Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia
"West Virginia was the child of the storm," concluded early Mountaineer historian and Civil War veteran, Maj. Theodore F. Lang. The northwestern third of the Commonwealth of Virginia finally broke away in 1863 to form the Union's 35th state. In Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia, authors Eric J. Wittenberg, Edmund A. Sargus, and Penny L. Barrick chronicle those events in an unprecedented study of the social, legal,…

The travel to statehood for West Virginia is not a hot topic for most Civil War enthusiasts and particularly the boots and bayonet variety. But like every significant historical moment surrounding the Civil War, the impact upon the nation was significant if not fleeting. The authors comprehensively characterize the circumstances from an, economic, military, political, and legal perspective, and clearly illustrate the collective impact of the decisions of the West Virginia citizens.

The authors layout the Sectional differences that existed between the Virginia counties west of the Allegheny Mountains vs. east of the mountain range since before the American Revolution and that grew as the eastern counties political power supporting slavery isolated the western counties from economic opportunity.
The western counties economic activity was closely connected to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland and with railroads and the nation’s population expanding westward, access to the Ohio and the Mississippi River was significant. The B&O Railroad, having supported the western counties immensely since 1828, was derailed by eastern politicians when the authority to expand the B&O to the Ohio River failed. Consequently, in 1851 serious discussions centered upon separating from Virginia. The US Constitution included a provision for establishing a separate state and there was precedent. Yet the effort fell short until 1861.

Virginia’s Secession decision in April 1861 kicked off aggressive descent and this time the stakes reached beyond the few Virginia counties west of the Allegany Mountains. President Abraham Lincoln, desperately trying to keep border states in the Union, poled his cabinet. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio aggressively supported creating a new state and five years later was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when the legal issue was settled.

The authors highlight it all and even satisfy the boots and bayonet enthusiasts with details regarding the B&O Railroad’s significance as a military objective and target for both Union and Confederate cavalry raids till March of 1865. And while the authors draw conclusions based upon their study, the Appendix includes significant documents: the letters to the President from his Cabinet regarding the West Virginia question, the complaint from the State of Virginia to West Virginia that preceded court action, and the two Supreme Court decisions on the subject.
There were movements in many states to abandon the South after secession, but at the end of the day, West Virginia succeeded and was the first slave state to join the union.

Digesting this comprehensive effort, the road to West Virginia statehood will now rate more than a passing footnote to Border state discussions and secession.


Reviewed by Arley McCormick