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Art Callaham: Can't take the hills out of this W.Va. boy

April 27, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

Since I’ve been writing this column — more than two years now — I’ve wanted to write about West Virginia. You see, as much as I love Maryland and the Hagerstown/Washington County area, I’m still a West Virginian at heart. I was born and reared in Summers County, educated in West Virginia public schools and flunked out of my first college at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. I entered the military and my permanent home address was in West Virginia until I left active service in 1972.

While I was growing up in West Virginia, my mother was a history teacher and a cousin was the local teacher who taught the mandatory ninth-grade “West Virginia History” course. I was fascinated with West Virginia’s past. Granted, that “past” was only 100 years old when I completed ninth grade.  Anything before June 1863 was Virginia’s history, since West Virginia (originally 50 “Ol’ Virginia” counties) “seceded” from Virginia in what was referred to by some as an act of “triple treason.”

Of the current 55 West Virginia counties, five (Grant, Mineral, Lincoln, Summers and Mingo) were formed after the state’s admission to the United States on June 20, 1863. At that time, Berkeley and Jefferson counties, the two easternmost counties of West Virginia, refused to recognize their inclusion in the state. However, in March 1866, Congress passed a joint mandate assenting to their inclusion.

The “triple treason” comment is attributed to Waitman T. Willey, an attorney from Morgantown who cautioned that forming a new state would be considered treason against the Unites States, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Confederate States of America. A recent article in America’s Civil War Magazine, titled “Virginia’s Great Divorce” (written by Gerald D. Swick a weekly newspaper columnist relating West Virginia history), gets to the heart of this constitutional matter.

Perhaps it’s oversimplification of a complex constitutional issue, but the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia required the approval of both governments before a new state could be created. Clearly the United States openly accepted a new state formed from a “state in rebellion;” however, Virginia, still considered a part of the United States, would never give up part of its territory.

Oh, the complexities. President Lincoln and Congress could never even hint that the Confederate States of America were anything more than a rebellious portion of the United States.  Conceding almost anything that remotely recognized the CSA as a “sovereign nation” might have led to recognition by foreign powers. Foreign power recognition might have led to military and financial support to a dying cause in 1863. The case for or against West Virginia’s statehood is argued today in many academic circles.

“To hell with academic circles,” one of my old diehard West Virginia friends has yelled at me. “We argue about it all the time on the sidewalk when some blowhard suggests that the panhandle should be returned to Virginia.” My only argument is to declare “Montani Semper Liberi” — “Mountaineers are always free” (West Virginia’s state motto). If those fellows in the panhandle were free to leave Virginia, I guess they are free to return. I never win the argument.

Question: What’s the largest state in the union?

Answer (known mostly to West Virginias): Well, if you flatten out all of the hills, it most certainly is West Virginia!

You can take the boy out of the hills, but you can’t take the hills out of the boy. Although I graduated from two Maryland higher-education schools, I still feel a sense of pride when I hear the wonderful strains of West Virginia’s state song:

“Oh, the West Virginia hills! How majestic and how grand,

With their summits bathed in glory, Like our Prince Immanuel’s Land!

Is it any wonder then, That my heart with rapture thrills,

As I stand once more with loved ones On those West Virginia hills? “

Aside from being the place of my birth, West Virginia’s rugged beauty, bucolic settings and pastoral countryside have a real appeal to me, and on some days make me long to return “home.” But, home is where your heart is, and my heart remains here in Washington County. But you can bet my heart could be changed if the grandkids moved to West Virginia.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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