Francis Pierpont and Archibald Campbell
West Virginia Statehood


Wheeling Daily Intelligencer
April 14, 1897

Gov. Pierpont.

A Talk Between the Grand Old Man and Mr. A. W. Campbell.

An Article Of Rare Interest.

History of Restored Government of Virginia and West Virginia.

Very Narrow Escape We Had.

A Dispatch to Mr. Lincoln Sent at a Critical Moment Saved Us.

Wheeling Men’s Timely Visit.

To the Custom House and Governor Pierpont’s Prompt Action on that Eventful Day – The Governor as the Father of His State – His Remarkable Career – Now Living at a Ripe Old Age in Fairmont. Popular Misunderstandings Regarding the Manner of the Division of the State Corrected – History Written by One Who Helped to Make It.

I was recently in the town of Fairmont, Marion county, for two days, and spent much of the time visiting my old friend, Governor Pierpont, now in his eighty-third year, whom I had not seen since my last visit there in the campaign of 1892. His head is a little whiter, his face somewhat paler, and he has lost some flesh as compared with former days, but he is in excellent health and still enjoys intellectual and social life, and has well retained all his faculties save that of hearing. He does not come to Wheeling any more since the completion of the Fairmont and Pittsburgh branch of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. He takes that shorter route when he pays his occasional visit to his only daughter, Mrs. Siviter, of Pittsburgh, and hence has lost his old time touch with his many Wheeling friends.

I was glad to see the “grand old man” once more, for such he assuredly is, even though he may not rival the name and fame of the “grand old man” across the seas, to whose genius and learning and statesmanship all the world pays tribute. That “grand old man” was “born in the purple,” and had a rich father and married an heiress and a castle, and was put in parliament away back in 1832, and kept there continuously for two generations, attaining in that period the premiership of England four times.

But Fairmont’s “grand old man” had no such opportunities. His antecedents were, like those of Lincoln, “the short and simple annals of the poor.” Born in a log cabin in Monongalia county, inured to hard toil from infancy, receiving only meager schooling, going to college after he was his own man; carrying a hod in vacations to work his way through; messing with Gordon Bat[t]elle, of honored memory, at an expense to each of 45 cents per week; teaching school and studying law after he was 26, and yet with all this handicap coming to the front as the first citizen of West Virginia at the outset of the war. This was an ordeal to test the quality of a man’s make-up. Mr. Gladstone owes much to nature, no doubt, but still more perhaps to his opportunities, while Governor Pierpont owes everything to his own unassisted character and upright life.

The Grand Old Man at Home.

Pardon the above as an unexpected preface to my call to see the venerable “war governor” of Virginia at his modest home in the shire town of Marion county, where he lives among his people universally respected, and looked up to by the younger element as was Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, in his last days, as “a venerable man who had come down to them from a former generation.” There at Fairmont lives the man who was governor of Virginia at Wheeling from June, 1861, to June, 1863, and governor of the same commonwealth at Alexandria, Virginia, from June, 1863, to May, 1865, and yet again governor of that ancient state at Richmond from May, 1865, to January, 1868.

This is a variation of governorship peculiar to the history of Virginia. But comparatively few people understand how it happened. It is really a puzzle to the present generation. The average man at Fairmont, as elsewhere, thinks his eminent fellow-citizen was once governor of West Virginia, because he resided at Wheeling during the formative period of the new state, and took an active part in the series of evolutions that finally resulted in its admission into the union as a new commonwealth. All over this country I have, as a traveler, been so frequently called upon to explain the unique modus operandi of Virginia’s reorganization and West Virginia’s formation that I feel as if I had been teaching it as a specialty at summer schools.

From my experience I will venture to say that there are not to-day a dozen members of Congress who do not regard West Virginia as a revolutionary episode of the war, irregular in its character, defective in its legitimacy, accomplished solely under the war power, and as a companion incident to the emancipation of the slaves. Indeed the average politician will twit you when he refers to the incident, as if it was a well understood piece of Republican sharp practice, about the indefeasibility of which the less said the better, which only shows his general want of real knowledge concerning one of the most important events of American history. Perhaps it would be well enough before I knock at the governor’s door at Fairmont, in order to have some reminiscent conversation with him, to devote a few paragraphs of this writing to the occurrence in his history to which I am alluding.

Daniel Webster’s Prophecy in 1851.

