- The partition of Virginia -- the Dilemma of the Old Dominion in 1861 -- preparations for war -- organization of troops in Western Virginia -- the Unionist convention -- organization of the State of West Virginia.
The partition of Virginia was called by the Hon. S. S. Cox, ‘one of the whimsical excesses of secession or vicissitudes of war.’ In a vigorous expression of his repugnance to the movement he exclaimed, ‘Forty western counties of Virginia agree to secede and form a new State without the consent of the old one! It is anomalous and unconstitutional. It is a new phase of secession made by the war. It is vigorously opposed, but in vain. The first beginning of reconstruction thus, and in the very midst of the war, came out of this despoiling of Virginia. It is one of the scars made by the war. It remains to commemorate the policy of force. It inevitably led to the successful attack which was soon to be made upon State institutions, including slavery.’ Thaddeus Stevens, with his characteristic frankness, said that ‘We know it is not constitutional, but it is necessary.’ The justification of the existence—the right to be—of the State of West Virginia was ‘military necessity,’ but its Statehood has been achieved and is now no longer questioned, though its birth was Caesarian and roughly accomplished at that. The Old Dominion which had voluntarily donated the vast Northwest to the Union and dedicated it to the use of white labor, was cloven by the hand it had nurtured into strength. Yet Virginia and all the South hail West Virginia and rejoice in its progress as one of the States of the Union, notwithstanding the nature of its origin.  In proper historical review of the creation of this State, we may begin with the fact that Virginia was forced into secession by the military movements which compelled it either to surrender all its resources to the uses of war against its sister States, or to ally itself with secession in order to resist the threatening armed coercion. ‘The crossing of troops into Virginia with hostile purpose is the act of war,’ said Robert E. Lee in April, 1861, and that act occurred before the secession ordinance was voted on by the people. The original ordinance of secession passed April 17, 1861, to take effect on the fourth Thursday in May, 1861, if ratified by the vote of the people, was opposed strenuously in the convention by the delegates from some of the northwestern counties, and notwithstanding its passage, many of those who had resented it returned to their counties to organize open opposition to the action of the convention. The Virginia convention adjourned on May 1st to meet again on June 11th, and immediately upon the adjournment, public meetings were held in various western counties resulting in an informal call for a general convention of disaffected counties, to be held at Wheeling on May 13th. These proceedings attracted the attention of the administration at Washington. Communication with the national capital was easy, the distance slight and the way entirely open. The call for national assistance in defying the action of the Virginia convention was earnestly made and did not go unheeded. First among the military operations to support the secession of these counties from Virginia were those in the two great neighboring States of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The conference between the vigorous governor of Pennsylvania and President Lincoln, on April 12, 1861, which encouraged the President in making his call for troops, was followed by the rapid military organization of the State and the stationing of large bodies of troops at Chambersburg under  Patterson, and at other points from which invasion could be made into Maryland and across any part of the eastern border of Virginia. The State of Ohio passed an act to enroll the militia of that State on April 12th, providing for immediately mustering and arming its volunteers. These active preparations were made before Virginia had seceded, and even before the attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter had failed. Then followed the ample answer to President Lincoln's call for troops, after which, it is a strange circumstance that on the 26th of April, Ohio created a debt of $2,000,000 to raise funds to defend the State, the governor deciding the measure constitutional because ‘Ohio is in danger of invasion.’ An immense ‘home army’ was organized under orders of May 6th, part of which was to be ‘the active army of operation;’ the enrolled militia of 300,000 men were divided into three corps; the people of the cities promptly raised large sums of money for the support of volunteers, and under all this pressure the State soon had a large force in the field. Maj.