WVU to mark West Virginia’s 160th birthday with talks, new exhibit

On March 31, 1863, Waitman T. Willey, one of the Mountain State’s first U.S. senators, wrote in his journal, “West Virginia is a Fixed Fact.”

President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill admitting West Virginia to the Union on December 31, 1862. On March 26, 1863, West Virginia ratified the revised constitution to include the gradual emancipation of slaves. Lincoln proclaimed that West Virginia would officially be recognized as the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

In 1861, as the United States itself became massively divided over regional issues, leading to the American Civil War (1861-1865), the western regions of Virginia split with the eastern portion politically. On June 20, 1863, the western region was admitted to the Union as a new separate state, initially planned to be called the State of Kanawha, but ultimately named West Virginia.

J. Williams, in West Virginia: A History (West Virginia University Press) writes:

“During the Civil War, the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond chose to join the Confederate States of America, much to the chagrin of most of the inhabitants in the trans-Allegheny region of the state who had long expressed their resentment toward the political elites in Richmond. Loyal unionists gradually pushed for the creation of a new state.”

In Richmond on April 17, 1861, 30 delegates from the future state of West Virginia voted against the secession of Virginia from the Union. A meeting at Clarksburg recommend that each county in northwestern Virginia send delegates to a convention to meet in Wheeling on May 13, 1861.

During the Second Wheeling Convention on June 11, 1861, delegates adopted “A Declaration of the People of Virginia.” The document, drafted by former state senator John S. Carlile, declared that since the Secession Convention had been called without the consent of the people, all its acts were illegal. It further declared the pro-secession government in Richmond void and called for a reorganization of the state government, taking the line that all who adhered to the Ordinance of Secession had effectively vacated their offices.

“An act for the reorganization of the government was passed on June 19, 1861. On the following day, Francis H. Pierpont was chosen as governor of the “Restored Government of Virginia.” The legislature, composed of the members from the western counties who had been elected on May 23, 1861, met at Wheeling on July 1, 1861, filled the remainder of the state offices, completed the reorganization of the state government and elected two United States senators who were recognized by Washington. There were, therefore, two governments claiming to represent all of Virginia, one owing allegiance to the United States and one to the Confederacy,” Williams wrote.

West Virginia University Libraries and the West Virginia and Regional History Center will mark West Virginia’s 160th birthday on Tuesday, June 20 at 1:30 p.m. in the Downtown Libraries’ Milano Reading Room.

“The West Virginia and Regional History Center is excited to mark West Virginia’s 160th birthday,” West Virginia and Regional History Center Director Lori Hostuttler said. “The day will honor a local history hero, showcase West Virginia and Regional History Center collections in an exhibit that tells the story of statehood, and feature a speaker who offers new scholarship on the creation of the state. We invite the public to join us and celebrate West Virginia’s unique history.”

The featured speaker is historian Dr. Scott MacKenzie, author of “The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829-1872.” MacKenzie will discuss how slavery influenced the founding of the state.

“Contrary to long held belief, longstanding political, social and economic grievances did not motivate the northwestern counties to reject Virginia’s secession in 1861,” MacKenzie said. “I instead argue that its formation stemmed from the war and its main issue of slavery.

“Like the four other Border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, mostly conservative Unionists in northwestern Virginia heeded President Lincoln’s appeals to protect the institution and remained in the Union. They initially sought to form a new slave state. Yet, in early 1862, more radical Unionists took over the movement when Lincoln made emancipation a war aim. Their support for abolishing slavery led the President to reward West Virginia with its statehood,” said MacKenzie.

The program will also include a short ceremony to present Forest “Jack” Bowman with the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution Historic Preservation Award.

Refreshments and birthday cake will be served at 1:30 p.m., and the speakers begin at 2 p.m.

Immediately following the program, the WVRHC will open its latest exhibit, “West Virginia is a Fixed Fact,” which revisits the making of West Virginia with materials from the Center’s archival collections.

More information is available at