Most Virginians strongly supported the leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy. But this was not the case in the small northwestern section of Virginia which, due to his mountainous landscape, had very few slaves and strong economic ties to northern states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Unionists who dominated this region condemned their state’s secession, and the recent Federal victory at Philippi emboldened them to do something about it.
On June 11, a delegation representing 39 of Virginia’s northwestern counties assembled at Washington Hall in Wheeling. The delegates were nearly unanimous in opposing Virginia’s secession, but they were divided on what should be done about it. Some wanted western Virginia to secede from the rest of the state and join the Union as a new state; others simply wanted to form a “restored” Unionist government of Virginia, to be recognized by the Federal government as the rightful state authority.
A Committee of Business was formed “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 the Virginia convention that had approved secession 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 (secession) Convention and Executive, whether legislative, executive or judicial, are vacated.”
The delegates overwhelmingly approved the Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government of Virginia, and then resolved to enforce it by calling for “the immediate organization of volunteer companies in every county represented in the Convention, to support the State government as organized by this Convention.” Although the delegates had no legal or military right to vacate public offices and declare themselves the true state authority, they argued that the popularly elected Virginia government had rendered itself illegitimate by seceding from the U.S., and consequently this new western Virginia contingent was now the rightful “restored government” of all Virginia.
Establishing this “restored government” was approved on the 20th, when delegates elected Francis H. Pierpont of Marion County the new governor of Virginia. Pierpont was a wealthy coal mine investor and lawyer for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He had never held an elected office before, but he strongly supported the Union, abolition, and the Lincoln administration. In his acceptance speech, Pierpont delighted western Virginians by railing against the southern aristocracy that they had long 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 the 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 without the consent of the majority of Virginians.
“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 in western Virginia 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 to use military force to protect the predominantly Unionist sentiment there.
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