Lincoln didn't free W.Va. slaves

By Steve Korris | Jun 17, 2006

A statue at the state Capitol Complex is called Lincoln Walks At Midnight. It faces the Kanawha River. WHEELING - West Virginia broke away from Virginia and joined a war to end legal slavery, but legal slavery lasted longer in West Virginia than in Virginia.

A statue at the state Capitol Complex is called Lincoln Walks At Midnight. It faces the Kanawha River.

The huge, several ton bell resting on the lawn of the state Capitol Complex is a grim reminder of the 1921 fire that destroyed the statehouse built in 1885. The bell for years tolled the time for citizens of Charleston and there was more than a passing touch of sorrow in its fall to the ground, causing a crack extending around its surface.

West Virginia's flag.

WHEELING - West Virginia broke away from Virginia and joined a war to end legal slavery, but legal slavery lasted longer in West Virginia than in Virginia.

"West Virginia remained a slave state almost two years after slavery had been abolished in old Virginia," according to the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia.

When West Virginia joined the Union on June 20, 1863 -– 143 years ago this week -- its constitution did not abolish slavery. It provided for gradual abolition.

President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but that applied to "states in rebellion." West Virginia opposed the rebellion.

Lincoln did not free the slaves with a stroke of a pen, of course. Illegal slavery persisted in the South until the Union army crushed the rebellion.

West Virginia slaves gained their freedom in 1865. The state Legislature, in its third session at Wheeling, abolished slavery by a vote of 17 to one.

That action freed about one of every 20 persons in West Virginia.

The 1860 census, before the Civil War, counted 18,371 slaves among 376,688 persons in the counties that would become West Virginia.

The 1860 census counted 3,593 slave owners in western Virginia. The average slaveholder owned five slaves.

According to the Heritage Encyclopedia, nobody owned slaves in McDowell or Hancock counties.

Long before the Civil War the two sides of Virginia pulled in different directions, according to "West Virginia -– a History for Beginners," by John Alexander Williams.

In his 1993 book Williams wrote that, "... the ideal of equality was
more popular in Western Virginia than it was in the east."

No one could vote in Virginia except land owners. They elected no one but legislators, and the General Assembly chose governors, judges and county officials.

Many states adopted universal suffrage for white males and popular elections for all offices, but not Virginia.

Western Virginians pleaded for new roads and canals from the east, but eastern Virginians blocked improvements because they feared higher taxes.

Western Virginians believed broader democracy would bring roads and canals, so they supported a proposed constitution full of reforms.

In an 1830 election, the west voted in favor of a new constitution but the east opposed it and the proposal failed.

Wheeling newspapers urged "dismemberment."

Eastern attitudes changed, and in 1850 a constitutional convention agreed on white male suffrage, popular elections and greater representation for the west.

Voters approved, and Virginia conducted popular elections in 1851.

War began in April of 1861. Virginia prepared to secede.

Leaders of western Virginia met at Wheeling May 11 and agreed to convene again if Virginia seceded.

Virginia seceded May 23.

Two days later soldiers from Ohio and Indiana crossed the Ohio River at Wheeling and Parkersburg. Some of the local men joined them.

On June 2 the Union troops defeated Virginians at Philippi.

On June 13 the western leaders again met at Wheeling. They wanted statehood, but the U. S. Constitution required Virginia's approval.

They boldly established a new Virginia government, calling it Loyal, or Restored. They gave Virginia's approval for creation of a new state with 38 counties.

They chose Francis Pierpont as governor of Virginia.

On July 11 the Union won a battle at Rich Mountain.

Ohio soldiers captured and held the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

In October western voters created the "State of Kanawha," by 18,408 to 781.

In November a constitutional convention added nine more counties and changed the name to West Virginia.

In May of 1862 West Virginia applied to Congress for admission to the Union.

According to Williams, eastern Tennessee might have joined the Union too if Union troops had fared as well there as in western Virginia.

Because the Union could not control eastern Tennessee, he wrote, there was no basis for a new state.

Congress voted to admit West Virginia if it would abolish slavery. Congress sent the bill to Lincoln.

According to the Heritage Encyclopedia, Lincoln dreaded the precedent of dividing a state.

He turned to the six men in his Cabinet for advice, but they split three to three.

On New Year's Eve, the last day to sign or veto the bill, he signed it.

He wrote that, "... we cannot retain their confidence and cooperation if we seem to break faith with them."

At another constitutional convention, West Virginia approved gradual abolition.

That satisfied Lincoln. On April 20, 1863, he declared that West Virginia would achieve statehood in 60 days.

West Virginia joined the Union with Arthur Boreman of Parkersburg as governor.

Waitman Willey of Morgantown and Peter Van Winkle of Parkersburg represented the state in the U. S. Senate.

Pierpont continued as governor of Loyal Virginia. He held office at Alexandria, which Union forces held.

In 1927 the Legislature designated June 20 as State Day, a holiday.

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