-Gen. George B. McClellan, who had been in the regular United States army, and was, in 1861, the general superintendent of the Ohio & Mississippi railroad, was made major-general of State troops May 1st, and proceeding with great energy in the work, had twenty-two regiments mustered before June 1st to meet President Lincoln's call, besides a large number of other regiments in State camps, at an expenditure, as certified by the governor and auditor, of over $2,000,000. The preliminary arrangements which rendered such rapid action possible, were made prior to the sailing of the fleet destined to reinforce Fort Sumter, and pending the efforts of Virginia to arrest secession. Through the energetic efforts of the war governors in forwarding troops to Washington in April, the State of Maryland was reduced to Federal control before it could be succored, and by the 1st of May, the entire eastern, northern  and western borders of Virginia became the boundary line across which the first bloody experiment of coercion by land was to be made. This long frontier of Virginia was exposed to the assaults of four armies; one consisting of regulars and volunteers stationed in and around Washington, one at Fortress Monroe, one under General Patterson along the upper Potomac, and one gathered chiefly from Ohio, under the command of General McClellan. To these two last mentioned armies, and particularly to the able general from Ohio, were intrusted the military operations which would enforce the movement inaugurated in April in the western counties of Virginia to resist the ratification of the ordinance of secession, passed by the State convention, and to overthrow the existing State government. For the purposes of this movement, the situation was exceedingly favorable. Ohio was on the western border and Pennsylvania on the northern. Wheeling, the city chosen as the place where the convention would assemble, was in the narrow strip of Virginia lying between those two States, and McClellan's forces were assembling in easy striking distance. The people of the nearest counties were generally opposed to the secession of Virginia, and had been at all times in near commercial and political sympathy with the people of the adjacent States. With these advantages, McClellan prepared in May to advance into Virginia. During these movements, so adverse to its wishes and interests as well as to its sovereignty, the State of Virginia was well advised of the dangers that threatened it, and began preparations after April 17th to place its people and their possessions in a state of defense. Gen. Robert E. Lee having been appointed by Governor Letcher to command all Virginia forces until the State should be formally incorporated in the Confederate States, directed Maj. A. Loring, commanding volunteers at Wheeling on April 29, 1861, to accept and muster into service such volunteer companies as might offer  themselves in compliance with the call of Governor Letcher, and to take command of them. His command was confined to the counties of Wetzel, Marshall, Ohio, Brooke and Hancock, with special duty to protect the terminus of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. At the same time Maj. F. M. Boykin, Jr., at Weston, was directed by General Lee to muster volunteer companies into the service of the State, and posting his command at or near Grafton, to co-operate with Major Loring in holding both branches of the railroad for the benefit of Maryland and Virginia. These officers were directed to give quiet and security to the inhabitants of the country, and also to facilitate peaceful travel. Two hundred old pattern flintlock muskets were the only arms with which General Lee was able to supply these important forces. Lieut.-Col. John McCausland was given similar duties in the valley of the Kanawha, and Col. C. Q. Tompkins, of Charleston, was assigned to command. Col. George Porterfield was directed to repair to Grafton and select positions for the troops in that section so as to cover the points liable to attack. The call for troops to assemble at Grafton was made on the counties of Braxton, Lewis, Harrison, Monongahela, Taylor, Barbour, Upshaw, Tucker, Mason, Randolph and Preston. The volunteers from Wood, Wirt, Roane, Calhoun, Gilmer, Ritchie, Pleasant and Doddridge were to rendezvous at Parkersburg. Lieuts. J. G. Gittings and W. E. Kemble were ordered to report to Porterfield for duty. Col. Jubal A. Early was ordered to Lynchburg to organize and command the forces at that point, and Col. Thomas J. Jackson, who was at Harper's Ferry, was notified to watch the threatening movements of the enemy, to occupy and use the Baltimore & Ohio railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio canal. Lieut.-Col. John Echols was placed in command at Staunton, about the same time, with two regiments of infantry. Thus it appears that so far as Governor Letcher and  General Lee could act in defense of the exposed northwestern frontier of Virginia, all dispositions were rapidly and sagaciously made within a few weeks after the proclamation of President Lincoln calling for 75,000 volunteers to act with forces already assembled at Washington, to invade the South through the State of Virginia. These dispositions were made before May 10th, by General Lee under his commission from that State, and on that date the Confederate secretary of war directed him to assume control of the Confederate as well as the Virginia forces in the State, assigning them to duty at his discretion until further orders. The measures thus energetically taken, were made necessary by the action of