West Virginia: The state that said no

April 12, 2011

West Virginia is the only state formed because of the Civil War. Just as North battled South in the country, West confronted East in Virginia. The two regions formed a single state in name, but not in geography, economy, climate, descent of its residents or way of life.

Faced with what they considered an overbearing and neglectful state government, and after years of simmering resentment toward their eastern neighbors, citizens in the mountainous western regions of Virginia refused to take part in secession — “the crowning act of infamy,” thundered one politician from that part of the state. They stood up for the Union and declared themselves independent.

Did you know all that?

Neither did I, and I grew up there.

Oh, I knew the basic facts, taught in my state history class in eighth grade. What didn’t register was the revolutionary spirit it took to separate from a state that had produced seven presidents. Or the questionable legality of West Virginia’s origins. Or the handwringing Virginia’s split caused President Lincoln (“the division of a State is dreaded as a precedent”). All these were curiously and unfortunately underplayed during my 22 years in the state sometimes referred to as “the child of the rebellion.”

“It requires stout hearts to execute this purpose; it requires men of courage — of unfaltering determination,” declared Arthur Boreman, president of the convention that oversaw the formation of the new state and and also West Virginia’s first governor (and, I learned many years later, the man after whom my freshman dorm at West Virginia University was named).

If they did not spurn the Old Dominion, “the soil upon which we stand will be no longer the soil of the United States,” warned another separatist.

All this, of course, is in the history books. The problem for me, and I would imagine for generations of West Virginians, was that that’s where it remained: in books, and not planted in our malleable psyches by family members or our state history teachers.

Instead, we grappled with hillbilly stereotypes.

“I don’t think you’d find too many people who think about [our history] much in West Virginia,” state archivist Joe Geiger said. “I don’t know that everyone’s aware of the process that we went through.”

Hunting role models

Not only was I born in West Virginia, but I was also named for my parents’ home county, Preston. Throughout my youth, I was eager to discover Mountain State success stories. (College athletes — those four-year mercenaries from Florida or New Jersey who slipped on WVU uniforms — didn’t count. I was looking for true natives.)

I scanned the backs of baseball cards for West Virginia birthplaces (Chicago Cubs catcher Steve Swisher is from Parkersburg!) and was pleased to find out that “Hollywood Squares” host Peter Marshall hailed from Huntington. Such things should not have mattered all that much, but they did. Imagine my deep disappointment when I discovered that one of my favorite bands at the time, AC/DC, was not screeching “West Virginia brandy” in the tune “Have a Drink On Me” but “whiskey, gin and brandy.” That was a downer.

Now, with the Civil War sesquicentennial ramping up, I realize that I shouldn’t have needed to work so hard to justify being proud of my home state.

The audacious — some would say illegal — manner in which West Virginia went its own way was not emphasized during my upbringing. It should have been then, and it should be now. For one thing, it’s a way to immunize the state’s young citizens against the unflattering West Virginia stereotypes awaiting them, particularly if they move away.

Since the 35th state was formed, we’ve largely let outsiders, folks who don’t know Charleston from Charles Town, define us. Their rube jokes and unrelenting focus on the state’s most impoverished and uneducated has somehow trumped its knee-buckling beauty, neighborly people and singular history.

Nonnatives have no particular reason to know the state’s origin, but those within her borders should.

“The roots of that period are basically indistinguishable for most West Virginians, and that’s sad,” said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National State Park, site of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on a U.S. arsenal, a precursor to the start of the Civil War. “They were a state born of conviction. They were a state born for advocating for and defending the United States of America rather than the seceded states of America. Western Virginians were very committed to the Union in a state that left the Union.

“When secession occurred, Western Virginians felt that they were being told that this is what you’ve got to do, and they rebelled against that. That’s another part of West Virginia’s soul . . . that there is a rebellious nature to them and they exhibited that very, very much with respect to the Civil War. It’s really fascinating how they were willing to declare their own declaration of independence.”

Secession rumblings began long before the Civil War. Rugged Western Virginia was settled largely by Germans and Scotch-Irish. The mountains both isolated them and made them independent. Their communities differed sharply from the more refined eastern part of the state, with its population mostly of English descent.