It is now 36 years since the state of Virginia undertook to secede from the American Union. As far back as 1851 Daniel Webster warned Virginia in the plainest and most unmistakable terms that in the very day in which she should make this attempt her western counties would arise in their strength and throw off her authority and form an independent state. That great statesman knew more than all the Virginia politicians put together in 1851. He reasoned not only historically and politically but geographically. He knew how unnatural, how uncongenial and how unprofitable was the status of western Virginia under the dominancy of the old state. He knew of her unsuccessful efforts to obtain justice from the old state. He knew how Philip Doddridge and Alexander Campbell had warned the slave-holders of the east as far back as the convention of 1829-’30 that they were piling up wrath against the day of wrath. He knew that the industrial and trade relations of western Virginia were wholly with the Ohio valley and not with the Virginia seaboard. Therefore, like the great Bacon, whose duplicate he was, reasoning inductively and profoundly, he knew what would happen in the western portion of Virginia when the government at Richmond should prove false to the union of the states and attempt to tag the west on to the tail end of a slave-holding confederacy.

The thing that he forecasted and foretold in 1851 is exactly the thing that happened in 1861. With the fulfillment of his prophecy comes in the public career of Governor Pierpont, and along with it, that peripatetic governorship of his from Wheeling to Richmond via Alexandria, which has been such a puzzle to so many people.

What Secession Cost Virginia.

Before the war the commonwealth of Virginia comprised one hundred and forty-eight counties, covering an area of over 60,000 square miles. Her secession movement cost her fifty-four of these counties and about 24,000 square miles of her territory, and reduced her from in imperial position politically to a body politic of the third class. When the government of the whole state of Virginia was re-organized at Wheeling in June, 1861, several counties outside of West Virginia were represented. These counties continued to be the loyal Virginia recognized by the government of the United States after West Virginia’s admission as a separate state, and Alexandria became their seat of government, Richmond being, like Gibralter, “temporarily in the possession of the English,” alias “the Confederates.”

There was at no time a duel government at Wheeling, as some persons seem to suppose. It took two years to incubate the new state successorship to the Virginia government at Wheeling, because every step had to be regular under the constitution and laws of the United States, pending which incubation Wheeling and the fifty-four counties were as much part and parcel of Virginia as at any time in their previous existence. The new state was not formed and launched by the wave of anybody’s hand, but was evolved inch by inch during those two years. Hence up to the 20th day of June, 1863, when West Virginia became a state under the proclamation of the President, after the regular form of proclaiming new states as members of the Union, the seat of government of the old state continued to be at Wheeling, and Governor Pierpont was the executive of the fifty-four counties of embryo West Virginia, just as much as he was of the “eastern shore” counties or of the Potomac river counties or any other part of the Old Dominion.

Had West Virginia failed at the very last stage of her incubation to do aught that was necessary to complete her embryotic growth into stateship, she would have remained a part of the old state just as much as if the first step had never been contemplated. Hence there was no state but Virginia at Wheeling until one minute after midnight on June 20, 1863, at which moment the proclamation admitting West Virginia into the Union took effect, and up to that moment Governor Pierpont wielded all the gubernatorial authority that could be rightfully exercised within the boundaries of the fifty-four counties.

Governor Boreman and all the other officers of the new state, including the legislature, were not sworn in until the forenoon of June 20, but, nevertheless, at the previous midnight the glory of the old state had forever departed as the possessor of a vast domain that extended from the North Carolina line to the northern peak of the Pan-Handle, and Daniel Webster’s prophecy was thus vindicated as the most remarkable utterance in American history.

History of the Restored Government.

But I have still failed to explain how, in the first instance, there came to be any Virginian government of any kind at Wheeling, or elsewhere save at Richmond, seeing that Richmond was the seat of authority and that John Letcher’s term as governor was not half expired at the breaking out of the war. Who commissioned Governor Pierpont and his fellow officials to set up a rival government at Wheeling to that of Letcher & Company, at Richmond? I would be most happy, knowing what I do of the popular confusion on this point, if I could make the proper explanation forever clear to everybody who may by any chance read this article.

When the bill providing for the admission of West Virginia was before the committee on territories of the United States senate, I happened to be before that committee, along with other friends of the bill. The famous John P. Hale, of New Hampshire, was one of the most prominent members of that committee. In speaking to several of us in regard to what had taken place at Wheeling and throughout West Virginia, he said that all in all it was a most remarkable drama – altogether unlike anything he had ever heard or read of – this thing of a loyal people reclaiming and resuming their sovereignty after its abdication by their constituted authorities. “I wish,” said he, “somebody would write it up. I could not do it myself,” he added, “but I could appreciate it when it was written.” I have never forgotten and have often quoted this remark of the first presidential candidate of the Republican party, who was nominated by it at Pittsburgh, in 1852.

