Abraham Lincoln and West Virginia

Abraham Lincoln and West Virginia

On April 17, 1861, Virginia acted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Leaders in the northwestern part of the state, however, acted quickly to separate themselves from the secessionists; Three days later, John Carlile visited President Lincoln at the White House. Historian William C. Harris wrote: “Carlile was no antislavery zealot from the mountains of western Virginia. In the state convention, he had defended slavery as ‘a social, political and religious blessing’ that was (paradoxically) ‘essential to the preservation of our liberties.’ But, he told Virginians, the institution would not exist five years after the state’s separation from the nonslaveholding states.'”1 President Lincoln told Carlile to go back home and rally his section of Virginia for the Union.

Many West Virginians in the northwest part of the state were alienated by their secessionist neighbors who voted overwhelmingly for secession on May 23. Historian James M. McPherson noted that “Slaves and slaveowners were rare among these narrow valleys and steep mountainsides. The region’s culture and economy were oriented to nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania rather than to the faraway lowlands of Virginia.”2 West Virginia historian Theodore F. Lang wrote: “By every natural association West Virginia was allied to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and therefore to Northern sentiments and institutions. Bordering on the Ohio River for two hundred and fifty miles, she was adjacent to Pennsylvania for a distance of on hundred and twenty miles, half on the western line of that State… When, therefore, the loyal people of western Virginia declined to yield to the demand of the Secessionists of the State it very naturally created a great deal of enthusiasm in the States of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and did much to attract the sympathy and help of those States to the support of the brave loyalists of this section.3 Moreover, the Baltimore and Ohio rail line ran through the state and linked its residents to the Midwest and Washington rather than to points further south. This linkage was vital to the Union in the Civil War.

With the leadership of Carlile and others, northwest Virginia residents rushed to set up an alternative to the secessionist government. In Wheeling in June1861, railroad attorney Francis H. Peirpont (sometimes spelled Pierpont or Pierpoint) convened Unionists from the northwestern portion of the state, who proceeded to elect him as the state’s provisional governor. But they had outside assistance, noted historian William B. Hesseltine: “It was Ohio’s Governor [William] Dennison who encouraged West Virginia’s separatist movement. When the leaders of Virginia’s mountain counties, refusing to follow the eastern Virginians into the Confederacy, assembled at Wheeling, Dennison sent a messenger to promise military aid. Secretary of the [Salmon P.] Treasury Chase gave his blessing to this promise and urged Dennison to station Ohio troops just across the river from Wheeling. From Pennsylvania came [Governor Andrew] Curtin’s approval and agreement to act with the Ohio executive in supporting western Virginians…”4 The mountain residents encouraged military maneuvers under General George B. McClellan to establish Union control their section of the state. Historian Richard O. Curry observed “that McClellan’s invasion of Northwestern Virginia established the authority of the Reorganized Government of Virginia under Pierpont and made a separate State movement possible.”5

In due time, a state legislature was elected as well as representatives to Congress. Historian James G. Randall wrote: “By the Wheeling ordinance of June 19, the legislature of Virginia was made to consist of all members chosen on May 23 who would take the test oath, together with additional members specially chosen to take the places of those who refused the oath. When the first legislature of the ‘restored government’ met in special session on July 1, 1861, under call of Governor Pierpont, only twelve days had elapsed since the passage of the ordinance creating the new government. Obviously this was insufficient for the completion of the various steps necessary for the fulfilment of that ordinance.”6

The new Wheeling government chose two former Whigs, Waitman T. WIlley and John S. Carlile, to represent the Union government of Virginia in the Senate. Carlile had led western Virginia out of the Richmond convention that voted for secession and was a strong proponent of separation from Virginia. But Carlile believed that separation had to come after a Union government of Virginia was first recognized in Washington. Historian Richard O. Curry wrote that “the Reorganized Government…served its purpose well by providing a State government around which loyal Virginians could rally; it marked the beginning of a policy that would be utilized by the Lincoln Administration in restoring other rebellious states to the Union; and it was to be the instrument through which separate statehood for West Virginia would be implemented.”7

