Historian discusses formation of West Virginia

PARKERSBURG – Coming as it did in the middle of a war started by secession, the establishment of West Virginia as a separate state during the Civil War is interesting as the only successful example of secession to occur in U.S. history.

That was among the information provided by Ronald L. Lewis, WVU professor of history emeritus and West Virginia historian laureate, during his program “The Revolution that Forged a State” Tuesday evening at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

The program was part of the college’s sesquicentennial activities during April.

Lewis was appointed historian laureate in 2010 by then-Gov. Joe Manchin. He has written books on the history of West Virginia.

“Virginia’s decision to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy in 1861 precipitated the separation of western Virginians from the commonwealth. If Virginia’s secession constituted a revolution, then the decision of loyal westerners to secede from Virginia and create a new state represented a revolution within a revolution,” Lewis said.

Several factors contributed to the decision by northwestern Virginia’s residents to secede from rest of the state during the Civil War, with the issue of slavery being far down the list, according to Lewis.

One of the biggest issues was the western Virginians’ loyalty to the Union, along with decades of political and economic wrangling between the two sections of the state leading up to the Civil War, he said.

The eastern part of the state was commercially oriented and slave-owning while the northwestern part of the state was agriculturally based with a much smaller incidence of slave ownership, although it did exist. As an example, 30 percent of Virginia’s population were slaves in 1850, more than 490,000, Lewis said.

At the same time, there were about 18,000 slaves in western Virginia.

While there was no way for slaves to vote, eastern Virginia leaders made sure that slaves were counted as part of the representative population- with each slave counting as three-fifths- when it came to apportioning legislative seats, Lewis said. That allowed eastern Virginia to have many more members compared to the northwestern area in the state legislative body.

There were concerns about taxation inequality between the two areas, Lewis said.

“The state of Virginia was actually coalescing from a number of regions into one, tied by transportation and so on,” Lewis said. “They intentionally isolated the northwestern counties because they were not the same political persuasion.”

Following efforts by western Virginia leaders from 1861-1863, primarily centered in Wheeling and Parkersburg, the state of West Virginia became the 35th state in the U.S. on June 20, 1863.

Tuesday’s lecture was sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council. Lecture attendees had the opportunity to visit an exhibit in the student activity center called “Born of Rebellion,” also sponsored by the council.

WVU-P’s sesquicentennial celebration has been presented with support from the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission.

Some of the remaining sesquicentennial events at WVU-P are:

* Through April 30: Exhibit of West Virginia Books, WVU-P library

* Through May 3: “Born of Rebellion,” West Virginia Humanities Council Exhibit

* Today: Showings of “The Mothman Prophecies” at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., student lounge

* Friday: Johnny Staats and the Delivery Boys, 7 p.m., college amphitheater

* April 30: Marc Harshman, West Virginia poet laureate, 7 p.m., College Theatre, presented by the WVU-P Humanities Speakers Series.