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West Virginia's birth detailed in Charles Town author's new book

March 31, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Charles Town author Bob O'Connor
Charles Town author Bob O'Connor

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Many who have not studied West Virginia history believe it became a state in the middle of the Civil War because the people who lived in western Virginia objected to Virginia’s vote to secede from the Union.

True for some, but the schism between eastern and western Virginia at the time ran much deeper and had its beginnings around the time of the American Revolution, according to “Countdown to West Virginia Statehood,” Charles Town author Bob O’Connor’s latest book.

Seven of O’Connor’s works are centered on the Civil War, including some local events and characters. An eighth book covers the history of the City of Ranson, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010.

West Virginia’s route to statehood, as detailed in the new book, is a compilation of 27 articles on the subject running in syndicated columns in some West Virginia newspapers.

The bad blood between residents of the eastern Tidewater region, referred to by historian Henry Howe as “planters,” and “mountaineers” in the west, stemmed from Virginia’s first constitution, which was adopted in 1776, two years before it became the 10th state.

A provision in the document restricted voting rights to those who owned at least 25 tillable or 50 untillable acres.

The requirement was easy to meet in the flat, fertile Tidewater region; not so in the mountainous west, where small plots were common, according to the book. The result was that mountain people were discriminated against because so few of them could vote on account of the land rule.

“The eastern region had much higher representation in the legislature,” O’Connor said. “People in from western Virginia started to claim it was taxation without representation.”

The land requirement remained in effect until 1850. When it was lifted, any 21-year-old white man could vote.

“It had been like that for 74 years,” O’Connor said. “All of the governors during those years came from eastern Virginia. The first western governor elected was Joseph Johnson from Bridgeport in Harrison County in 1852.”

“By the time the Civil War began, there was all this animosity between the factions,” he said. “Virginia’s secession from the Union was only the last straw. People in the west had had enough of being left out of everything so they started the movement to have their own state.”

The editor of the “Wheeling Daily Intelligencer” stirred things up in an editorial in which he called on western Virginia men “to enroll in the Union Army,” O’Connor said, quoting a line in the book.

What followed was the adoption of resolutions calling for each county to send delegates to conventions in Wheeling to oppose secession. The growing fervor for statehood eventually led to the forming of the Restored and Reorganized Government of Virginia, in effect a new government loyal to the Union with functions at the state, county and local level, O’Connor said.

Francis Pierpont was elected governor of the Restored Government on June 20, 1861.

The new government got around the U.S. Constitution, which said no new state could be formed within the jurisdiction of another state. “It gave by itself permission to form the new state of West Virginia on May 13, 1862,” O’Connor said.

The U.S. Congress would not recognize West Virginia unless it came into the Union as a free state, according to O’Connor’s history. That problem was solved with an amendment to the state constitution, which called for children of slaves born after July 4, 1863, to be free; slaves under the age of 10 to be free at age 21; and those under 21 to be free at age 25.

According to the book, the U.S. Senate signed the proclamation proclaiming West Virginia statehood on July 14, 1862. The U.S. House of Representatives signed it six months later on Dec. 10. President Abraham Lincoln signed it on April 20, 1863, to take effect in 60 days on June 20, 1863. West Virginia became the 35th state, at the time with 50 counties. The other 5, including Berkeley and Jefferson, came later.

O’Connor, 67, said he wrote the book in honor of West Virginia’s 150th anniversary this year and “because I didn’t know the history of the state myself. As I got into it, I found that a lot of it was different from what I thought it would be.”

The 94-page book is available at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and Paterson’s Drug Store in Martinsburg, W.Va., and online at www.boboconnorbooks.com.

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