Both Congress and President Lincoln recognized the validity of the new government and its congressional representatives. “This was a pilot state of reconstruction,” wrote historian Dallas S. Shaffer.8 Historian Allan G. Bogue wrote: “Termed the ablest lawyer of northwestern Virginia by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Willey was a ‘tall, fine, spectacled specimen of the old Virginia gentleman.’ Carlile, ‘very sallow and angular in his face, flat on his head, compact and well-knit in framework,’ was ‘somewhat singular looking,’ but an able speaker, unintimidated by the Republicans, and, according to Mack, the Senate’s ‘most eloquent Copperhead.'” 9 Maine Congressman James G. Blaine wrote: “The first question of moment growing out of the Rebellion was the presentation of credentials by Messrs Willey and Carlile, who claimed seats as senators from Virginia, the right to which was certified by the seal of the State with the signature of Francis H. Pierpont as governor. The credentials indicated that Mr. Willey was to take the seat vacated by Mr. Mason, and Mr. Carlile that vacated by Mr. Hunter. The loyal men of Virginia, especially from the western counties, finding that the regularly organized government of the State had joined the Rebellion, extemporized a government composed by the Union men of the Legislature which had been in session the preceding winter in Richmond.”10 Three congressmen from the northwest part of the state — attorney Jacob B. Blair, attorney William G. Brown, and businessman Kellian V. Whaley — were also seated in Washington.

Meanwhile, legislative work proceeded to separate the loyal northwestern section of Virginia from the secessionist eastern portion. Under the watchful eyes of Union soldiers, residents of West Virginia voted overwhelmingly to pursue separate statehood in October 1861. Then in April 1862, they overwhelmingly approved a new constitution. In July 1862, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to admit West Virginia as a separate state — with a proviso that gradual emancipation must first be approved as part of the state constitution — a bitter pill to some Unionists. The statehood legislation, however did not pass the House of Representatives until December 1862. Senator Willey supported the required amendment to the state constitution while Senator Carlile opposed it.

Although there was regional enthusiasm for separating from the rest of the state, there were formidable legal hurdles. Historian James G. Randall noted Congress was treading on fragile constitutional ground: “That clause of the Constitution of the United States which forbids the erection of a new State within the jurisdiction of an existing State without the consent of the legislature of such State was…technically or nominally complied with; but the ‘Virginia legislature’ which gave this consent consisted of about thirty-five members in the lower house and ten in the upper house, while the full membership according to the Virginia constitution should have been one hundred fifty-two delegates and fifty senators. With the exception of the ‘eastern shore’ and two counties opposite Washington, the constituencies represented in this legislature were entirely limited to the counties of the northwest.”11

After the Civil War, the Lincoln administration’s Attorney General Edward Bates recorded his criticisms of the formation of West Virginia: “It was conceived, as a fraudulent party trick, by a few unprincipled Radicals, and the prurient ambition of a few meritless aspirants urged it, with indecent haste, into premature birth (lest their only chance for personal distinction should be lost forever).

The bill giving the consent of Congress, to the formation of this new State was rushed through precipitately. The friends of the bill thought delay dangerous — any little accident, any revival among the Members of Congress, of a sense of justice and decency would, probably defeat it: And so, it was pressed through without any of the ordinary care and caution which is due to every legislative enactment — and, in fact, the bill was full of the most glaring blunders. But the friends of the bill dared not attempt to amend it, lest delay and the scrut[in]y of debate might expose its absurdity and defeat its passage — And so it was passed in all its deformity.” 12

Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning delivered the text of the statehood legislation to the White House on December 15. Dealing with the recent Union defeat at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln indicated his uncertainty about whether to sign the statehood bill. Governor Peirpont had no uncertainty. On December 18, he wrote the President: “Apprehensions felt here of veto of the new State Bill. It would be disastrous to the Union cause in Western Virginia…It will be death to our cause.”13 Two day’s later, he wrote to complain that President Lincoln’s “delay was a calamity to the Union cause.” 14 On December 23, 1862, President Lincoln wrote the members of his Cabinet: “A bill for an act entitled “An Act for the admission of the State of `West-Virginia’ into the Union, and for other purposes,” has passed the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and has been duly presented to me for my action. I respectfully ask of each of you, an opinion in writing, on the following questions, to wit:

“First. Is the said Act constitutional?”
“Second. Is the said Act expedient?”15

There was little doubt that statehood was expedient; the question of constitutionality was tougher. On December 26, a cabinet meeting was held to review the papers written by its members. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Montgomery “Blair read his opinion of the proposition for making a new State of Western Virginia. His views correspond with mine, but are abler and more elaborately stated. Mr. Bates read a portion of his opinion on the constitutional point, which appeared to me decisive and conclusive. The President has called for opinions from each of his Cabinet. I had the first rough draft of mine in my pocket, thought not entirely copied. Chase said his was completed, but he had not brought it with him. Seward said he was wholly unprepared. Stanton assured the President he would be ready with his in season. The President said it would answer his purpose if the opinions were handed in on or before Tuesday.”16

