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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

The Makers of West Virginia

By C. H. Ambler

Volume 2, No. 4 (July 1941), pp. 267-78

When it is recalled that the admission of West Virginia to separate statehood effected the only change in the map of the United States as a result of the Civil War and that the manner of that change was unique, additional information regarding it is welcomed. Of the many possible sources of such information, personnel studies of her constitution makers, together with their chief advisers, are perhaps the most informing.1

In pursuance of a dismemberment ordinance adopted August 20, 1861, by the recalled session of the Second Wheeling Convention of that year and approved on October 24 by voters of the proposed state, delegates met in Wheeling, November 26, to frame a constitution for the "State of Kanawha."2 When the Reorganized Government of Virginia had been set up in the preceding June, most loyal leaders in northwest Virginia planned, with the aid of President Lincoln, to use it to bring about the restoration of Virginia to the Union.3 But Federal military successes in Trans-Allegheny Virginia during the ensuing July, together with effects of "First" Bull Run, altered their plans and purposes. If the war were to be long drawn out, as indicated at Bull Run, they saw an opportunity to attain a long cherished desire for separate statehood in the Union.4 It mattered not that President Lincoln and Governor Francis H. Pierpont of the Reorganized Government might hesitate to approve the dismemberment of Virginia. Rightly, those favorable to it believed that they would recognize a fait accompli.

Intervening military events had meanwhile added zest to these purposes. This was notably true of the Battle of Carnifex Ferry (September 10, 1861) which, although a Confederate victory, amounted to defeat, as the Confederates were unable to hold their ground and retreated, thus permitting Federals to push into the strategic region about the Hawks Nest in the upper Kanawha Valley. Two days later General Robert E. Lee was defeated at Cheat Mountain, and soon thereafter Federals began to push into the Greenbrier Valley. Moreover, about three weeks before the referendum on the Dismemberment Ordinance, Lee retired from Big Sewell Mountain and left the Confederate interests there in care of the incompetent General John B. Floyd. Already the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad west of Cumberland was in all but complete control of Federals, and under the leadership of General George B. McClellan, who had won his laurels at Rich Mountain, they were planning knockout blows to the Confederacy.5

Under the spell of these triumphs and possibilities the new state makers again changed their objectives as well as their technique. Among other things, they no longer thought of limiting the proposed state to a portion of Trans-Allegheny Virginia and of hastening its formation, as proposed in the Dismemberment Ordinance. Instead, they talked of "a well rounded out state" to include all of Virginia west of the Alleghenies and also all the counties traversed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad which was needed for pressing military and future peacetime purposes. On this point the decision, made early in the Convention deliberations, to change the name of the proposed state from "Kanawha"6 to "West Virginia," which was then generally regarded as embracing all Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, was undoubtedly significant.

Admittedly, the situation was fraught with great possibilities for the new state makers, and they made the most of them. Among other things they were not disposed to scrutinize too closely the credentials of delegates who joined them from time to time almost to the end of their work. These delegates were needed to make the most of rapidly shifting situations and to reconcile the factional and sectional differences which, from time to time, threatened to wreck the work of the new state makers. Already these differences had produced a situation in the new state not unlike that out of which it was born.7 Efforts to make the most of this situation and to avoid its possible pitfalls, as reflected in the Convention personnel, featured an interesting political drama.

As at first constituted the Constitutional Convention numbered only 46 delegates, but, as indicated above, others were added from time to time as conditions permitted and required. Because of disrupted internal conditions and lack of sympathy for the proposed state, Calhoun, Clay, Logan, Nicholas, and Webster counties had not elected delegates, as had not Greenbrier and Pocahontas, counties included conditionally, and Monroe, Mercer, and McDowell, which were not mentioned in the Dismemberment Ordinance. Wyoming and Fayette counties were represented by William Walker and Captain J. S. Cassady, respectively, who had been elected irregularly,8 as had been also the delegates from Hampshire and Hardy counties.

The manner of the decision of Hampshire and Hardy counties in adhering to the new state and selecting constitution makers is proof of the opportuneness of the situation. Both decisions were made in the presence of the military stationed at New Creek under the watchful eye of General Benjamin F. Kelley. It mattered not that polls were opened only at New Creek, Piedmont, Greenland, and Kitzmiller and that the total vote on adherence was only 345 for, to 18 against, whereas the total vote of these counties in the presidential election of 1860 was 3,331. The delegates, Thomas R. Carskadon of New Creek and George W. Sheets of Piedmont, representing Hampshire County, and Abijah Dolly of Greenland, representing Hardy, were admitted with a bare statement of the facts set forth in this paragraph.9

