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West Virginia: Born of the Civil War

A new exhibition, entitled West Virginia: Born of the Civil War, opened to the public on West Virginia Day, June 20, at West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling. The extensive and permanent exhibition, located on the first floor of the museum, features dramatic displays with period artifacts, and explores the statehood process against the background of the Civil War.

Designed by Hadley Exhibits of Buffalo, N. Y., West Virginia: Born of the Civil War incorporates maps, audio-visual elements, film and artifacts to tell the story of the birth of West Virginia. “Out-of-state visitors viewing the exhibition will gain insight into West Virginia’s formation,” said David Johnson, president of the design firm. “We hope it will be interesting to the people who live in Wheeling too,” he added.

One of the most striking elements of the exhibition shows the area that formed West Virginia rising out of a three-dimensional topographical map depicting the original land mass of Virginia. As narration describes the drive for statehood, West Virginia splits away and rises out of Virginia. Another area displays a copy of a mural depicting leaders in the West Virginia Independence Hall historic courtroom, signing the document that resulted in the formation of the Restored Government of Virginia in Wheeling in 1861. In the middle of the panel is a reproduction of the original document known as “The Declaration of the People of Virginia.”

Statehood Exhibit

Parallel exhibitions explore Union and Confederate viewpoints illustrated with memorabilia and artistic renderings of soldiers’ uniforms and weaponry. Artifacts from the West Virginia State Museum, located at the Cultural Center in Charleston, including a military drum used during the Civil War and historic farming equipment representing West Virginia’s agricultural roots, add color and dimension to the display. Images of documents and Wheeling prints, borrowed from Oglebay Institute also are incorporated into the exhibition.

One display panel features a print of a painting by modern-day artist John Paul Strain depicting Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his troops traveling through the snowy mountains on their way to Romney. Other panels explain military aspects of the Civil War from both Union and Confederate positions. An illuminated map details locations where battles were fought in West Virginia.

Statehood Exhibit
Statehood Exhibit

Other aspects covered in the interpretive exhibition include the historic differences between eastern and western Virginia, the legality of the creation of West Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln’s role in the birth of the state, life in Wheeling during the war and its leadership role in West Virginia’s formation.

Gerry Reilly, West Virginia Independence Hall director, says “The exhibit explores the only change in territory brought about by America’s greatest conflict, the Civil War, which was responsible for more than 600,000 casualties. Differences between eastern and western Virginia included residents’ views on slavery, economic considerations, types of farming and the ethnic composition of the population,” he added.

Governor Cecil H. Underwood attended the opening day activities and read excerpts from the inaugural address of West Virginia’s first governor, Arthur I. Boreman. After viewing the exhibition, Underwood said, “This is one of the most fascinating exhibits I’ve ever seen. The graphic illustrations are useful to understand the issues that caused the differences between western and eastern Virginia.”

Funding for the exhibition was provided through congressional appropriations sponsored by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., to the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC). Members of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation helped plan the exhibition. Reilly, and members of the Foundation and WNHAC assisted in script development.

West Virginia Independence Hall, a facility of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, was originally designed as a federal Custom House and served as capitol of the Restored (Union) Government of Virginia from 1861-63. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except for Sundays in January and February and state holidays. For more information about West Virginia: Born of the Civil War or West Virginia Independence Hall call (304) 238-1300.

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