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Like most every other child from my generation, my teachers provided me with a very limited expose on the American Civil War and the amount of time dedicated to telling the history of West Virginia was even less.
The short narrative was always something along the following lines:
“At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the eastern portion of Virginia, whose land was far more conducive to large-scale plantations, voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. The state’s western counties were opposed to slavery and so all the non-seceding counties elected to form their own state, the State of West Virginia.”
Though very brief, the above paragraph by and large sums up the typical American and even the average West Virginian’s understanding of how and why the state was founded.
Unfortunately, the reality for tens of thousands of black Americans living west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was something far different. The western counties of Virginia were – right up to the close of the Civil War – home to countless slaves. Even worse, the slave population in West Virginia had risen by more than 26% between the years of 1820 and 1850.
According to the 1860 Census, nearly 14% of Kanawha County’s total residents were slaves. More than one out of ten people living in the Virginia counties of Greenbrier and Hardy Counties were also slaves. These numbers pale in comparison, however, to West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where Berkeley County’s slave population neared 19% and Jefferson County’s total slave population equaled more than one out of four of the locality’s residents.
Though it is true that slavery west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains was not nearly as predominate – as the above 1861 map detailing percentage of slave populations by the county illustrates – the fact remains, that West Virginia was a place where slavery existed and existed in many places on a large scale.
Though these facts are all very well documented pieces of American history, somewhere over the past +150 years, these truths have for the most part escaped mention in our history books.
What’s even more astonishing to the average person is this: Slavery ended in Virginia before it did in West Virginia.
That’s right, slavery in places under Confederate control in the Commonwealth of Virginia, was made officially illegal on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation, calling for the freeing of all slaves thereafter captured by Union soldiers. For the government in Wheeling, in the midst of being birthed, President Lincoln provided a special exemption in the actual text of his speech, exempting them from the demand:
“Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
The reality is this: West Virginia’s early history is far more complex than most have ever realized or been taught!
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