strategically and economically critical western Virginia.

* The secession vote led to the Second Wheeling Convention. During its first session in June, delegates declared all state offices vacated by Virginia Confederates and called for reorganization of state government. Marion County lawyer Francis H. Pierpont was elected governor.

* In August, the Second Wheeling Convention reassembled, and delegates drafted and approved an ordinance to form a new state.


* The new state – originally named Kanawha – consisted of 48 western counties. Despite opposition from southwestern counties, western Virginians voted for the new state ordinance on Oct. 24, 1861.

* Delegates then gathered in Wheeling to draft a state constitution. During the convention, they renamed the state West Virginia and adopted a policy of "negro exclusion," which banned slaves and freedpeople from residing in the future state.

* Convention delegates approved the constitution in February, and western voters followed suit in April. As required by the U.S. Constitution, Pierpont agreed to the dismemberment of Virginia.

* On July 4, after a lengthy debate in the U.S. Senate over the state's boundaries and slavery policy, Sen. Waitman T. Willey presented a revised statehood bill that excluded several controversial counties and provided for gradual slave emancipation.

* On July 14, the Senate approved the West Virginia Statehood Bill, and the House of Representatives followed on Dec. 10. Despite divisions within his Cabinet, Lincoln signed the bill on Dec. 31, 1862.

* After Wheeling delegates and western voters approved the revised state constitution, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that on June 20, 1863, West Virginia would become a state. Wood County resident Arthur I. Boreman was elected governor and officially declared West Virginia as America's 35th state.


* The creation of West Virginia exacerbated internal factionalism. State leaders were largely from the northwest. But southern West Virginia Confederates and statehood opponents escalated  "bushwhacker," or guerrilla, warfare to undermine the new state government.

* Confederate raids into the Union strongholds of northern West Virginia terrorized mountain communities and threatened the new state's stability. Boreman told Lincoln that it was not "safe for a loyal man to go into the interior [of West Virginia] out of sight of the Ohio River."

* Political and economic support from Washington, plus Union military successes, ensured the survival of West Virginia. But postwar Reconstruction led to the resurgence of former Confederates and statehood opponents in key government positions.

* Despite Virginia's effort to force reunification in 1871 and lingering resentment among former Confederates regarding political disfranchisement and property losses, West Virginia retained its sovereignty.

* Its residents, meanwhile, were about to experience remarkable socioeconomic transformation tied to expansion of the state's rail lines and the rise of the coal and timber industries.

Encyclopedia Virginia is a publication of Virginia Humanities ( The entry on the creation of West Virginia was contributed by Kevin T. Barksdale, a professor of American history at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and author of "The Lost State of Franklin: America's First Secession." (

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