As determined by the exigencies of the situation, other delegates reported from time to time and raised the total for the regular session (November 26, 1861-February 18, 1862) to 53. At the request of 72 petitioners of Calhoun County, stating that "on account of the Rebellion raging in our midst and the disloyalty of the officers of our county, no election had been held there," Job Robinson, Esq., was on January 7, 1862, given a seat.10 The following day Benjamin L. Stephenson, "delegate-elect" from Clay County, was seated, as was also Benjamin H. Smith of Kanawha County, who "at the request of a number of citizens," was permitted to represent Logan County.11 In a similar manner, John R. McCutcheon was on January 11, 1862, seated as the delegate from Nicholas County12 and ten days later, Richard M. Cook and Johanis P. Hoback, both residents of Wyoming County and sponsored by its home guard, were admitted to represent Mercer and McDowell counties, respectively, neither of which was included specifically in the Dismemberment Ordinance. Following the resignation of Captain James S. Cassady, Edward W. Ryan, a Methodist Episcopal minister, was on February 3, 1862, seated as the delegate from Fayette County.13

Because of the conditions under which it met, as well as its accomplishments, additional personnel data of the Convention are of more than passing interest. All but 15 of the 61 delegates in both the regular and the recalled sessions were native born. Of the non-natives, six were born in Pennsylvania; three in New York; two in Ohio; two in Massachusetts; one in Maryland; and one, John Hall, the president, in Ireland. Many of the native-born delegates had had Northern contacts. Twenty-three of the delegates were farmers; 14 were either ordained ministers or exhorters; and there were four physicians, three merchants, two mechanics, two school teachers, one salt manufacturer, and one hotel keeper. Ages ranged from 24 to 66, but the average was well above 50.14

Only a few of the delegates knew much about the science and practice of government, but all were conscious of their representative capacity and their individual responsibility, which, together with their altered objectives, was responsible for the prolonged session. Many of those from the northern counties later became identified with the new state and held positions of honor and trust, but, after a short time, most of those from the central, southern, and eastern counties dropped out of sight. Some of them fill unmarked and even unknown graves.

The influence of loyal groups in Kanawha, Wyoming, and Upshur counties, acting through the military and the Methodist Episcopal Church, was a determining factor in certain phases of the Convention's work; for instance, the decision to include counties not in the control of the Federal forces and not eager for the dismemberment of Virginia. As the result doubtless of a concerted plan and purpose, Kanawha County supplied the delegate for Logan County. In addition to being a rallying ground for Federal home guards and regulars, Flattop Mountain in Wyoming County15 supplied delegates for both McDowell and Mercer counties. The delegate from Pocahontas County, which was not represented in the regular session, was designated by a petition of fellow refugees to Upshur County; and the post office address of the Rev. John M. Powell, a delegate from Harrison County, was at that time Buckhannon, Upshur County, a Methodist Episcopal stronghold.

Although the Convention personnel from certain central, southern, and eastern counties of the proposed state was determined in loyal nuclei and by the military, its esprit de corps was largely a product of the Christian ministry and its devout followers. In addition to the seven regularly ordained minister delegates, seven others - Captain Richard M. Cook, Waitman T. Willey, William Walker, Richard W. Lauck, Josiah Simmons, David S. Pinnell, and John R. McCutcheon - were exhorters, and most of the remaining delegates were followers of and closely associated with their minister guides and mentors. Seven of the minister delegates, Battelle, Brooks, Pomeroy, Ryan, Hagar, Trainer, and Powell, were conspicuous by their activity; and other delegates, even the two known Universalists, Hubbs and Soper, could not have escaped effects of the evangelical influences which had penetrated the mountain recesses of northwest Virginia since the days of Francis Asbury and the Great Awakening. The effects of these influences were attested in numerous ways, but in no way more tellingly than in the fact that five bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church were born in present West Virginia in the sixties of the last century.

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the movement resulting in the formation of West Virginia was closely related to evangelical Christianity of the Methodist Episcopal variety. For a long time thereafter it was said that "the Methodists made West Virginia," and, as late as 1925, her University was described in an important educational center of the Middle West as "a state institution under control of the Methodist Episcopal Church." But for the purposeful and practical objectives of the leaders who, by a recorded vote, denied the Reverend Battelle's request to speak at length on his proposal for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new state, it could and probably would have been sponsored by religious zealots. Their final victory in bringing about the gradual abolition of slavery through the intervention of Congress led to the erroneous conclusion in some quarters, notably eastern Virginia, that "The Abolitionists made West Virginia."

There is, however, a large element of truth in statements regarding the part of the Methodists in making West Virginia. While the politicians and the elite who had so gratuitously assured their friends in the east that "the Trans-Allegheny will be with you to a man," were either fighting to make good their promise or remaining neutral to save their hides and their property, Methodist Episcopal circuit riders and their allies were penetrating the remotest recesses of the northwest to preach the gospel of salvation to "the people," and rally them to fight for the Union.

