The decision that made West Virginia possible

Normally I prefer to write about the military aspects of the war. But it is the 150th birthday of the State of West Virginia and, after reading some comments on how West Virginia came to be, there is one aspect that seems to me generally overlooked.

After the bombardment of Fort Sumter by the confederates, President Lincoln called Congress into session starting on July 4, 1861. Many representatives and senators from southern states did not show up due to what was going on in those states. A notable exception was Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee who achieved national fame for his pro-US speeches and the dangerous journey he had to take to make it to Washington from Tennessee.

E008771In the Senate on July 13 Johnson presented the credentials of John Carlile and Waitman Willey declaring that they had been appointed to fill Virginia’s Senate seats, made vacant when the Senate expelled the former Senators, James Mason and Robert Hunter, who sided with the Confederacy. The Senate briefly debated the issue, but when it was put to a vote they accepted Carlile and Willey into the Senate. This decision made the creation of West Virginia possible.

Prior to the 17th amendment, adopted in the early 20th Century, Senators from each State were “chosen by the Legislature thereof”. So how had Carlile and Willey been chosen?

After the convention in Richmond voted for secession, loyalists to the US called for there to be an opposing convention. This convention gathered in Wheeling in June and issued “A Declaration of the People of Virginia” which reasoned that since secession was in their view an illegal act and since the Governor has taken other illegal acts, the state government was in disarray and the governor’s office was essentially vacant. The convention then claimed it needed to act on behalf of the people and appoint an interim governor to restore a legal functioning government. The convention picked Francis Pierpont and one of his first actions was to call for a special session of the state legislature.

The legislature normally met in Richmond, but that obviously wouldn’t work for Pierpont. So he called for those who had won the recent state election and who were still willing to pledge loyalty to the United States to meet in Wheeling. On July 1 eight state senators and 32 house delegates gathered (the legislature normally consisted of 50 senators and 152 delegates). This group in Wheeling acted as the legislature of Virginia loyal to the United States of America while simultaneously another group in Richmond acted as the legislature of Virginia loyal to the Confederate States of America. On July 9th the legislators in Wheeling selected Carlisle and Willey to represent Virginia in the US Senate.

By deciding to seat them, the US Senate were validating their credentials and this cleared the way for the formation of the new state of West Virginia. The Constitution gives Congress the power to admit a new state with the restriction that if the new state was formed from part of an existing state then the legislature of the existing state must agree. So in order to create West Virginia, the legislature of Virginia had to agree. By accepting Carlile and Willey in the Senate, Congress was defining the group of legislators gathered in Wheeling to be the legislature of the State of Virginia. For if Senators were “chosen by the Legislature thereof” (in the words of the Constitution) and Carlile and Willey were Senators, then whoever chose Carlile and Willey must be the legislature. Thus when the legislators assembled in Wheeling voted in early 1862 to approve a new state, Congress had to accept this as constitutionally valid because to do otherwise would call into question the status of Carlile and Willey and all the votes and bills they had taken part in.

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Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s 1861 Civil War Battle Plan

In 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, Thomas J. Jackson, the West Virginia Confederate General who would later become known as “Stonewall” Jackson, believed he had the key to a quick and sure victory for the newly formed Confederacy. His ambitious plan was to invade the United States from the panhandle of northern Virginia and continue north all the way to Canada.

158653408His plan made good military sense as it would carry the war to the enemy and effectively divide the eastern from the western states. Not only would this invasion be a good logistical move but would give the Confederate States of America legitimacy with foreign countries and the opening of foreign trade relations.

In Jackson’s mind, Confederate control of the railways and turnpikes in the Trans-Allegheny area would be crucial to its defense of the Shenandoah Valley and it’s ready source of supplies in the Virginia heartland. Unfortunately for the CSA, Stonewall Jackson’s plan for invading the United States was to be overruled by the Generals in Richmond. Politics in the new Confederate States had yet to be ironed out to say the least.

Going forward with Richmond’s orders, General Jackson, having been raised in Western Virginia (which was to become the state of West Virginia) knew that transportation routes were far and few between in the rugged mountainous terrain. The dense forests and mountains posed logistical problems in moving supplies and large numbers of people through the area. There were very few roads and the rivers were not large enough to navigate. There were few railways in the area but they were the most efficient means of transporting supplies.

West Virginia would see both the United States and the Confederacy in a constant struggle to control these vital railroads and other transportation routes. Use of these routes was important to both sides but was critical logistically to the South’s being able to re-supply their commissary from the Shenandoah Valley

In time both sides learned hard lessons in that the mountains and valleys proved difficult to build fortifications that effectively protected important logistical positions on the few roads and railroads. The Civil War in Western Virginia was to largely become a war of flanking tactics, battles that were more skirmishes than full fledged battles and deadly hit and run warfare. The Union by sheer numbers had a definite advantage in moving supplies. Even with this advantage the Confederates proved to be a significant foe in disrupting supply lines.

General Jackson’s ambitious plan to invade the United States from Western Virginia was not to be. Even with the North’s superior forces, the Shenandoah Valley was never won by their drive eastward. The Confederates forces coming from the east were equally ineffective due to logistical and political infighting. Had the powers in Richmond implemented General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s invasion plans as he saw them, would the war have had a different outcome? Probably not, but the history of the Civil War would have surly been re-written.

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