West Virginia is known for mines, mountains and working-class grit, but the state was born from a merchant-class revolt seeking freedom from punitive Richmond tax policies and the Virginia of colonial plantations dependent on slave labor.
That business past, part of the story we tell in Moundsville, has shaped the consciousness of the region, and illustrates how the history of America is often the history of its industry and commerce.
In a union that’s always been divided, the Mountain State stands out for how much it’s changed politically, socially, and culturally since its founding in 1863. In many ways tracking America, it started as a Republican rebellion against Southern Democrats, and turned into a Democratic party stronghold with the New Deal and unions, and then flipped back to the GOP of the Tea Party and Trump.
The founding of West Virginia is often characterized as a political rejection of slavery by the northwestern part of the state. It was the only state created by the Civil War, and one of only three states carved out of existing states. (Maine was made from Massachusetts, and Kentucky from Virginia, a cool slice of trivia I’ll be using.)
And that is a big part of the story. But as “Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia”, a fascinating new history of the 35th state points out, its founders led a region that clashed with the old Virginia for decades before the Civil War.
The grounds for divorce, write authors Eric J. Wittenberg, Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., and Penny L. Barrick, were centered around the economy. The western part of Virginia, yeoman farmers, builders, merchants and makers, was headed toward the 20th century, while the old Virginia of plantation slave-owners was sliding back into the 18th.
In fact, Wittenberg says, the book came about after somebody on Facebook “commented that if it hadn’t been for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, there would be no West Virginia.”
The western part of Virginia, centered around Wheeling, was linked to Ohio and Pennsylvania through commerce, the National Road and the B&O Railroad. In the 19th century, as America industrialized, communities of hustling entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers, built factories, ports and roads, dug canals, and founded towns that would shape the American manufacturing economy for the next 150 years. Like Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie, they were often immigrants. The northwest region of Virginia, the authors write, “had significant numbers of Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and German immigrants who came in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries and later as part of the large exodus of the 1840s.”
Wheeling, the authors remind us, “vied with Pittsburgh to be the center of commerce in that part of the country” in the early 19th century. “Its location at the head of low-water navigation on the Ohio River made it a nineteenth century boat-building center.” It also had “significant nail and tobacco plants.”
The suspension bridge in Wheeling across the Ohio River, built by Charles Ellet in 1847, was at 1,010 feet the longest suspension bridge in the world, carrying the national road across the river.
Prior to the Civil War, the western merchant class disputed its status under the law. Slaveholding was taxed at a lower rates other “businesses”, a provision which “ended up subsidizing slaveholders at the expense of” merchants and businessmen.
West Virginia’s young “continued to attend schools in free states rather than the schools across the Blue Ridge,” wrote an early historian. “Her markets were in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Mississippi River towns rather than Norfolk. Her geographic conditions allied her interests with those of Pennsylvania and Ohio and her industries with those which called for white rather than slave labor.”
The Civil War, in other words, was the spark that lit the fuse. Assembled in Wheeling, leaders of the region got around a rule saying a state couldn’t split up without legislative approval, by declaring itself the official legislature for the entire state of Virginia. The original state legislators, they argued, had forfeited their right to govern by seceding from the union. The government ran referendums on statehood and debated proposed names including Vandalia, Westsylvania, New Virginia, and Kanahwa, some of which had been suggested by past state secessionists.
Once it seceded from secession, West Virginia needed support from Abraham Lincoln and the federal government. One big reason Washington signed up to defend West Virginia was the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad, which has become essential for industrial development and western settlement. The Civil War made the B&O a strategic asset, able to move supplies and soldiers faster than horses and wagons.
“The construction, maintenance and operation of the B&O represented one of the first instances of a national system of transportation connecting the United States,” the authors write. The corridor of people living near the railroad former a bastion of union support. “It was no coincidence that the counties traversed by the B&O most strongly supported Lincoln.”
And, in fact, before the Civil War, Virginia leaders resisted building the B&O because they feared it would help the western part of the state economically surpass the slaveholding east.
With support from Lincoln, rulers in Wheeling managed to secure statehood. “Without Abraham Lincoln, there would be no West Virginia,” the authors write. The creation of the state was legitimized by Supreme Court rulings in 1871 and 1911, both included in this book. Wittenberg and Barrick are lawyers. Sargus is a federal district judge.
And West Virginia was admitted to the union as the first state to contain a gradual emancipation clause in its constitution.
The discovery of rich deposits of coal and gas would shape the state for the next 150 years. Luckily, West Virginia has this book to understand its first chapters, and to help it figure out what the next ones will say.
John W. Miller