Apropos of this point, the following comment by the able and observing General Jacob D. Cox, who worked in close cooperation with Methodist Episcopal circuit riders and small farmers in the Kanawha Valley in 1861, is informing: "In our scouting expeditions we found little farms in secluded nooks among the mountains, where grown men assured us that they had never before seen the American flag, and whole families had never been further from home than a church and country store a few miles away. From these mountain people several regiments of Union troops were recruited in West Virginia, two of them being organized in rear of my own lines, and becoming part of the garrison of the district in the following season."16

The results are adequately told in these facts: West Virginia, including the Eastern Panhandle which was largely slaveholding, sent between eight and nine thousand soldiers to fight for the Southern Confederacy and more than three times as many to fight for the Union.

There were still other evidences of the power and influence of the clergy in the formation of West Virginia. At the outset of the Convention deliberations "the clergy of the city [Wheeling] and the Convention" were, on motion of Waitman T. Willey, requested to open the daily sessions with prayer,17 which they did and meanwhile kept an eagle eye upon the proceedings. Although the existing state constitution provided that "no ministers of the gospel or priests of any religious denominations" . . . shall be "a member of either house of assembly,"18 that of the Reorganized Government, which met concurrently with the Constitutional Convention and in the same room but at different hours, contained at least one minister. He was the Reverend James G. West of Wetzel County, who, as a member of the adjourned session of the Second Wheeling Convention, had proposed the ordinance under which Virginia was dismembered.19 Later he directed to consummation the necessary state legislation for approval of the new state.

Considering the large number of native-born delegates, the Convention activities of the non-natives were remarkable. As determined by index citations in the Journal, Van Winkle of Wood County, who had been a resident long enough to be acclimated, had the floor more than twice as many time as any other delegate. Generally, he closed the debate on important and controverted subjects. Other active non-native leaders, as determined by the same source, were Lamb and Battelle of Ohio County, Stevenson of Wood County, and Soper of Tyler County, president of the recalled session (February 12-20, 1863). Soper had New York contacts which, together with those of Van Winkle, may have been determining in such matters as the state debt and the use of the new state credit.

The position of John Hall of Mason County, president of the regular session, was unique. He was the only delegate of foreign birth, and, unlike most of his associates, he was a man of means. He was also an old time Whig and a person of poise and dignity. Together with his experiences as senator in the Virginia General Assembly, these things commended him to his associates who had already marked him for political preferment; but Hall's political career was cut short on October 23, 1862, when he killed Lewis Whetzell, editor of the Point Pleasant Weekly Register, as the result of a controversy which grew out of proposals to suppress that newspaper for alleged anti-Union utterances.20 On August 6, 1862, Hall's favorite son, Major John Thomas Hall, had been killed in action at Beech Creek.

John S. Carlile was the conundrum of the new state movement. In its initial stages he insisted that it would be sufficient to proclaim a state and leave to Congress its acceptance or rejection.21 After his election in July, 1861, to the United States Senate to represent Union loyal Virginia, his ardor cooled somewhat. Unlike Waitman T. Willey, his colleague in the Senate, he was not a member of the Constitutional Convention which formed the new state constitution, but his loyalty was not questioned or suspected. When the request for separate statehood reached the United States Senate, Carlile, as a member of its Committee on Territories, was, therefore, selected to draft the necessary bill.

After almost a month Carlile reported Senate Bill No. 365, which was generally regarded as a "Trojan Horse." Among other things this bill added fifteen counties not included under the new state constitution. It also authorized a state convention to approve the extended boundary and a proposal for the gradual abolition of Negro slavery. When these conditions had been complied with and approved by the Virginia General Assembly, by each of the proposed additional counties, and by the original ones as well, the President was to proclaim the new state a member of the Union without further action of Congress.22

While describing this bill as a product of Carlile's "enlightened judgment"23 Senator Willey readily joined his colleagues in amending it. The result was the Willey Amendment which provided for gradual abolition of slavery in the new state and made admission to the Union conditional on acceptance.24

To the surprise of new state advocates Carlile opposed the Willey Amendment and, together with Charles Sumner, Zachariah Chandler, and fifteen other Senators, he voted against it and the admission of West Virginia as well.25 Moreover, he carried the fight to the people and with the aid of Sons of Liberty, then gaining a foothold in the Ohio Valley, he had much to say about the rights of a "sovereign state" in the Union.26 In this strain he continued to oppose the new state and, whether unwittingly or not, to lay the basis of a new Democrat party within its bounds. In the absence of documentary source materials, his real motives may never be determined, but he certainly should not be included among the "Fathers of West Virginia."

