Happy West Virginia Day! New South Media is celebrating the state’s 156th birthday by visiting historic sites and enjoying the state’s natural beauty—and by engaging in a bit of speculative history.


What if West Virginia had not seceded from Virginia?

William Hal Gorby, a native of Moundsville, West Virginia, and a teaching assistant professor of history at WVU, indulged me in this speculation. He notes that he is not a Civil War historian, so many thanks to him for taking me up spontaneously on this thought experiment.

Q: What would have happened here in 1861 if the vote to form West Virginia failed after Virginia voted to secede from the Union?

A: Right after the secession ordinance (Virginia’s secession from the United States) goes into effect in Richmond in April 1861, the Union Army begins to mass troops across the Ohio River from Wheeling and Parkersburg. They’re ordered to wait until this referendum that the residents of Virginia vote on on May 23, 1861. When Virginia votes to secede from the Union, the Union Army, under General McClellan, crosses the river and sort of secures the Northern Panhandle and the area around Parkersburg; they also begin moving into the Kanawha Valley and eastward. This is on one level to protect those counties that voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Union—mostly counties on the Ohio River and northwestern Virginia. The army gets to Clarksburg pretty quickly, and before long they’ve secured probably 40 percent of what’s now West Virginia.

There’s a political debate going on but, the reality on the ground is, it’s linked with military troops in 20 counties by this point—while the statehood movement is going on after that, Wheeling is protected by federal troops, and they can do what they want. And when they vote (in October 1861) on creation of the new state, many voters who didn’t support the new state probably didn’t vote because, if you had to go to a polling place where there would be Union troops present, you didn’t want to be in a voice vote where you say ‘I don’t support the creation of West Virginia.’ That would have been a very suspicious stance to take in, say, Harrison or Marion county.

Bottom line: If the statehood vote hadn’t been successful, most diehard supporters of the statehood movement would have had to leave the state, fearing for their lives. Or maybe they would have stayed in Wheeling and Parkersburg, where it would have been hard for the Confederate Richmond government to do much because the Union troops were present.

Q: If West Virginia had not seceded from Virginia, could that have affected the outcome of the war?

A: As the war progresses in what’s now West Virginia, the Union Army pushes the Confederates into the mountains in Randolph and Hampshire counties. In the Kanawha valley, more strategically, the Union Army pushes straight up the river valley, defeats the Confederates at Saint Albans, Charleston, pushes them really back to their camp at Lewisburg. By the fall of 1861, the Union Army occupies 75 to 80 percent of what’s now West Virginia.

I think the big problem would have been that the B&O Railroad across what’s now northern West Virginia was a key artery of troop movement, supplies, communication. One thing the statehood government provided and wouldn’t have if it didn’t exist was, it had its own militia—the Home Guard units—under Governor Pierpont. The Union Army was able to be engaged in seeking out the Confederate Army, seeking out guerrillas, because they knew these Home Guard units in the counties were helping out. If the new state hadn’t been moving forward and the Union Army had just been an occupying force without the support of the Home Guard units, it would have lost a lot of its military boots on the ground to defending the B&O. It would have taken more of a defensive strategy after the fall of 1861 as opposed to what became an aggressive offensive strategy.

But from a long-term perspective, the Union Army had more industrial capabilities, more men than the Confederate Army. If West Virginia hadn’t seceded, that probably would have made it harder for the Union, delayed the inevitable, made the war more bloody. And more bloody in western Virginia, too—fewer boots on the ground and the balance between Union and Confederate troops more even.

Bottom line: The war might have been longer and bloodier, but western Virginia remaining part of Virginia probably would not have changed the outcome.

Q: How might the intact Virginia’s future have been different?

A: Virginia’s history in the late 19th century is that it’s heavily indebted—that’s the central spoke of its entire politics in the Gilded Age, dealing with debt from before the Civil War, when they were building railroads, infrastructure. It didn’t get out of debt until into the 20th century.

If we’d been part of Virginia, would the coal and timber wealth in the western counties have stayed in the state, gone out of the state, some of both? There are a lot of variables. I do think that Virginia’s story would have been different, because it could have drawn on the wealth here, the coal and timber, to address the economic problems that plagued it after the Civil War.

Bottom line: Virginia probably could have paid its debts faster with revenues from the billion-dollar coalfields in what became southern West Virginia.

Q: How might our future have been different if we’d remained a part of Virginia?

A: If West Virginia had stayed part of Virginia, once Jim Crow came, African Americans would have been subjected to the elements of the Virginia segregation system. Even though there was segregation in West Virginia—we hear all the time about segregation in the coalfields—over time West Virginia does become a beacon for migrants, because the state Constitution only mandates two forms of segregation: no interracial marriage and segregated schooling. Nothing limits African American voting or participation in politics. Not to say the experience was rosy entirely, but African Americans in West Virginia had certain amounts of political power. In McDowell County, Raleigh, Fayette, you couldn’t win an election without getting the support of the African American population in the early 20th century.

In 1921, West Virginia passes an anti-lynching bill: the Capehart Anti-Lynching Law, named after Harry Capehart, an African American delegate from McDowell County in southern West Virginia. And it works. When they have instances of lynching, and there are a few, the law allows for heavy prosecution. It’s just fascinating to think, if we were part of Virginia, that wouldn’t have been discussed—you couldn’t have had African Americans in office.

It’s an interesting “what if,” further—what would our economy look like? Would it be better off?

I think if the western Virginia counties had not seceded, those representatives would have had the same debates in Richmond as before the war: You’re fixing the roads in eastern Virginia, are you going to fix them here? Are you going to fund public education equally west of the mountains?

There might have been some compromise to come to—eastern Virginia might have said, you have all this coal, let’s come to some understanding. But look at other states that have some Central Appalachian counties—Kentucky, Tennessee. Those states are looking well, but look at their Appalachian sections. Eastern Kentucky is one of the most impoverished parts of the country right now. In Tennessee, the far eastern counties are well below the economic trend of the rest of the state. And Virginia is booming, but its deep southwestern counties in the coalfields, they’re well below Virginia as a whole.

Bottom line: The counties that became West Virginia got to avoid Jim Crow and, economically, may not have benefited by remaining a part of Virginia.

We at New South Media like to think West Virginia is better off determining its own destiny. Thanks for your thoughts, Professor Gorby!

Featured image courtesy of eWV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She and her husband and their teenage son live in Morgantown with their cats, Perry and Kellin.