Friday, May 9, 2008

Black History: Secession of West Virginia

Crossposted from Left Toon Lane, Bilerico Project & My Left Wing

click to enlarge
West Virginia was formed and added to the Union as a direct result of the American Civil War. In the early days of the war, Union troops under George McClellan drove off Confederate defenders, essentially freeing Unionists in the northwestern counties of Virginia to form their own government as a result of the Wheeling Convention.

Despite its central location and disputed territory, West Virginia suffered comparatively little. Early in the war, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson led the Great Train Raid of 1861, which resulted in the capture of several locomotives and rolling stock of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Jackson later led his men in what became known as the Romney Expedition, an unsuccessful attempt to firmly establish Confederate control over western Virginia. In a series of relatively small battles, McClellan's forces gained possession of the greater part of the territory in the summer of 1861, and Union control was never seriously threatened, in spite of Robert E. Lee's attempt later same year to retake parts of western Virginia. A key part of the Union strategy in West Virginia for the rest of the war was to keep the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad open as a major supply and troop transportation route.

Another important mission was to protect the vast supply warehouses and munitions factories at Harpers Ferry. However, the town fell to Stonewall Jackson during early days of the Maryland Campaign, and the surrender of its Federal garrison was the largest capture of U.S. Army troops until World War II nearly eighty years later. With Lee's withdrawal to Virginia following the Battle of Antietam, Harpers Ferry reverted to Union control for the rest of the war. The Maryland Campaign concluded in what became West Virginia with the Battle of Shepherdstown.

In 1863 Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, with 5,000 Confederates, overran a considerable portion of the state and tore up sections of the B&O. Bands of guerrillas burned and plundered in some sections, and were not entirely suppressed until after the war was ended.

A Confederate brigade of cavalry under antebellum U.S. Congressman Albert G. Jenkins saw considerable action during the Gettysburg Campaign, as well as other major campaigns. The low number of voters in the elections sponsored by Wheeling was a result of voter suppression by Wheeling and in the fact that Wheeling actually controlled only a small part of West Virginia, mostly the Northern panhandle and associated counties near Wheeling. Vote numbers from the interior counties were actually cast in Wheeling by refugees from those counties. A number of West Virginia regiments were distinguished for their war records, including the 7th West Virginia Infantry (which assaulted the Sunken Road at Antietam and rushed onto Cemetery Hill in the twilight at the Battle of Gettysburg to help push back the famed Louisiana Tigers. The 3rd West Virginia Cavalry also fought well at Gettysburg as a part of John Buford's veteran cavalry division that defended McPherson's Ridge on the first day of the battle.

President Lincoln was in a close campaign when he won reelection in 1864. However, the act that allowed the state to be created was signed in 1862, two years before Lincoln's re-election would have been an issue in any real way.

Slavery was officially abolished February 3, 1865.

On May 30, 1861, Gen. George B. McClellan in Cincinnati wrote to President Lincoln- "I am confidently assured that very considerable numbers of volunteers can be raised in Western Virginia...". After nearly two months in the field in West Virginia he was less optimistic. He wrote to Gov. Francis Harrison Pierpoint of the Restored Government of Virginia in Wheeling that he and his army were anxious to assist the new government, but that eventually they would be needed elsewhere, and that he urged that troops be raised "among the population". "Before I left Grafton I made requisitions for arms clothing etc for 10,000 Virginia troops--I fear that my estimate was much too large." On August 3, 1861 the Wellsburg "Herald" editorialized "A pretty condition Northwestern Virginia is in to establish herself as a separate state...after all the drumming and all the gas about a separate state she has actually organized in the field four not entire regiments of soldiers and one of these hails almost entirely from the Panhandle."

Similar difficulties were experienced by Confederate authorities at the beginning of the war. On May 14, 1861 Col. George A. Porterfield arrived in Grafton to secure volunteers, and reported slow enlistment. Col. Porterfield's difficulty ultimately, however, was lack of support by the Richmond government, which did not send enough guns, tents and other supplies. He eventually turned away hundreds of volunteers due to lack of equipment. General Henry A. Wise also complained of recruitment in the Kanawha valley, though he eventually assembled 2500 infantry, 700 cavalry, 3 battalions of artillery for a total of 4,000 men which became known as "Wise's Legion". These men were later sent to defend South Carolina.

A curious anomaly occurred in the recruitment of Union soldiers in West Virginia, the presence of Secessionist or Secessionist sympathizers within the ranks. A series of letters to Gen. Samuels and Gov. Pierpoint in the Dept. of Archives and History in Charleston, most dated 1862, reveal the concern of Union officers. Col. Harris, 10th Company, March 27, 1862, to Gov. Pierpoint-"The election of officers in the Gilmer County Company was a farce. The men elected were rebels and bushwhackers. The election of these men was intended, no doubt, as a burlesque on the reorganization of the militia."

It is difficult to determine accurately the number of men from West Virginia who volunteered for service in the Union or Confederate armies. The Union numbers are inaccurate because of the large number of Ohioans, Pennsylvanians, and others who enlisted as "Virginians". An analysis of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry by the Moore Center in Shepherdstown revealed that only 32% were Virginians. An estimate of Union numbers for 1862 was 12-15,000 though this would include non-resident soldiers. The range of estimates were a high of 32,000 for Union soldiers to a low of 3-5,000 for Confederate soldiers in 1862. The Confederate Dept. of Western Virginia gives the number of soldiers for 1863-4 at 18,642.

Recent studies have concluded that the numbers of Union and Confederate soldiers from West Virginia were about equal, in the range of 22,-25,000 each.

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