Chapter IX - The Ordinance of Secession

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 127-135

Although West Virginia at the time was a part of Virginia, it refused to go with the majority of the people of that state in seceding from the United States and joining the Southern Confederacy. The circumstances attending that refusal constitute an important chapter in the history of West Virginia. Elsewhere in this book, m speaking of the constitution of this and the mother state, reference is made to the differences in sentiment and interests between the people west of the Alleghanies and those east of that range. The ordinance of secession was the rock upon which Virginia was broken in twain. It was the occasion of the west's separating from the east. The territory which ought to have been a separate state at the time Kentucky became one, seized the opportunity of severing the political ties which had long bound it, somewhat unwillingly, to the Old Dominion. Virginia, after the war, invited the new state to reunite with it, but a polite reply was sent, that West Virginia preferred to retain its statehood. The sentiment in favor of separation did not spring up at once. It had been growing for three quarters of a century. Before the close of the Revolutionary war the subject had attracted such attention that a report on the subject was made by a committee in congress. But many years before that time a movement for a new state west of the Alleghanies had been inaugurated by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and others, some of whom were interested in land on the Kanawha and elsewhere. The new state was to be named Vandalia, and the capital was to be at the mouth of the Great Kanawha. The movement for a new state really began there, and never afterwards slept; and finally, in 1863, it was accomplished, after no less than ninety-three years of agitation.

The legislature of Virginia met in extra session January 7, 1861. The struggle had begun. The rebels had not yet opened their batteries on Fort Sumpter, but the South had plainly spoken its defiance. The Southern Confederacy was forming. The elements of resistance were getting together. The storm of war was about to break upon the country. States further south had seceded or had decided to do so. Virginia had not yet decided. Its people were divided. The state hesitated. If it joined the confederacy, it would be the battle ground in the most gigantic war the world ever saw. It was the gateway by which the armies of the north would invade the south. Some affected to believe, perhaps some did believe, that there would be no war; that the south would not be invaded; that the north would not go beyond argument. But the people of better judgment foresaw the storm, and they knew where it would break, The final result, no man foresaw. Many hoped; many doubted; but at that time no man saw what four years would bring forth. Thus, Virginia hesitated long before she cast her fortunes, with the states already in rebellion. When she took the fatal step; when she fought as only the brave can fight; when she was crushed by weight rather than vanquished, she accepted the result, and emerged from the smoke of battle, still great; and like Carthage of old, her splendor seemed only the more conspicuous by the desolation which, war had brought.

The Virginia legislature called a convention to meet at Richmond February 13, 1861. The time was short, but the crisis was at hand, The flame was kindling. Meetings were being held in all the eastern part of the state, and the people were nearly unanimous in their demand that the state join the Confederacy. At least, few opposed this demand; but at that time it is probable that one-half of the people of the state opposed secession. But rebellion was in the saddle and it held the reins. Richmond had gone mad. It was the center of a whirlpool of insurrection. West of the Alleghany mountains the scene was different. The mass of the people did not at once grasp the situation. They knew the signs of the times were strange; that currents were drifting to a center; but that war was at hand of gigantic magnitude, and that the state of Virginia was "choosing that day whom she would serve," were not clearly understood at the outset. But, as the great truth dawned, and as its lurid light became brighter, West Virginia was not slow in choosing whom she would serve. The people assembled in their towns, and a number of meetings were held, even before the convening of the special session of the legislature, and there was but one sentiment expressed, and that was loyalty to the government. Preston county held the first meeting, November 12, 1860; Harrison county followed the twenty-sixth of the same month; two days later the people of Monongalia assembled to discuss and take measures; a. similar gathering took place in Taylor county, December 4; and another in Wheeling ten days later; and on the seventh of the January following there was a meeting in Mason county.

On January 21 the Virginia legislature declared by resolution that, unless the differences between the two sections of the country could be reconciled, it was Virginia's duty to join the confederacy. That resolution went side by side with the call for an election of delegate to the Richmond convention, which was to "take measures." The election was held February 4, 1861, and nine days later the memorable convention assembled. Little time had been given for a campaign. Western Virginia sent men who were the peers of any from the eastern part of the state. The following delegates were chosen from the territory now forming West Virginia: Barbour county, Samuel Woods; Braxton and Nicholas, B. W. Byrne; Berkeley, Edmund Pendleton and Allen C. Hammond; Brooke, Campbell Tarr; Cabell, William McComas; Doddridge and Tyler, Chapman J. Stuart; Fayette and Raleigh, Henry L. Gillespie; Greenbrier, Samuel Price; Gilmer and Wirt, C. B. Conrad; Hampshire, David Pugh and Edmund M. Armstrong; Hancock, George M. Porter; Harrison, John S. Carlisle and Benjamin Wilson; Hardy, Thomas Maslin; Jackson and Roane, Franklin P. Turner; Jefferson, Alfred M. Barbour and Logan Osburn; Kanawha, Spicer Patrick and George W. Summers; Lewis, Caleb Boggess; Logan, Boone and Wyoming, James Lawson; Marion, Ephriam B. Hall and Alpheus S. Haymond; Marshall, James Burley; Mason, James H. Crouch; Mercer, Napoleon B. French; Monongalia, Wait man T. Willey and Marshall M. Dent; Monroe, John Echols and Allen T. Caperton; Morgan, Johnson Orrick; Ohio, Chester D. Hubbard and Sherard Clemens; Pocahontas, Paul McNeil; Preston, William G. Brown and James C. McGrew; Putnam, James W. Hoge; Ritchie, Cyrus Hall; Randolph and Tucker, J. N. Hughes; Taylor, John S. Burdette; Upshur, George W. Berlin; Wetzel, L. S. Hall; Wood, General John J. Jackson; Wayne, Burwell Spurlock.