In the state capital of Richmond, the slave-dependent plantation owners of the eastern territory had far more clout than the small farmers in the mountains. Discord mounted over slavery, voting requirements, allocation of funds and taxation — not to mention respect. A symbolic difference: About 80 percent of West Virginia’s streams flow west to the Mississippi River, not east to the Chesapeake Bay as in Virginia.

“The East has always looked upon that portion of the State west of the mountains, as a sort of outside appendage,” Boreman would later say in his inauguration address as governor. “The unfairness and inequality of legislation is manifest on every page of the statute book.”

As historian Frye says today, “The Civil War was not the cause of the formation of West Virginia. It was the opportunity. They looked at that as a way to get away from what they thought were the shackles of the rest of the state and the monopoly and attitude of Richmond.”

After Virginia voted to secede from the Union, Western Virginia delegates, two-thirds of whom had voted against secession, gathered in Clarksburg and later Wheeling and decided to carve out their own territory and create “a new Virginia.”

“People of North Western Virginia, why should we thus permit ourselves to be tyrannized over, and made slaves of, by the haughty arrogance and wicked machinations of would-be Eastern Despots,” asked a committee of Western Virginia politicians in an open letter in the Kingwood Chronicle in May of 1861. “Are we submissionists, craven cowards, who will yield to daring ambition....The Union under the flag of our common country....causes our bosoms to glow with patriotic heat, and our hearts to swell with honest love of country.”

One problem: The U.S. Constitution does not allow a new state to be formed without the consent of the original state.

With Virginia having left the Union, Western Virginia delegates formed a Reorganized Government of Virginia, which was recognized by President Lincoln as the official government of Virginia. That government granted itself permission to form the state of West Virginia. Lincoln reluctantly approved statehood, which became official on June 20, 1863.

“It is said the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession,” stated Lincoln, whose cabinet was split on the issue. “Well, if we can call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution, and secession in favor of the Constitution.”

That hillbilly image

How did this rich history get buried?

The state later became known for labor strife, natural resources and economic struggles, none of which relates to the Civil War era. And for the waves of immigrants who settled in West Virginia in the early 1900s, the state’s rogue origins were inconsequential. Another reason might be divided loyalties, because Western Virginia provided troops to both the Union and Confederate forces. (I come from Union territory, but it’s also the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a statue of whom graces the plaza of the Harrison County Courthouse.)

During my lifetime, it has been defensiveness, not the state’s history, that has bound West Virginians. Put it this way: When I was a kid, a state politician named Manchin was railing against hillbilly portrayals of West Virginians on “Love Boat” and a CBS movie called “Angel City.” In recent years, another state politician named Manchin was railing against hillbilly portrayals of West Virginians in a casting call for a horror movie.

Dick Cheney in 2008 made an inbreeding joke to chuckling reporters at the National Press Club (“So we had Cheneys on both sides of the family, and we don’t even live in West Virginia”). The year before, the WVU student paper denounced nationally syndicated radio host Jim Bohannon’s observation that there’s nothing to do in Morgantown but “mine coal and molest livestock.”

If outsiders want to go for the cheap, ill-informed yuk, or are unaware the state even exists, that’s their business. I for one am hopeful that the current West Virginia students will be more informed about their state heritage than I was. The state’s 150th anniversary in 2013 should spur interest, too.

“Eyes will be open to some of this positive history, and that will be their perspective from then on,” said John Lilly, editor of Goldenseal, a magazine that celebrates the state’s traditions.

A time to celebrate

West Virginians, particularly transplanted ones, are a wistful lot. Our eyes turn misty even before John Denver completes the first verse in the unofficial state anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

A joke we tell on ourselves: How many West Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb, and two to sit around and talk about how much they miss the old one.

In this case, however, a look back might just result in a step forward. Rise up, West Virginians, and embrace the true meaning of state motto “Mountaineers Are Always Free.” Celebrate that rebellious birth.

Not just for the sesquicentennial, but forevermore.

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