June 17, 1861 – Delegates to a Unionist meeting at Wheeling in western Virginia unanimously approved declaring their independence from the Confederacy.
The delegation representing 39 northwestern counties assembled at Wheeling’s Washington Hall on June 11, in accordance with last month’s convention resolution to come together if Virginia seceded from the U.S. Western Virginia, largely mountainous, contained few slaves and was economically linked more to northern states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania than the South. Western Virginians had voted against secession in the May election by a margin of 10-to-1, and their delegates met to decide how best to secede from Virginia and return to the U.S.
Arthur I. Boreman, Parkersburg lawyer and state legislator, was elected convention president. The delegates formed a Committee of Business “to make the requisite preparatory arrangements for the separation from Virginia, and the formation into a new State.” On the 13th, members presented the “Declaration of the People of Virginia Represented in Convention at Wheeling,” which charged that last month’s Virginia state convention had “abused the powers nominally entrusted to it,” and “usurped and exercised other powers, to the manifest injury of the people, which, if permitted, will inevitably subject them to a military despotism.”
Declaring that Virginia’s separation from the U.S. was “without authority and void,” the delegates called not for forming their own separate government, but for a “reorganization of the government of the Commonwealth” of all Virginia. To do this, the delegates proclaimed that “the offices of all who adhere to the said Convention and Executive, whether legislative, executive or judicial, are vacated.” They had no legal or military authority to execute this decree, but it was proclaimed nonetheless.
Two days after voting to declare independence, delegates overwhelmingly approved an Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government of Virginia. On that afternoon, the delegates proposed “the immediate organization of volunteer companies in every county represented in the Convention, to support the State government as organized by this Convention.”
A portion of a state seceding from the rest of the state violated Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing that states shall not change their borders without legislative consent. The pro-Confederate Virginia legislature at Richmond would not consent, so to bypass this, the Wheeling delegates declared that the Virginia government had rendered itself illegitimate by seceding from the U.S.; therefore the new western Virginia regime was now the rightful “restored government” of all Virginia.
Establishing this “restored government” was approved on June 20, when delegates elected Francis H. Pierpont of Marion County the new governor of “restored” Virginia. Pierpont had gained wealth as a lawyer for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and from coal mine investments. He had never held an elected office before, but he strongly supported the Union, abolition, and the Lincoln administration.
Pierpont delivered a speech railing against the southern aristocracy that western Virginians so resented:
“A new doctrine has been introduced by those who are at the head of the revolution in our Southern States–that the people are not the source of all power. Those promulgating this doctrine have tried to divide the people into two classes; one they call the laboring class, the other the capital class. They have for several years been industriously propagating the idea that the capital of the country ought to represent the legislation of the country, and guide it and direct it; maintaining that it is dangerous for the labor of the country to enter into the legislation of the country. This, gentlemen, is the principle that has characterized the revolution that has been inaugurated in the South; they maintaining that those who are to have the privilege of voting ought to be of the educated class, and that the legislation ought not to be represented by the laboring classes.”
Pierpont asserted that his government was for all of Virginia, not just the counties that joined to elect him. He and his new regime petitioned the Lincoln administration, which supported this new entity, for official recognition. Meanwhile, delegates elected Daniel Polsey as the new lieutenant governor, and they named W.T. Willie and John S. Carlile, two men who had opposed secession at last month’s Virginia Convention in Richmond, as U.S. senators.
On June 21, delegates to the Wheeling Convention elected various state officials, including a new auditor, treasurer, and state legislature. The Merchants’ and Mechanics’ Bank of Wheeling would finance the new treasury. By proclaiming this new government to be the legitimate government of all Virginia, the delegates hoped to garner support from Unionists in the eastern part of the state.
However, most Virginians opposed this new western Virginia puppet government, and many argued that it had been unconstitutionally formed. Others cited the inconsistency in President Lincoln’s policy by supporting the secession of western Virginia from the rest of the state while opposing the secession of southern states from the U.S.
“Governor” Pierpont wrote to Lincoln, contending that “large numbers of evil-minded persons have banded together in military organizations with intent to overthrow the government of the State, and for that purpose have called to their aid like-minded persons from other States, who, in pursuance of such call, have invaded this commonwealth.” Pierpont accused the Confederate Armies of the Northwest and the Kanawha of “pressing citizens against their consent into their military organizations, and seizing and appropriating their property to aid in the rebellion.”
Acknowledging that he lacked “sufficient military force to suppress this rebellion and violence,” Pierpont was compelled, “as governor of this commonwealth, to call on the Government of the United States for aid to suppress such rebellion and violence.” Lincoln quickly recognized Pierpont’s administration as the de jure government of Virginia, and he authorized Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal troops to invade the region to protect the predominantly Unionist sentiment there.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16894; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 50, 52; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6303; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 128; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 37-39; Guelzo, Allen C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 633; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 84, 87; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 298; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 96; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 185, 816-17