The State of the Union speech is tonight, so let’s get in the mood by talking a little disunion, shall we?
Specifically, let’s talk secession.
Not the 1861 kind.
More like the 1863 kind that carved off Virginia’s westernmost counties to create West Virginia — or, possibly, the 2011 kind that could bring three of them back into the fold.
In case you missed the news over the weekend, a Republican state legislator from Berkeley County, West Virginia has introduced a bill in the West Virginia state legislature to allow for a non-binding referendum in three counties on whether they want to re-join the Old Dominion.
Specifically, the three counties of the Eastern Panhandle — Jefferson County, Berkeley County and Morgan County.
Delegate Larry Kump says he’s motivated by West Virginia’s poor economy. “Our government is so centralized and so oppressive on economic growth, it affects everybody,” Kump told the Associated Press. “In the Eastern Panhandle, we’re saying ‘Let our people go to find prosperity.’”
So . . . I’m going to assume that Kump is simply trying to make a political point.
However, this is a topic that I happen to know a little about (OK, maybe just a little), but there’s some interesting history here about how those counties came to be part of West Virginia in the first place.
* Before the Civil War, of course, Virginia stretched all the way to the Ohio River. Political power, though, was concentrated in the eastern part the state, and western counties often complained that they were ignored by the state government in Richmond (much as the western counties still in Virginia do now.) At one point, there was even an effort to move the state capital to west of the Blue Ridge — which, obviously, didn’t succeed.
* One of the big points of contention involved railroads – the state highways of their day. Wheeling, at the time, was the second biggest city in Virginia. Its economic lifeline was the Baltimore & Ohio railroad which, as the name implied, directed commerce from the Midwest to Baltimore. Not surprisingly, business interests around the Virginia ports at Hampton Roads weren’t too keen on what they saw as rail traffic being “diverted” to rival Baltimore. From Wheeling’s point of view, the Virginia legislature threw a lot of obstacles into the path of the B&O’s creation, thereby impeding economic development in Wheeling.
* Then, of course, there was slavery. The mountain counties weren’t too keen on it, and didn’t have much interest in going to war to protect it. I don’t want to get into the old argument about how much slavery did or did not have to do with the Civil War; but if you study up on West Virginia history (which I have), you’ll see that the creation of West Virginia involved a lot more than just opposition to slavery. It gave the western counties a chance to rid themselves of what they saw as a distant state government that alternated between being disinterested or oppressive.
* The real argument in the future state of West Virginia was where the lines should be drawn. Based on the reading I’ve done over the years, it went roughly like this: The Wheeling faction wanted a small West Virginia, because that would give Wheeling more control. Other factions — which didn’t have much use for Richmond, but weren’t keen to kow-tow to Wheeling, either — wanted a big West Virginia that would dilute Wheeling’s influence. One proposed map for a “big” West Virginia would have put everything west of the Blue Ridge in the new state.
Yes, the future Roanoke could have wound up in West Virginia. (So where would the future Virginia Tech have wound up then?)
* In the end, compromises prevailed, as they usually do in politics. The Wheeling faction insisted on one thing, though — they wanted all the counties that the B&O ran through to be under the jurisdiction of the new state. Never again, they vowed, would they let Richmond interfere with “their” railroad. That meant the three Panhandle counties — Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan — would be part of West Virginia. For some reason, Frederick County (which now surrounds the city of Winchester) was also thrown into the mix.
* Now, a personal aside: I’m not that familiar with Morgan County, which is on the other side of the Alleghanies. But Berkeley and Jefferson are geographically and culturally very much part of the Shenandoah Valley. I know this because my grandparents once lived in Jefferson County — Charles Town, to be precise. Those counties “feel” very much like, well, the northern Shenandoah Valley and nothing at all like classic West Virginia. My grandfather, now passed, was a very proud member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, which was quite active in Charles Town — marching in local parades and the like. As a kid, I remember thinking that Jefferson County felt more “Southern” me than the part of the Shenandoah Valley where I grew up further to the south.
* A referendum was required in each county. Morgan County voted to go with West Virginia, but the vote in Berkeley and Jefferson (and Frederick) was delayed because those counties were, at the time, under Confederate control. The war in that area was back-and-forth — Winchester famously changed hands more than 70 times. Eventually, the Union Army took possession of Berkeley and Jefferson and a vote was held there. (I’m not sure a referendum was ever held in Frederick County). The West Virginia side prevailed — although the pro-Virginia side claimed it wasn’t a fair election because so many of the local men were away from home fighting in the Confederate Army and they surely would have voted to stick with their native state.
From a distance of 148 years, I certainly can’t tell you whether it was or wasn’t a fair election. But . . . what is a certain fact is that after the war, the state of Virginia sued the state of West Virginia to get Berkeley and Jefferson counties back.
It failed. In the case of Virginia v. West Virginia in 1871, The Supreme Court sided with West Virginia.
If you’re interested in all this, I found a pretty good summary of the case in The West Virginia Encyclopedia.