How West Virginia Became a State

A quick review of how the Mountain State broke from the south during the Civil War.

In 1861, the commonwealth of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America. It started when the Virginia General Assembly voted to secede on April 17. On May 23, Virginia held a popular vote and 75% of Virginia citizens agreed.

The no vote came largely from the western part of Virginia — especially in the northwest, near Pennsylvania and Ohio. 60% of western Virginian delegates and 66% of western Virginians voted not to join the south.

The Wheeling Conventions

After the Virginia General Assembly vote, ten days before Virginia’s popular vote, The First Wheeling Convention was held in Wheeling, WV. Delegates decided that if the popular vote made Virginia a Confederate state, they would hold a second convention on June 11.

John Carlile, architect of the Restored Government of Virginia.

John Carlile, a merchant and attorney from Winchester, had a curious legal mind. He was a strict Unionist, but had no desire to see Virginia break into two states.

He wrote A Declaration of the People of Virginia for the Second Wheeling Convention, and argued that Virginia’s decision to join the South was done improperly and therefore illegal.

By Carlile’s legal reasoning, Virginia should not have been allowed to hold a secession vote. Such a vote first required a referendum, which the general assembly had ignored.

Therefore, Carlile reasoned, Virginia’s secession was invalid, and all state office holders affiliated with the south had abandoned their posts. More importantly, a new government of Virginia was required to fill the offices abandoned by the old government. The Restored Government of Virginia was therefore created and recognized by both congress and President Lincoln. As a result, Virginia had two governments — one Union, one Confederate, and for a time was both a Union and a Confederate state.

For one state to break from another, it needed license from the original state to do so. The “Restored Government” could give that authority. They were favorable to a state called “Kanawha,” but renamed it West Virginia in the weeks that followed.

An Election that Nobody Believed was Real

Something else happened that led to statehood: a popular vote to secede from Virginia. There were 70,000 eligible voters living in western Virginia. During the vote to join the Confederacy, 54,000 came out.

During the vote to break from Virginia on October 24, 1961, only 19,000 people voted. Why the low turnout?

The counties closest to Virginia were loyal to the south, and would not participate in an election held by “The Restored Government of Virginia” of the north. They thought the election a sham. Confederate soldiers discouraged voters near Virginia and Maryland, and Union soldiers protected them in the north, so, the numbers were skewed.

On the map to the left, the counties indicated in green refused to participate in the West Virginia statehood election. The blue and yellow counties had low voter turnout and limited participation. White counties had high participation, or were added after statehood.

So, with 25% of the state voting, and 18,000 votes for statehood and 500 votes against it, a state constitutional convention was held. The constitution was drawn primarily by northern West Virginians, and distrusted by southern West Virginians.

An application for admission to the Union was made to the United States Congress, and on December 31, 1862, an enabling act was approved by President Lincoln admitting West Virginia as the 35th State on June 20, 1863.

After the Civil War, Virginia was readmitted to the Union. West Virginians were concerned that Virginia might challenge West Virginia’s statehood. Congress, therefore, set a condition for Virginia’s readmission to the union: it must affirm in its 1869 Constitution that the authority by which the State of West Virginia was created out of Virginia territory had indeed been valid, thus giving its consent to the creation of West Virginia retroactive to 1863.