On December 29, according to Welles, “The six members of the Cabinet (Smith absent) to-day handed in their respective opinions on the question of dividing the old Commonwealth of Virginia and carving out and admitting a new State. As Stanton and myself returned from the Cabinet-meeting to the Departments, he expressed surprise that I should oppose division, for he thought it politic and wise to plant a Free State south of the Ohio. I thought our duties were constitutional, not experimental, that we should observe and preserve the landmarks, and that mere expedience should not override constitutional obligations.”17

In their memorandum, Chase, Seward and Stanton supported admission of West Virginia. Bates, Blair and Welles opposed it. Historian James G. Randall wrote: “Seward argued that the United States could not recognize secession and must recognize loyalty. The ‘restored government,’ he held, was ‘inconstestably the State of Virginia.'” 18 Historian Allan G. Bogue wrote; “Although his cabinet officers were split on this matter, Lincoln convinced himself that this bold legislative departure was acceptable. Congressional action, he noted, showed that the measure was expedient. His own review convinced him that it was constitutional.” 19 On December 31, the impatient editor of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, 30-year-old Archibald W. Campbell, wrote President Lincoln to press the case: “No people were ever more united in a wish than are our people for a new state. South Carolina, in my opinion, was never as much united for Secession. Not a citizen of prominence in all our forty eight counties, with the single exception of Senator Carlile, opposes it. He, for his opposition in the Senate, together with his defection from the Union cause, has been more thoroughly and universally repudiated by our people than any public man ever was before by his constituency, so far as I can recall. Some twenty five large county meetings have requested his resignation, and at the same time have endorsed the bill for the new state as it had passed the Senate and has since passed the House. Numberless smaller meetings have done the same thing. Not a meeting, however insignificant, held anywhere for months past in any of the counties of the proposed State have neglected to endorse the bill. In addition, the legislature endorsed it, and formally requested the House to pass it while it was pending there in the early part of this month. Many members of that legislature, as many as were thought necessary, together with the Governor, Lieut Gov and others, a few days ago, united in a dispatch to you praying you to sign the bill and make it a law.”20

Indeed, President Lincoln signed the legislation on December 31. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that West Virginian “Jacob Blair recalled that on New Year’s Day, before 10 A.M., I presented myself at the White House, but found the doors locked. I raised the sash of one of the large windows, gained an entrance, and went directly to the President’s room. When I was ushered in I found Secretaries Seward and Stanton with him, but the President went directly to his desk and, taking out the West Virginia bill, held it up so that I read the signature, Approved: Abraham Lincoln.’ The president manifested ‘the simplicity and joyousness of a child, when it feels it has done its duty, and gratified a friend.’”21

President Lincoln also wrote out his opinion on the constitutionality of West Virginia’s admission, but it was not published until years later Burlingame noted: “Lincoln’s written opinion did not reflect his earlier reservations about the expediency of admitting West Virginia. He was moved by the plight of the Unionists, whose leader Pierpont, pleaded earnestly for statehood.”22 The memo read:

