CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — West Virginia Day falls on June 20 each year. It’s a day to celebrate the state and have a pepperoni roll–or five. Most West Virginians know that it’s West Virginia’s birthday–when it separated from Virginia in 1863–but do you know the full story behind West Virginia’s statehood?
West Virginia is actually the only state that was born out of the Civil War. The short of it was that the northwestern part of Virginia did not agree with joining the Confederacy. The reasons behind the disagreement are more complicated. A speech from Waitman T. Willey, Monongalia Delegate, on April 2, 1861 to the Virginia State Convention gives some insight on the politics of the time.
In the speech, Willey explained that Western Virginia felt abandoned by policies that were in favor of slaveholders and plantations. The hills in western Virginia prevented large plantations, but Willey pointed out that the natural resources within the region–waterfalls, coal, and forest land–could be huge money makers and job creators for the whole state of Virginia (“capable of employing all the slave labor in Virginia for centuries, without exhaustion”), yet the state refused to invest in anything other than large slaveowners.
All these elements of wealth, all these elements of State power and prosperity are within 200 and 250 miles of the capital of your State. And yet you exempt your slave property from taxation, and thus suffer this great source of internal wealth to lie undeveloped and unavailing, because we have not the means to complete our works of internal improvement now partially accomplished, leading thitherward, which would make available all these sources of State wealth and State power.Waitman T. Willey, April 2nd, 1861
The first step in the formation of West Virginia was a series of conventions in Wheeling to establish a state constitution. News of the conventions was met with outrage by those in support of state’s rights in Virginia, who felt that this was an act of betrayal. A unanimously adopted preamble of a state’s rights meeting in Harrison County accused the convention of being a minority that is influenced too strongly by Ohio, Pennsylvania and President Abraham Lincoln.
Therefore, be it Resolved, That while we utterly condemn the proposition to divide the State, and in our inmost souls we loath and abhor the diabolical manner in which it is proposed to effect it, and the degrading connection sought to be formed with a hostile State, yet we believe that but a few of the citizens of the Northwest favor even a regular and legal division of the State, and that but a small number of those who do, have thought seriously of the character and consequences of that measure; and we are thoroughly satisfied that a still smaller number have been made aware of the manner in which it is proposed to accomplish it: And we would solemnly warn and fervently implore our fellow citizens to inform themselves, and think and reflect for themselves on this and other subjects of vital public importance, and not allow themselves to be seduced by wicked and reckless men to their own infamy, the degradation of their families, and the destruction of their country.States Rights Meeting in Harrison, April 5, 1861
However, the desire to stay in the Union proved to be in the majority on April 22, 1861, when nearly 1,200 Harrison County citizens gathered at the courthouse in Clarksburg to express their opinions on Virginia’s intent to join the Confederacy, with most citizens opposing succession from the Union. Things heated up further with the public vote to approve the Ordinance of Succession (the bill to separate Virginia from the Union) on May 23. Judging by vote totals, it was determined that many western Virginians’ votes were not delivered to Richmond and therefore not counted.
By August, after much back-and-forth, the Second Wheeling Convention adopted an ordinance to separate from Virginia and form a new state called “Kanawha,” which, at the time, did not include the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. During the Third Wheeling Convention, the state constitution and the name “West Virginia” was established.
In May 1862, both Virginia and U.S. Congress agreed to the dismemberment. President Lincoln took much of 1862 deliberating the matter with his divided cabinet but ultimately decided in favor of statehood on December 31, 1862, contingent on the ratification of an anti-slavery amendment. Finally, on June 20, 1863, West Virginia was inaugurated as a new state. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported a turnout of thousands of people from abroad and the entire city.
“It threatened to rain several times but nothing but a little shower came; not enough to drive people into their houses or to deter them from coming out. Flags, of all sizes, were as thick in the city almost as the locusts in the suburbs. The display of bunting was most attractive and reflected much credit upon the good taste and patriotism of the people,” the newspaper wrote, “In the evening thousands of people were attracted to the wharf where a fine display of fire-work had been arranged. The pyrotechnics were grand, varied and beautiful, and elicited universal murmurs of admiration.”