The creation of West Virginia as a territory and then a state in the early days of the Civil War is every bit as interesting as it is ignored in U.S. history.
We typically think of the July 21, 1861 Battle of First Manassas (or First Bull Run) as the first significant battle of the Civil War, but genuine military conflict and casualties were occurring in April, May, and June of 1861 as well.
One of the most significant military campaigns prior to First Manassas commenced in June 1861, in the largely non-slaveholding, mountainous, northwest area of Virginia, which was also a key national east-west rail corridor. Concurrently, a unique (and Constitutionally questionable) political process was launched.
The overlay of political and military maneuvering which led to the creation of West Virginia as a sovereign state within the Union provides an interesting snapshot of many of the commanders, issues, and cultural differences that would continue throughout the Civil War.
The formal steps of the political effort to create the state of West Virginia began with Virginia’s secession ordinance, passed by its legislature in April 1861, and ratified by general election in May 1861. Virginia’s secession was strongly opposed by most elected officials and voters in the northwest part of the state, who took immediate action to distance themselves from the Confederacy.
It’s somewhat mind-boggling to follow the strands of legal analysis of the process by which West Virginia came into existence, but the bare bones version is as follows: The northwestern 35 counties of Virginia (eventually growing to 50 counties) seceded from the newly seceded Commonwealth of Virginia, in order to “rejoin” the Union as a “new” state (the original proposed name was the State of Kanawha, based on the southern boundary river of the same name).
However, neither President Lincoln nor the U.S. Congress ever formally recognized the legitimacy of secession of the Southern States in the first place. Furthermore, in light of the U.S. constitutional requirement (Article IV, Section 3) that the creation of a new state out of territory of an existing state must be approved by the existing state’s legislature, these seemingly theoretical legal questions took on genuine “real world” significance.
The Unionists of Kanawha technically met the Constitutional requirement by declaring themselves the “restored state of Virginia,” also adopting a novel legal instrument called a “resolution of dismemberment” from the former state of Virginia.
The U.S. Congress voted to admit West Virginia as a state in November 1862. Abraham Lincoln initially raised significant concerns as to the Constitutional validity of this unprecedented path to statehood, but overcame them in favor of the political and military expediency of signing the legislation.
However, West Virginia’s statehood was also made contingent upon its formal adoption of emancipation. The fledgling state did so, declaring all slaves born after July 4, 1863 to be free, and all other slaves to be free when they reached the age of 25. I’m not aware how the more appealing name of Kanawha was dropped during this process, but perhaps it can be revived in the future.
The military campaign, which was essential to West Virginia’s nascent survival apart from Virginia began with the occupation of the area by brand new Union troops from Ohio and Indiana, commanded by General George McClellan with Generals William Rosencrans and Jacob Cox as his seconds. It will likely come as no surprise that McClellan took credit for the competent work of Rosencrans and Cox in extricating Confederate forces from the vital B&O Railroad corridor through this territory. Nor should it come as a surprise that McClellan’s failure to follow up on the initial successes of Rosencrans and Cox resulted in the successful escape of the Confederate forces to fight again in the future.
By October 1861, Robert E. Lee’s troops had retreated from Kanawha, and for a brief and delusional period of time, George McClellan was honored as “Young Napoleon” and the savior of the Union, and Lee was derisively called “Granny Lee” or “Evacuating Lee” by the Richmond press.
So, to recap the political and military developments in northwest Virginia: Kanawha seceded from Virginia and became the new Virginia; George McClellan defeated Robert E. Lee in an early military skirmish; and, by the end of June 1861, public opinion and expectation in the North was that this rebellion was going to be even easier to quash than originally thought. Future events played out in a slightly different fashion.
Patrick Teegarden provides weekly commentary on the Civil War as part of our coverage of its 150th anniversary. He can be contacted at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.