the anti-secessionists in the extreme western counties adjacent to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and also by the evident intention of the Federal authorities to seize and occupy these counties at once. The opponents of Virginia's ordinance of secession formed organizations to defeat that measure, and evidences of movements to call in the assistance of the Federal army of invasion alarmed the people. Enlistments in the volunteer army of Virginia were discouraged in many ways so forcibly as to make men afraid to leave their families. Enlistments, especially around Grafton, were therefore slowly secured, and it became necessary about the 1st of May to order at first 400 and later 600 rifles with ammunition, from Staunton, to be sent to Major Goff at Beverly, who was to turn them over to Porterfield. With these arms it was expected that some companies could be supplied for immediate service. General Lee did not think it was prudent at that time to order companies from other parts of the State to Grafton, as it might irritate, rather than conciliate, the population of that region. But Lee was very much concerned at the failure to procure volunteers in the West for the service of the State, and was induced by his anxieties on May 14, 1861, to ask Jackson, at Harper's Ferry, to send some aid to Porterfield  if he could do so without endangering his own position. Porterfield had reached Grafton on the same day that Lee's letter was written to Jackson, and found no forces to command. The sparseness of the population and the general uncertainty prevailing everywhere made concert of action difficult. Citizens who were true to the Old Dominion, appeared to be in the minority and needed protection. In view of the emergency, Col. M. G. Harman moved from Staunton, May 15, 1861, with a supply of arms, under escort of Capt. F. F. Sterrett's company of cavalry, for the relief of the Northwest. Capt. Felix H. Hull also proceeded to Highland with the company to recruit and join Captain Sterrett. Captain Moorman marched to Monterey and Captains Stover and McNeil were sent to Huttonsville. Under similar orders, Colonel Goff was engaged in raising troops in Randolph county, and all these separate companies were directed to unite as rapidly as possible at a point on the route to Grafton. These Federal and Confederate military dispositions around and within the western counties of Virginia had their special bearings upon the political movements heretofore referred to, the object of Virginia and the Confederate government being to hold the western counties, while it was the Federal design to facilitate the ‘disparting of Virginia.’ Keeping these military operations which were occurring in April and May, 1861, before us, we will consider the action taken at the same time among the people of that section which led finally to the institution of the State of West Virginia. The citizens of Virginia inhabiting the western counties were uncompromisingly divided among themselves in opinion as to their duty when their State became involved in the Confederate war. They had voted against the secession of Virginia, and many of their representatives refused to conform to the ordinance of secession. Hostilities, therefore, were begun first among themselves  by the antagonisms of neighbors and households; and by the recruiting of military companies for both the Confederate and the Federal armies. Allegiance to the commonwealth of Virginia as being the paramount obligation of the citizen held large numbers of Union men to the defense of its action, who formed themselves into military companies and entered the Confederate army. On the other hand many were so resolute in their repugnance to secession as to throw off the restraints of the old Virginia theory of allegiance, and to form companies and regiments for Federal service. The Unionist sentiment in western Virginia led to a meeting at Clarksburg, April 22d, one week after the adoption of the ordinance of secession by the Virginia convention, at which eleven delegates were appointed to meet delegates from other counties at Wheeling, May 13th, to determine what course should be pursued. Similar meetings followed, and the convention which met at the date fixed, contained representatives of twenty-five counties. The popular vote on the ordinance of secession, polled May (fourth Thursday), was largely for rejection in western Virginia and almost unanimous for adoption beyond the mountains. The informal convention of May 13th adopted resolutions condemning the ordinance and providing for a general election May 23d, of delegates from all counties favoring a division of the State, for a convention to be held at Wheeling, June 11th. Before that date arrived, on the pretext of defending railroad and other property, General McClellan with his army had entered the State, and Wheeling and the country far beyond were occupied by Ohio soldiers in overwhelming numbers. At the same time also, many companies of Virginia troops, for United States service, were organized, composed of men who afterward rendered gallant service for the cause they espoused. About forty counties were represented