As Carlile's new state enthusiasm grew negative and cold, that of Willey's became increasingly positive and warm. In the outset of the movement he had commented upon the possibilities of a "triple treason," first to the state of Virginia, then to the Confederated States of America, and finally to the Union. In the regular session of the First Constitutional Convention of West Virginia, he opposed efforts to extend her bounds beyond those of the Dismemberment Ordinance, except in the direction of the present Eastern Panhandle which was needed to control the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

As a slave owner Willey wished to protect property rights of loyal masters, and his approval of the Willey Amendment was doubtless influenced by current proposals for that purpose. In a masterly address before the recalled session of the Constitutional Convention, which alone entitled him to the distinction "Orator of the New State Movement," he defended the Willey Amendment.27 Although he failed to receive compensation for his slaves, he later became a "Radical Republican."

Outstanding among other leaders were Benjamin H. Smith of Kanawha County,28 who represented Logan County, and John A. Dille and John J. Brown, both of Preston County.29 Smith was a distinguished lawyer who, although born in Virginia, was educated in Ohio and there trained for the bar under the tutelage of the later distinguished Thomas Ewing. As a Whig, Smith had served several terms in the Virginia General Assembly, but in 1860 was a Douglas Democrat. He was in 1866 the unsuccessful nominee of the Democrat party for governor of West Virginia. Both Dille and Brown were in 1860 Douglas Democrats and successful lawyers. Brown remained a Democrat; Dille became a "Radical Republican."

The part of Francis H. Pierpont, "Father of West Virginia," in her making is somewhat obscure and may remain so until the Lincoln Papers, now housed in the Library of Congress, become available in 1947. Like Lincoln, under whose direction and protection Pierpont acted both at Wheeling and at Alexandria, he was not enthusiastic over the new state movement in its inception. Instead, he would have used the Reorganized Government to bring about the restoration of Virginia to the Union. When he saw that this was possible and that the Reorganized Government could be used also to effect the dismemberment of Virginia, he enthusiastically favored dismemberment.30

For years Pierpont had been the unofficial spokesman of the plain people of the northwest in their fight against alleged injustices of the Slave Power. More important still, he was free from entangling political alliances. These things, together with his demonstrated ability and his resourcefulness in financing the Reorganized Government and that of the new state as well, justly and rightly entitle him to the distinction, "Father of West Virginia." His refusal to accept political preferment in the new state so that he might steer the Reorganized Government through unprecedented trials, which he clearly foresaw, lent a suggestion of martyrdom to his course. This can be best understood by a study of his relations with "Ben Butler, The Beast," and the failure of Virginians to appreciate his efforts in their behalf.


1. See page 278. [see image]

2. For copy of the Dismemberment Ordinance see Virgil A. Lewis, How West Virginia Was Made, pp. 284-288.

3. C. H. Ambler, Francis H. Pierpont: Union War Governor of Virginia and Father of West Virginia, pp. 98-141 and West Virginia, The Mountain State, pp. 321-340.

4. Ibid., pp. 326-333. 5. Ibid., pp. 341-370; Festus P. Summers, The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War, pp. 102-106.

6. Convention, Journal, pp. 24-25.

7. These differences are best revealed in the Convention Debates which are now in process of printing by the State of West Virginia in three volumes. Sales will be made through the Board of Control.

8. Convention, Journal, pp. 5, 7.

9. Ibid., p. 17; Convention, Debates, Vol. I, pp. 8, 25-26.

10. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 855-856; Convention, Journal, p. 71.

11. Ibid., p. 75.

12. Ibid., p. 83.

13. Ibid., p. 134.

14. See Note No. 1.

15. Flattop Mountain forms the boundary between Raleigh and Mercer counties, but it extends into Wyoming County.

16. Jacob D. Cox, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Vol. I, p. 85. See also Convention, Debates, Vol. I, pp. 8, 25-26/

17. Convention, Journal, p. 7.

18. Code of Virginia (1860), p. 43.

19. State of West Virginia, Department of Archives and History, Second Biennial Report (1908), p. 176; Virgil A. Lewis, How West Virginia Was Made, pp. 188, 204. Three times "the Rev. James G. West, a member of the House of Delegates," opened the daily sessions of the Convention with prayer. Convention, Journal, pp. 67, 79, 119.

20. Point Pleasant Weekly Register, October 29, 1862; Ibid., May 3, 1882; Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, November 1, 1862; Ibid., December 12, 1862.

21. Virgil A. Lewis, How West Virginia Was Made, pp. 48-52.

22. Congressional Globe, 37 Congress, 2 Session, pt. 4, pp. 2941-2942.

23. Ibid., p. 2942.

24. Ibid., pp. 3320, 3362.

25. Ibid., p. 3397.

26. Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, March 16, 1863; Ibid., March 23, 1863.

27. Convention, Debates, February 12, 1863.

28. George W. Atkinson and Alvaro F. Gibbens, Prominent Men of West Virginia, p. 286.

29. Samuel T. Wiley, History of Monongalia County, West Virginia, pp. 283-287, 324- 331.

30. C. H. Ambler, Francis H. Pierpont, passim.

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