|Civil War historians unfairly treat West Virginia as an oddity. They tend to see it as the dissident part of Virginia that resisted its secession in 1861 to protest decades of economic neglect. Some explain this process from the area more closely resembling Pennsylvania and Ohio than to its parent. Each centers his or her interpretations on the paucity of slavery in the region in 1860. I suggest another possibility: West Virginia was a border state. Four slave states, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, remained loyal to the Union. Each had fewer slaves than in the Upper and Lower South states, but each defended the practice for as long as possible. Their allegiances concerned both sides in the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln worked tirelessly to preserve their loyalties to the Union, demonstrating great flexibility when dealing with them, especially on slavery. On the other hand, Confederate leader Jefferson Davis sought to keep all slaveholding states under his domain. Men from each state joined both armies as well as numerous guerrilla bands. Recent scholarship has renewed interest in finding the nexus of social and political divisions within each state, yet historians may have neglected another place that endured similar ordeals.
My dissertation will integrate West Virginia into the border states. Although it did not exist as an independent polity at the war’s beginning like the other states, the federal government treated northwestern Virginia as if it were one before and after statehood. My work starts by challenging long-held beliefs about the region’s politics and society. The population was in fact mostly southern in ancestry and proslavery in attitude. Only the small yet vital northern panhandle differed. The landholding class and an urban middle class shared rule over a stratified population of laborers, farmers, and slaves. During the 1850s, the region consistently supported the South and its mother state against northern agitation over slavery. Northwestern Virginians were, I believe, content with the status quo if desirous of economic progress. When secession came, however, the region split along geographic and economic lines. Middle-class Unionists seized power from landowners who seceded with Virginia. These loyalists sought to form a new state to show that slavery was safe under the Constitution while treason led only to its destruction. Even so, bitter disputes over slavery almost thwarted the project. Conservatives demanded no federal interference on the issue. More radical leaders sought a gradual emancipation plan as a war measure. A compromise plan resolved the deadlock and allowed West Virginia to enter the Union as a slave state in 1863. Lincoln’s flexible approach to the border states permitted this to happen. As with the other border states, he tolerated the northwest’s stubborn attachment to slavery, and exempted it and the four others from the Emancipation Proclamation. West Virginia’s war would drag on for two more costly years. Armies fought over it in seemingly endless battle against each other. Guerrilla warfare plagued most of its territory. As in other border states, the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, caused great dissention in the state.
In short, West Virginia was not an oddity or a mere dissident appendage of another state. It is fairer to call it a Border State. Its mix of northern and southern influences, class structures, intense debate over slavery, and divided wartime allegiances more closely resembled its four neighbors than it did eastern Virginia. Civil War historians need to include West Virginia as a fifth border state arising from a combination of factors rather than see it as a singular entity born from special circumstances.