“Doubtless those in remaining Virginia would return to the Union, so to speak, less reluctantly without the division of the old state than with it; but I think we could not save as much in this quarter by rejecting the new state, as we should lose by it in West-Virginia. We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West-Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in congress and in the field. Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials. We have so acted as to justify their hopes; and we can not fully retain their confidence, and co-operation, if we seem to break faith with them. In fact, they could not do so much for us, if they would.
“Again, the admission of the new state, turns that much slave soil to free; and thus, is a certain, and irrevocable encroachment upon the cause of the rebellion.
“The division of a State is dreaded as a precedent. But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West-Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.
“I believe the admission of West-Virginia into the Union is expedient.”
Those are President Abraham Lincoln’s words after signing the WV statehood bill on December 31st, 1862, and they mark the end of a two-year fight for statehood.
It had begun in May 1861 at the First Wheeling Convention where Mason County’s Daniel Polsley berated future Senator Waitman T. Willey for cowardice, continued through the Second Wheeling Convention where Polsley was elected Lieutenant Governor, endured through the Constitutional Convention where our own John Hall presided over the writing of our first state constitution, outlasted three Confederate invasions in 1861 and ’62, wrestled with the question of slavery in the new state, finally settled on Senator Willey’s compromise of gradual emancipation, and answered fierce opposition in Congress with fiery patriotism.
West Virginians, caught up in the frenzy and excitement of creating a new state in the midst of a national civil war, were absolutely sure that nothing, and certainly nobody in their right mind, could slow down or stop their statehood. They had outlasted and beat back Robert E. Lee’s forces at Philippi and Cheat Mountain, dealt with Jenkins’ Raid through most of the central counties, and survived Loring’s Kanawha Valley campaign. They had found a legal loophole by setting up a Union Virginian government in the western counties that then gave those same counties permission to form a new state. By accepting a compromise they would gradually abolish slavery in the new state, they had won over all but the most ardent abolitionists. And, in not so subtly reminding senators and congressmen that, should they fail, there would be a Confederate state very nearly dividing Pennsylvania and Ohio, they won over the rest.
Carrot and stick, as they say.
The final bill on statehood passed Congress 23-17 in the Senate and 96-55 in the House, and West Virginia’s leaders were over the moon. Nothing could stand in their way now, and they expected Lincoln’s signature to be merely a formality since so many young men from the new state were fighting in his armies. But for Lincoln, this wasn’t an easy decision. His cabinet members were evenly divided 3-3 on whether the new state was constitutional, and Lincoln himself, who had spent the first two years of the war arguing for a return to the status quo, was initially against it.
On one hand, the constitutionality of the new state was hazy at best and signing the bill would undermine his efforts to convince the states in rebellion that they could return to the fold and all would go back to as it was before the war, but on the other hand, it also provided him with an opportunity to secure public support west of the Alleghenies, gain new allies in Congress, boost morale nationwide, and emancipate several thousand slaves. He debated the issue for almost a month, before the upcoming implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation finally made his first point moot. That act alone, by ending slavery in all Confederate held territory, would ensure that the Union could never go back to how it was before the war, and so the good of admitting West Virginia now outweighed the bad.
And so Lincoln signed the statehood bill on December 31st, 1862 which, after a public referendum on Senator Willey’s gradual emancipation amendment, went into effect on June 20th, 1863.
Information primarily from the WV State Archives.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.