by delegates  at Wheeling, June 11th, and the members before proceeding to business joined in an oath of supreme allegiance to the United States. On June 13th a bill of rights was adopted, repudiating all allegiance to the Confederate States, to which Virginia was now united by ordinance ratified by popular vote; the offices of governor of Virginia, etc., were declared vacant, a provisional government was provided for, all officers were required to take the oath of national allegiance, and on the 19th a declaration of independence from Virginia was unanimously adopted. The main argument in justification of this declaration, was that under the bill of rights the legislature had no right to call a convention to alter the constitution and the relations of the commonwealth, without the previously expressed consent of the majority, and that therefore usurpation had occurred which would inevitably lead to military despotism. During the session of this convention, Governor Letcher issued a proclamation June 14th, to the people of northwestern Virginia, pointing out that the sovereign people of Virginia by a majority of nearly 100,000 votes, had exercised the right claimed by the fathers, to institute a new government, and had united the commonwealth with the Confederate States. He declared that the people had all had an opportunity to vote. ‘You, as well as the rest of the State, have cast your vote fairly, and the majority is against you. It is the duty of good citizens to yield to the will of the State.’ He quoted the bill of rights, ‘that the people have a right to uniform government; and therefore that no government separate from and independent of the government of Virginia ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof,’ and therefore, he said, ‘the majority have a right to govern.’ ‘But notwithstanding, this right, thus exercised, has been regarded by the people of all sections of the United States as undoubted and sacred, yet the government at Washington now utterly denies  it, and by the exercise of despotic power, is endeavoring to coerce our people to abject submission to their authority. Virginia has asserted her independence. She will maintain it at every hazard.’ He also pointed out that the new constitution had removed the previous inequality of taxation between the east and west, and he closed an eloquent appeal for unity in the commonwealth by the words: ‘The troops are posted at Huttonsville. Come with your own good weapons and meet them as brothers.’ On June 20th, the convention at Wheeling elected a provisional governor, Francis H. Pierpont, other State officers and an executive council of five. The convention purported to represent the whole State of Virginia, and Pierpont declared that it was not the object of the convention to set up any new government in the State, other than the one under which they had always lived. A legislature was elected, which met at Wheeling, July 2d, and was called the legislature of the restored government of Virginia. This body elected two senators for Virginia, who took the seats in the United States Senate vacated by Mason and Hunter. By authority of the legislature, $27,000 in specie deposited in the Exchange bank at Weston was seized and taken to Wheeling. A resolution favoring the division of the State of Virginia was at first voted down in the Senate. The proposition to form a new State, to bear the name of Kanawha, was, however, already very strong, and a convention was called to carry out this plan. Attorney-General Bates, of Lincoln's cabinet, in a letter to a member of the convention, strongly opposed it, declaring that ‘the formation of a new State out of western Virginia is an original, independent act of revolution. Any attempt to carry it out involves a plain breach of both the constitutions, of Virginia and of the nation.’ He contended that the plan under which the Unionist Virginians should act, should be one purporting to preserve the old State gov-ernment, ‘claiming to be the very State which has been  in part overthrown by the successful rebellion. ... The Senate admitted your senators, not as representing a new and nameless State, now for the first time heard of in our history, but as representing “the good old commonwealth.” ’ The constitutional convention met at Wheeling, November 26, 1861, and, influenced more by the success of the United States army than by the grave objections urged by Bates, framed a new constitution, which was ratified May 3, 1862, by the ‘qualified voters’ of forty-eight of the old Virginia counties. Berkeley and Jefferson counties were subsequently added. The mountain counties of Morgan, Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Monroe, Mercer and McDowell (including the present counties of Mineral, Grant and Summers), did not participate in the initial movement, but were included in the formation of the new State. At the election of May 3d, Pierpont also was elected ‘governor of Virginia,’ to fill the ‘unexpired’ term of Governor Letcher, and he continued to administer the affairs of the Trans-Alleghany until the new State was established, when he removed his ‘seat of government’ to Alexandria.