The germ of the whole movement with which Governor Pierpont’s name is so rightfully and conspicuously identified is contained in the late Senator Hale’s remarks, viz: “the resumption by a loyal people of the sovereignty belonging to them which had been abdic[a]ted by their constituted authorities. If, as an initial proposition, politicians and political writers and speakers could only get this point clearly in their minds and memory they would have no occasion to apologetically condone what was done in western Virginia in 1861-62-63, as if, after all, it was the end that had justified the means, instead of the means and the end, and all intermediate processes thereof, having been alike fully justified under the constitution and laws of the United States.

There is not a jurist of high repute in this country, outside of the seceded states, that has ever questioned the perfect legal rightfulness of the “restored government of Virginia.” Not one. And as respects the perfect rightfulness and regularity of West Virginia’s existence, that fact is like the corollary that follows logically and inevitably from the main proposition that has been proven.

The “restored government of Virginia” having been duly passed upon and acknowledged by the government of the United States as the only true and rightful government of the state, her act of assent to the formation of West Virginia was just as legal and rightful and regular as that of any act recorded in her statute books.

Governor Pierpont and the May Convention of ’61.

Governor Pierpont never claimed to be a great jurist, but with the “wisdom born of the occasion” he, at the outset of the chaos that threatened the loyal people of West Virginia in 1861, held that the fourth section of the fourth article of the constitution of the United States fully anticipated and provided for the condition in which the people were left by the net of alliance entered into on the part of John Letcher and the Virginia government with a government at war with the United States.

As a member of the committee on state and federal relations in the convention that met at Wheeling, under the Clarksburg call to the people of Western Virginia on the 13th day of May, 1861, he brought forward that section as presenting a way out of the chaos, and after a wrangle of three days in the convention on various other propositions, it was accepted as the consensus of the members, and as such recommended to the people as a basis for their action at the elections to be held on May 23rd and June 4th.

Governor Pierpont has always claimed that he was the pioneer in this view, and the fact has never been disputed as far as I know, but certainly it was a view that such men as W. T. Willey and John S. Carlile and General Jackson, of Parkersburg, or any other lawyer of the body, might just as well have held, so perfectly obvious was it that the framers of the constitution of the United States must have intended it to meet just such an emergency. But the trouble was with many members of the May convention that they were confused by Mr. Carlile, the hotspur of the revolution, who urged them then and there to declare a new state out of two congressional districts of Virginia, without reference to the processes made necessary under the constitution of the United States. The men named, however, opposed all such radical action, and successfully, but outside of Governor Pierpont’s remedial step they really had no plan save a sort of passive attitude of resistance to the ratification of the ordinance of secession, which always reminded me of General Frank Blair’s remark at the McLure House, when on his way home from Congress to St. Louis, to organize a union force in Missouri, to the effect that he had left William H. Seward at Washington engaged in trying to put down the rebellion with the franking privilege, in the way of sending out documents showing the madness and folly of secession.

The section to which I have alluded, and which opened the way to meet the great crisis of 1861 in Western Virginia, reads as follows: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion, and on application of the legislature, or of the executive, when the legislature cannot be convened, against domestic violence.”

“I Have It! I Have It!” Said the Governor.

Governor Pierpont told me afresh during my recent visit to his home the story of his anxious quest for an effective and legal way to organize against secession and rally the people. To this end he had sat down to read the constitution of the United States through section by section and when at last he had come to section four of the fourth article, as quoted above, he felt like that ancient alchemist who exclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!” and had really said to himself, “I have it! I have it!”

He brought his discovery with him to the May convention and presented it to the committee on state and federal relations, but for some reason it did not seem to strike everybody as forcibly as it had the governor, as a “ready resolvent” of the situation. At all events it did not come to the front at once as an accepted “balm to Gilead,” possibly because it was distrusted by the Carlile element as not being drastic enough to meet the exigencies.

“In revolutions the violent govern.” Those who were at Washington hall in those historic days remember well how Carlile, with that melodious and matchless voice of his, swayed the delegates and the crowd. He was the idol of the hour as against Willey, Pierpont, Jackson and everybody else, but he was continually pressed by them with the suggestion that his plan was revolutionary, and that the government of the United States would never acknowledge it, inasmuch as to do so would be tantamount to a confession to all the world that constitutional methods had been abandoned on the part of the government.

Nine-tenths of the delegates were fervent new state men. It would be almost fair to say of some of them that they were new state men first and Union men afterward. The feeling on that subject was intense. Next to Carlile, Doctor Dorsey, of Monongalia, and John S. Burdett, of Taylor, were leaders of the rampant new state element. Governor Pierpont’s plan of reorganization and restoration, however, finally came from the committee, sandwiched among a number of other resolutions, but in scarcely recognizabel [sic] shape.

