We reported in May the new West Virginia Constitution had been proudly sent to Washington for approval. It was expected the Reformed Virginia Government Congressional representatives would usher the new constitution through the committees for passage through the House and Senate. Those representatives in the Senate were John Carlile of Harrison County and Waitman T. Willey of Monongalia County. In the House, it was Jacob Beeson Blair from Wood County, Kellian B. Whaley from Wayne County and William G. Brown of Preston County. It became obvious there were problems that had to be overcome, the main one being the constitution did not include a free slave provision. Under the circumstances of the war, Congress was in no mood to accept a slave state into the Union. Further, the president was also not inclined to accept such. The new constitution lacked such a provision because the western Virginia Constitutional Convention feared it could not get a favorable vote in the legislature or by the people if it included a free slave provision.
It became obvious a free slave provision was necessary and with much anguish Willey negotiated such a provision, which bridged the gap by providing for a gradual emancipation of current slaves over a period of years. With this provision called the "Willey Amendment," the constitution was ready for passage through the Senate Committee on Territories headed by Ohio Sen. Wade. From outward appearances, all were in agreement. Locals had traveled to testify and meet with interested politicians. All congressional representatives appeared in agreement, but at the last minute a major problem occurred.
With no prior warning, Sen. John Carlile expressed opposition to the bill and offered an amendment, which would include 14 new counties in the Shenandoah Valley in the boundaries of the new state. This was designed by Carlile to kill the bill for two political reasons. First, Western Virginia leaders did not want these counties included because it would tip the balance from a population favorable to the Union to one favorable to the Confederacy. Secondly, the bill was already on shaky grounds by dramatically splitting Virginia into two states. Including that many more Virginia counties, it was thought, would make the new state unacceptable.
This outrageous move by Carlile is almost unexplainable to this day. Wade, the head of the responsible Senate committee, wrote: "That there is to be a separation is a foregone conclusion, and no man has urged it upon the committee more strongly than the senator who now opposes immediate action. He, of all men in the committee, is the man who penned all the bills and drew them up. He is the man who has investigated all the precedents to see how far you could go in this direction. It was to his lucid mind we were indebted for the fact that there were no legal or constitutional barriers in the way of this proposition. He is the gentleman who impressed their opinions upon the committee as strongly as anybody else; and what change has come over the spirit of his dream I know not. His conversion is greater than that of St. Paul. All at once, after persuading us to bring the question before Congress, and when we expected his powerful aid to help push it through, we are brought up standing by his powerful opposition."
Criticism of Carlile came from all quarters. The Cincinnati Times stated, "Mr. Carlile, who represents West Virginia in the Senate, has urged its admission as an independent state until yesterday, when he suddenly changed tack and ferociously assaulted the bill. His sudden summersault seems to have astonished the Senate."
Gov. Pierpont asked Carlile to resign from his Senate seat for his traitorous act. The reformed legislature passed a resolution demanding he resign. The Wheeling Intelligencer, with influential editor Archibald Campbell, on Dec 13, 1862, wrote: "Obituary. The resolution requesting the resignation of Mr. Carlile, and declaring that he had disobeyed the instruction of the Legislature, that he betrayed the friends of a new state, and that he had failed to give the 'Government a cordial support in contending with the rebellion, passed the House of Delegates yesterday by a vote of 19 to 12. John S. Carlile is in truth no longer a Senator from Virginia. The body that made him has unmade him, so far as it could. It has repudiated his acts and called upon him to give way to some other man who will represent it and the people it represents. We do not expect Mr. Carlile to resign. He has to good a thing of it. "
The Parkersburg Gazette reported . "Since the adjournment of Congress numerous public meetings have been held in all parts of Western Virginia, and all, so far as we have seen, have unanimously denounced John S. Carlile as a traitor alike to his constituents and the country."
Carlile did not back down and continued opposition of the new state in the Senate even after its approval by the president and being brought into the Union on June 20, 1863. The question still remains as to what motivated him. Was it because of the "free slave" amendment? After all, Carlile had been a major slave holder. Was it because his ambition was to become the new governor and he began to realize that was not to be?
What is intriguing is that historians over the years have seemed to excuse Carlile of this travesty and put him on a pedestal as a revered statehood politician, and given credit for his efforts to create West Virginia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He should be buried in the ashes of West Virginia history, yet currently there are two exhibits in the Cultural Center and State Museum in Charleston with a prominent portrait of Carlile as a major supporter of the statehood movement. We have pointed this glaring error out to those in charge and hope a correction can be made. Statehood supporters such as Sen. P.G. Van Winkle, who wrote the constitution and worked tirelessly for years in support of statehood, should be recognized. Also, Congressman Jacob Beeson Blair who played a major role by convincing President Lincoln to sign the statehood bill, could be given recognition. Either would be a good replacement for traitor Carlile.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dave McKain is director of the Oil and Gas Museum and is chairman of the area Civil War Roundtable which is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.