Why West Virginia Really Sided with the North in the Civil War

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By Jeremy T.K. Farley — Follow him on Twitter: @JeremyTKFarley

Despite their turbulent history and decades of regional differences, Virginians had risen above many of the root causes of the sectional strife that had defined the state’s early years of existence.

The success of the Constitution of 1851 had provided a fresh opportunity for leaders from both the east and the west to move forward in creating a new era in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia and for nearly a decade, they had been doing just that.

By Tuesday, November 6, 1860, Virginians, both from the west and the east, were united as one people – at least in their opposition to one Presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

An 1860 election map by county completely destroys the popular, albeit false, narrative that was presented to the American public in the years following the state’s establishment – the notion that western Virginians were staunch supporters of Abraham Lincoln and that the general populace was so loyal to him that when it came time, they chose to sever all ties with their brethren to the east in allegiance to the newly installed President from Illinois.

In reality, the voting population of western Virginia was just as opposed to the prospect of a Lincoln Presidency as their counterparts in the Tidewater region along the Atlantic Coast.

John C. Breckinridge served as the Antebellum South’s candidate of choice, favoring slavery at all costs, even at the expense of the Union, whereas John Bell, who narrowly won Virginia, appealed to a more moderate electorate.  Interestingly, Breckinridge actually fared better in the counties that would become West Virginia than in what is present-day Virginia. Though he lost the Old Dominion and its 15 electoral votes, the South’s candidate of choice actually carried the future counties of the Mountain State, winning that region by nearly two percentage points.

In total, 167,223 Virginians (thanks to the 1851 Constitution, these numbers included all white males – not just wealthy landowners) cast their ballots in the Presidential Election of 1860, the most in the state’s history up to that point.  Of the more than 167,000 men who announced their choice for president across Virginia on that crisp November morning, only 1,887 proclaimed a vote for Abraham Lincoln, 1.2% of the voters.

Though Lincoln polled best in the counties of the Northern Panhandle, which include Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall, he failed to obtain a majority in any of these counties — not even earning a single vote in Marshall County, which is bordered by the State of Ohio on its western flank and the State of Pennsylvania to its east.

Ultimately, the winning candidates from each of the Northern Panhandle’s counties were the same individuals who carried the Deep South.   Just as all the counties of North Carolina, Texas and Mississippi, the counties of the Northern Panhandle gave their majority votes to either Bell or Breckinridge.

Even in Ohio County’s community of Wheeling, a place that has established a reputation for being at the forefront of abolitionism, Lincoln failed to place any higher than third out of four candidates for President.

So then why did these counties choose to ally themselves with the North once the bullets began flying?  Very simple — security.

Just yards from Ohio to their left and a handful of miles from the Pennsylvania border to their right, local leaders in Wheeling, as well as the rest of the Northern Panhandle feared – and with great reason – what a war against the north would spell for them locally.

Merely by glancing at a topographical map, we can see their fears clearly illustrated.

Speaking of this fear, McGregor writes, “They had no desire to see themselves isolated from the southern states and exposed to the mercies of an invading army from the north. The counties bordering on the Ohio and those drained by the upper waters of the Monongahela were so close to Ohio and Pennsylvania that in the event of war they could be overrun by Federal troops in a few days. The largest city in the section, Wheeling, was only sixty-six miles distant from Pittsburgh. Its large manufacturing interests could be destroyed easily forty-eight hours after war was declared. Other Ohio river towns occupied positions only a degree less exposed. Troops concentrating at Pittsburgh could penetrate into the very heart of western Virginia simply by going up the Monongahela River…”

On April 20, 1861, an article appeared in the Wheeling Intelligencer making the case as to why the community should side with the North:

“We are as powerless as an infant would be in the grasp of Hercules. They could crush us in a day. Cannon planted on the Ohio hills would lay us in ruin. Never did a people occupy a more unenviable position for a hostile collision with their neighbors. Where, in case of collision are we to look for help? From Richmond, away off across the mountains? We might as well look to the moon for help. She will have her hands full and it will keep her busy enough to entertain Jeff Davis’s army of occupation. No help there for us. The Secessionists here must remember that Pennsylvania has never yet abandoned her claim to this strip of territory. (referring to the northern Panhandle, over which Virginia and Pennsylvania had disputed many years) On the contrary, she has again and again asserted her claim to it. Suppose we were now to set ourselves against the Government. Why, she would have us in a week’s time.”

Though these fears were more than realized by Virginia’s extreme northwestern counties, the counties that would become West Virginia’s southern and eastern localities did not share in these fears.

Unlike the counties of the Ohio and Monongahela river valleys to their north, the West Virginia counties to the south were naturally protected from an invading army – surrounded on all flanks by nearly impenetrable hills. A Yankee army might attempt marching through the Tug Valley, but doing so would require an invading general to take extreme risk.

Consequently, these southern regions of the Mountain State were fiercely loyal to the South, staunchly opposed to the creation of West Virginia and many were under the control of Confederate Government until late in the war.

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