It had not been deemed best to announce in advance that the convention summoned to meet on the 11th of June following, would proceed to formally declare the government at Richmond dead in office. The programme was for the June convention to meet under an authorization of the people and take such steps as might be necessary to meet the exigencies – to prevent anarchy, and to protect life and property. Everybody, however, understood before the election of June 4th that this meant the supersedure [sic] of the Richmond government. It meant that loyal Virginia was to invoke the political as well as the military aid of the United States under the fourth section of the fourth article alluded to.

Mr. Willey’s Triple Treason Speech.

Perhaps it was Mr. Willey’s remarkable speech early in the May sitting that made the committee and the convention cautious as to the exact verbiage of their final address to the people. He made what was known then and ever since as a “triple treason” speech. That is, he, in antagonism to Mr. Carlile and all the rampant element, warned the delegates that they were about to commit “triple treason” – treason to the United States, treason to John Letcher & Company, and treason to the Southern Confederacy, into which confederacy Virginia had been merged on the 25th of April, by the Virginia state government in advance of a popular vote on the ordinance of secession.

That remarkable speech of Mr. Willey’s threw a chill over the delegates and over the people who thronged the lobbies. It was construed as the advocacy of a do-nothing policy – as meaning that everybody’s neck and everybody’s property would be at their own risk if they did aught but vote against the ordinance. Never did a man do himself greater injustice in a speech, than did Mr. Willey in that particular utterance. In a subsequent speech he complained that he had been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and even suspected of disloyalty to the Union cause, in refutation of which suspicion he avowed his willingness to lay down his life for the Union. But to this day no one has ever satisfactorily explained to that audience how the people of West Virginia could commit treason to the United States and to the Southern Confederacy at one and the same time.

The Pierpont idea, however, was, as I have explained, embodied in the resolutions in a somewhat diluted shape, and on the fourth day of June the people voted under the recommendations of the May convention for delegates who should meet at Wheeling on the 11th of that month. They voted under the instinct of self-preservation for men who were above all else true to the United States, trusting to them to find a way out of the confusion when they should meet in convention at Wheeling, as indeed they speedily did.

Something Important to Remember.

It is important to remember that this convention of June 11th was a Virginia convention, and that delegates were present in it from beyond the Blue Ridge as well as from all parts of the Ohio Valley. A new state was in everybody’s mind as the ultimate outcome of that convention’s deliberations, but meanwhile it was fittingly recognized that everything had to be done that the constitution of the United States required, and that that necessity would consume a good deal of time. There were to be no revolutionary proceedings; that much had been settled at the May convention. Therefore, the first thing to do was to declare a general clearing out of the Richmond government and the invalidation and abrogation of all that it had pretended to do in the way of severing the relations of Virginia with the federal government and entering into rebellious alliance with the southern Confederacy. This was the resumption and re-habilitation of sovereignty to which Senator Hale had so graphically alluded.

The next step was to install the personnel of a re-organized government, and it was a high tribute indeed to Governor Pierpont that everybody recognized him as the proper man to take the helm. He was, therefore, made the provisional executive of Virginia in place of John Letcher, to set as such for a period of six months, and after his selection came the filling of the other offices of the state. So that within a week after the meeting of the June convention there was a fully equipped Virginia government in power at Wheeling, and within another week it had been recognized at Washington as the true and only government of Virginia.

That remarkable June convention adjourned on the 21st day of that month. It knew exactly what it wanted to do and proceeded straightway to do it. It adjourned to meet again on the 6th day of August. The interim was to allow the public sentiment in favor of a new state to manifest itself. Following the adjournment of the June convention, and on the first day of July, the Virginia legislature met at Wheeling, the members to which had been duly elected on the 23rd day of May, the day on which the people of all Virginia, loyal and disloyal, in every one of the one hundred and forty-eight counties of the state, voted on the ordinance of secession and for members of the general assembly.

Hard Up for Money in 1861.

Such were the financial straits of the reorganized government when that legislature met that it became necessary in order to raise the necessary funds wherewith to discharge the expenses of the members, that Governor Pierpont and P. G. Van Winkle, of Parkersburg, should upon their own personal responsibility, raise $10,000, which they did by their individual endorsements in the Wheeling banks for that amount. No taxes had yet come in for the support of the government, and the $40,000 on deposit at Washington to the credit of the state of Virginia, as her proportion of the proceeds of the public lands which had been set aside by the government in the year 1841, had not yet been received.

