President Lincoln Exempted West Virginia From the Emancipation Proclamation

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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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    7 COMMENTS

    1. I hate to see that the history of WV has been dropped by the wayside. When I was in school and I don’t remember what year, we had either a whole semester or a whole year and a book of West Virginia History. I loved it and I learned a lot about it. But then again we also learned about the wars thru the years and other things that have been dropped out of the curriculum. Such a shame as we have a great country and our history is why we have what we have today.

    2. Sadly,American History is pushed aside as told to me by a teacher.
      How to ride a bike is more important.
      We do have some great teachers but not enough time is spent on American History

    3. Wv history is taught in the 8th grade in wv. What I would like to know is what exactly other states teach about wv because when asked where I’m from, people think I mean western Virginia and not Wedt Virginia. They don’t seem to even realize that we are a separate state.

    4. I agree with you Brian. We West Virginians are marked as ignorant and uneducated but I have to wonder when someone ask me if I’m from western Virginia. Our state was very much in the forefront of a very important part of American history. The American Civil War.. one of the greatest soldiers of that was Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Birthplace Clarksburg, Virginia. West Virginia seceded from Virginia June 20, 1863. Although I am a part time Floridan I will always be a mountain mama. I’m very proud to be from West Virginia.

    5. I loved WV History when I was in school. I still remember so much of our great history. I live in MD now and was astonished that other states don’t teach their state history. How sad for the students not to have the pride in their state that West Virginian’s have their whole life…no matter where they live.

    6. Because West Virginia was administered by the unionist Virginia government under Francis Pierpont, and the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to areas in which there was no loyal civil government. It was a war measure that applied only to rebellious areas WHERE FEDERAL CIVIL AUTHORITY HAD NOT BEEN REESTABLISHED*, because those were the only places the president had the executive authority to act as he did. Only Virginia and Louisiana had both unionist and secessionist governments functioning within state boundaries at the start of 1863, which is why those were the only states where specific cities, counties, and parishes were exempted from the EP. To do otherwise was to deny the legitimacy of those unionist governments.

      Also, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t abolish slavery in Virginia or anywhere — Lincoln lacked the authority to change laws. It freed all the slaves in the designated areas while leaving the institution theoretically intact. Pierpont’s unionist government of Virginia abolished slavery there when it adopted a new constitution in 1864.

      The federal government did require an emancipation clause in the West Virginia constitution before it admitted that state to the Union a few months later. The Willey Amendment freed all slaves born after a set date, so that slavery would wither away as slaves born before that date died, moved out of state, or were voluntarily freed:

      “The children of slaves born within the limits of this State after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free; and all slaves within the said State who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years; and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and no slave shall be permitted to come into the State for permanent residence therein.”

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