“The consent of the Legislature of Virginia is constitutionally necessary to the bill for the admission of West-Virginia becoming a law. A body claiming to be such Legislature has given it’s consent. We can not well deny that it is such, unless we do so upon the outside knowledge that the body was chosen at elections, in which a majority of the qualified voters of Virginia did not participate.”
“But it is a universal practice in the popular elections in all these states, to give no legal consideration whatever to those who do not choose to vote, as against the effect of the votes of those, who do choose to vote. Hence it is not the qualified voters, but the qualified voters, who choose to vote, that constitute the political power of the state. Much less than to non-voters, should any consideration be given to those who did not vote, in this case: because it is also matter of outside knowledge, that they were not merely neglectful of their rights under, and duty to, this government, but were also engaged in open rebellion against it. Doubtless among these non-voters were some Union men whose voices were smothered by the more numerous secessionists; but we know too little of their number to assign them any appreciable value. Can this government stand, if it indulges constitutional constructions by which men in open rebellion against it, are to be accounted, man for man, the equals of those who maintain their loyalty to it? Are they to be accounted even better citizens, and more worthy of consideration, than those who merely neglect to vote? If so, their treason against the constitution, enhances their constitutional value! Without braving these absurd conclusions, we can not deny that the body which consents to the admission of West-Virginia, is the Legislature of Virginia. I do not think the plural form of the words “Legislatures” and “States” in the phrase of the constitution “without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned &c” has any reference to the new State concerned. That plural form sprang from the contemplation of two or more old States contributing to form a new one. The idea that the new state was in danger of being admitted without its own consent, was not provided against, because it was not thought of, as I conceive. It is said, the devil takes care of his own. Much more should a good spirit—the spirit of the Constitution and the Union– take care of it’s own. I think it can not do less, and live.”
“But is the admission into the Union, of West-Virginia, expedient. This, in my general view, is more a question for Congress, than for the Executive. Still I do not evade it. More than on anything else, it depends on whether the admission or rejection of the new state would under all the circumstances tend the more strongly to the restoration of the national authority throughout the Union. That which helps most in this direction is the most expedient at this time. Doubtless those in remaining Virginia would return to the Union, so to speak, less reluctantly without the division of the old state than with it; but I think we could not save as much in this quarter by rejecting the new state, as we should lose by it in West-Virginia. We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West-Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in congress and in the field. Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials. We have so acted as to justify their hopes; and we can not fully retain their confidence, and co-operation, if we seem to break faith with them. In fact, they could not do so much for us, if they would.”
“Again, the admission of the new state, turns that much slave soil to free; and thus, is a certain, and irrevocable encroachment upon the cause of the rebellion.”
“The division of a State is dreaded as a precedent. But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West-Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.”
“I believe the admission of West-Virginia into the Union is expedient.”23

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Final Emancipation Proclamation. The same day, the wives of Governor Peirpont and two other state officials wrote President Lincoln: “God bless you — you have signed the Bill. In the name of the loyal Ladies of West Va, we thanks you, for our blessed New Year’s Gift.– As the wives of our State Officers, we are doubly grateful — You have saved us from contempt and disgrace. The wildest enthusiasm prevails. — The people are running to and fro, each one anxious to bear the ‘Glad Tidings of this great Joy.'” 24 On March 26, 1863, West Virginia overwhelmingly voted for the required constitution amendment abolishing slavery. On April 20, President Lincoln issued the required document certifying that West Virginia had met the requirements to be a state. An election for a new government was held on May 28 and on June 20, the reins of government were transferred from Virginia’s Governor Peirpont to West Virginia’s Governor Arthur I. Boreman.

West Virginia’s statehood would prove advantageous to Mr. Lincoln in the 1864 election; he won the state’s five electoral votes on October 26. President Lincoln took 68% of the vote — to just 32% for General George B. McClellan, who was credited in help save West Virginia from secessionists in June of 1861.


  1. William C. Harris, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union, p. 20.
  2. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 297-298.
  3. Theodore F. Lang, Loyal West Virginia from 1861 to 1865, p. 9.
  4. William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors, p. 212.
  5. Richard O. Curry, A House Divided: a Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia, p. 68.
  6. James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln, pp. 448-449.
  7. Richard O. Curry, A House Divided: a Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia, p. 74.
  8. Dallas S. Shaffer, Lincoln and the Vast Question of West Virginia, West Virginia History, January 1971.
  9. Allan G. Bogue, The Earnest Men: Republicans of the Civil War Senate, p. 47.
  10. James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress, p. 315.
  11. James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems under Abraham Lincoln, p. 452.
  12. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 508 (October 12, 1865).
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Francis Peirpont to Abraham Lincoln, December 18, 1862).
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Francis Peirpont to Abraham Lincoln, December 20, 1862).
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collective Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL, Volume VI, p. 17 (Memo to Members of the Cabinet, December 23, 1862).
  16. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles,, Volume I, pp. 206-207 (December 26, 1862).
  17. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, pp. 208-209 (December 29, 1862).
  18. James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems under Abraham Lincoln, p. 457.
  19. Allan G. Bogue, The Congressman’s Civil War, p. 53.
  20. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Archibald Campbell to Abraham Lincoln, December 31, 1862).
  21. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 461.
  22. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 460.
  23. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 26-28 (Opinion on Admission of West Virginia into the Union, ca., December 31, 1862.
  24. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Mrs. Samuel Crane, Mrs. Francis H. Peirpoint, and Mrs. L.A. Hagans to Abraham Lincoln, January 1, 1863).