On the 8th of July Waitman T. Willey and John S. Carlile were duly elected United States senators by that legislature, and as such empowered to proceed at once to Washington and take part in the extra session of Congress as senators from the state of Virginia. Their admission to the United States senate was the final act that sealed the entire legality of the “restored government of Virginia.”

All this is ancient history now, but it was immensely important in its day. Hence I am freshening it up as germane to my visit to the old governor who is so important a part of this history. I am trying to explain that everything connected with the restoration of the old state and the formation of the new was done “decently and in order,” and that all the people who think or say to the contrary are in great need of elementary information. For instance, the convention that had adjourned on the 21st of June, and re-assembled on the 6th of August following, proceeded to formulate and submit to the people an ordinance permissive of a new state. This ordinance was voted on in October following, and was carried overwhelmingly, and the members elected under it to form a constitution for the new state met in Wheeling on the 26th of November, pursuant to an authorized call of the governor issued on November 15th, and they sat in convention until the 18th day of February following, after having completed a constitution for the state, and then adjourned to submit to the people the result of their work, which work was duly ratified at a general election on the third Thursday of April, the vote being 18,862 for ratification, and 514 against.

These were some of the steps taken to achieve the great results in West Virginia that followed the secession of the old state. I need not follow up the successive steps as regards the votes taken on the “Willey amendment,” under which amendment the constitution was remanded to the people by Congress for expurgation in regard to slavery. What I am simply trying to do is to show that there were no revolutionary proceedings from first to last in the formation of the state of West Virginia, but that under the wise statesmanship of Governor Pierpont, Mr. Willey, Mr. Van Winkle, Mr. Lamb, and others, everything was done with strict regard to all the requirements of law, and that, therefore, there is no occasion for any West Virginian to feel that he is a citizen of an illegitimate state.

Henry A. Wise virulently proclaimed West Virginia as the “bastard child of a political rape,” and this utterance of that unreconstructed old sinner, whose boast it was that he had never asked pardon for his treason or taken the oath of allegiance to the United States after the war, has been reiterated by a good many people north and south throughout the country, but there is not in truth or in history a scintilla of foundation for such a remark. The existence of West Virginia as a state of the Union is regular in every particular – just as much so as any one of the 45 states of the Union – having been achieved in perfect conformity to section third of the fourth article of the constitution of the United States, which section provides for the manner of erecting a new state out of any part of another state, or by the junction of parts of two states, all that is necessary being the consent of the mother state and of Congress, and this consent West Virginia indisputably had.

The Crowning Episode of the Struggle.

Governor Pierpont, in the course of his conversation at Fairmont, spoke of the great importance of the movement that resulted in securing the new state so early in the national struggle. In his opinion it could never have been secured at the end of the war. The sympathy that animated Congress in 1862 was like that which the world feels today for Greece in her gallant struggle, and which is always felt for a loyal people resisting slavery in any form. At a later day, after the surrender in 1865, this sympathy would have changed somewhat and would have been extended to a greater or less extent to the old mother state, “desolate and in her weeds,” sitting amidst her destruction like Marius amidst the ruins of Carthage. Therefore, it was well indeed that we knew our opportunity and embraced it.

“But,” said the governor, “how narrow after all was our escape! But few know how really narrow it was. The “restored government of Virginia” had done all in its power on our behalf when it gave its assent to the petition, and Congress had done all in its power when it gave the assent required by the constitution; but there yet remained the indispensable assent of the executive department of the national government, and for a time there was great uncertainty what its decision would be. The cabinet was equally divided and Mr. Lincoln hesitated. The bill was lingering in his hands when I sent that dispatch which you wrote and I dictated. That, as Mr. Lincoln afterwards told me himself, determined him to sign the bill. Yes, sir, it was that urgent visit of James W. Paxton, E. M. Norton and yourself to my office in the custom house at Wheeling that caused me to send the dispatch that saved the state.”

I have not attempted in this long article to follow up with any distinctness my reminiscent conversations with the venerable governor during the two days I spent in Fairmont. There was much talked about that has already appeared in print in one shape and another, and there were many other incidents and remembrances called up that could not well be put in print. I was struck with the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the governor’s recollection on points that had escaped me. I was deeply touched before I took leave of him by his turning to me and looking at me in his now quiet yet earnest way, and making the following observation: “What would I have done without the Intelligencer in those days? I felt then and feel now that it was the right arm of our movement.”

To this I could only bow my acknowledgements and say to the “grand old man” as I took him by the hand, “praise from you, governor, is like praise from Sir Hubert; it is praise indeed.”

A. W. CAMPBELL


A State of Convenience: Table of Contents

A State of Convenience

West Virginia Archives and History