When the convention met, it was doubtful if a majority were in favor of secession. At any rate, the leaders in that movement, who had caused the convention to be called for that express purpose, appeared afraid to push the question to a vote, and from that day began the work which ultimately succeeded in winning over enough delegates, who at first were opposed to secession, to carry the state into the confederacy.

There were forty-six delegates from the counties now forming West Virginia. Nine of these voted for the ordinance of secession, seven were absent, one was excused, and twenty-nine voted against it. The principal leaders among the West Virginia delegates who opposed secession, were J. C. McGrew, of Preston county; George W. Summers of Kanawha county; General John J. Jackson of Wood county; Chester D. Hubbard of Ohio county, and Waitman T. Willey of Monongalia county. Willey was the leader of the leaders. He employed all the eloquence of which he was master, and all the reason and logic he could command to check the rush into what he clearly saw was disaster. No man of feeble courage could have taken the stand which he took in that convention. The agents from the states already in rebellion were in Richmond urging the people to cry out for secession, and the people were not unwilling agents in pushing the designs of the Southern Confederacy. The convention held out for a month against the clamor, and so fierce became the populace that delegates who opposed secession were threatened with personal assault and were in danger of assassination. The peril and the clamor induced many delegates who had been loyal to go over to the confederacy. But the majority held out in spite of threats, insults and dangers. In the front was General John J. Jackson, one of West Virginia's most venerable citizens. He was of the material which never turns aside from danger. A cousin of Stonewall Jackson, he had seen active service in the field before Stonewall was born. He had fought the Seminoles in Florida, and had been a member of General Andrew Jackson's staff. He had been intrusted by the government with important and dangerous duties before he was old enough to vote. He had traversed the wilderness on horseback and alone, between Florida and Kentucky, performing in this manner a circuitous journey of three thousand miles, much of it among the camps and over the hunting grounds of treacherous Indians. Innured to dangers and accustomed to peril, he was not the man to flinch or give ground before the clamor and threats of the Richmond populace, aided and backed by the most fiery spirits of the south. He stood up for the union; spoke for if; urged the convention to pause on the brink of the abyss before taking the leap. He risked his life for the honor of his state and country in those days of peril, and he stood to his guns until he saw that Virginia had taken the leap into the dark. Another heroic worker in the famous convention was Judge G. W. Summers of Charleston. He was in the city of Washington attending a "Peace Conference" when he received news that the people of Kanawha county had elected him a delegate to the Richmond convention. He hurried to Richmond and opposed with all his powers the ordinance of secession. A speech which he delivered against that measure has been pronounced the most powerful heard in the convention.

On March 2 Mr. Willey made a remarkable speech in the convention. He announced that his purpose was not to reply to the arguments of the disunionists, but to defend the right of free speech which Richmond, out of the halls of the convention and in, was trying to stifle by threats and derision. He warned the people that when free speech is silenced liberty is no longer a realty, but a mere mockery. He then took up the secession question, although he had not intended to do so when he began speaking, and he presented in so forcible a manner the arguments against secession that he made a profound impression upon the convention. During the whole of that month the secessionists were baffled. They could not break down the opposition. Arguments had failed; threats had not succeeded. But on the other hand, the loyal members of the convention could not carry their point, and it was thus a deadlock until late in April. Secession then carried the day and Virginia, on April 17, 1861, took the plunge into the abyss, from which she was not to extricate herself until the flood of war, with ail its horrors and ruin, had swept over her and left her fields unbilled, her prosperity crushed and her homes desolate.

The next day, April 18, a number of delegates from Western Virginia declared that they would not abide by the action of the convention. Amid the roar of Richmond run mad, they began to consult among themselves what course to pursue. They were watched by the secessionists, and it was evident that their season of usefulness in Virginia's capital was at an end. On April 20 several of the West Virginians met secretly in a bed room of the Powhatan hotel and decided, that nothing more could be. done by them at Richmond to hinder or defeat the secession movement. They agreed to return home and urge their constituents to vote against the ordinance of secession at the election set for May 24. They began to depart for their homes. Some had gotten safely out of Richmond and beyond the reach of the confederates before it became known that the western delegates were leaving. Others were still in Richmond, and a plan was formed to keep them prisoners in the city; not in jail, but they were required to obtain passes from the governor before leaving the city. It was correctly surmised that the haste shown by these delegates in taking their departure was due to their determination to stir up opposition to the ordinance of secession in the western part of the state. But when it was learned that most of the western delegates had already left Richmond, it was deemed unwise to detain the few who yet remained, and they were permitted to depart, which they did without loss of time.

The passage of the ordinance of secession was a farce, so far as the leaders who pushed it through the convention were concerned. They intended to drag or drive Virginia into the Southern Confederacy, no matter whether the ordinance carried or not. They laid great stress on being constitutional in what they did in seceding from the union; but they violated both the letter and the spirit of their state constitution when they called a convention for purposes of secession; when they kept that ordinance a secret for many days after its passage; when they acted upon it as though it had been ratified by the people, not only before it had been voted upon, but before the people of Virginia knew that such a thing as an ordinance of secession was in existence. It was passed in secret session. It was kept secret for several days, There are crises in human affairs when men may act contrary to the strict letter of the law, when the end clearly justifies the means, and when the end can be reached by no other means. Every individual man may at some time in his life be called upon, in a sudden and momentous emergency, to become a law unto himself; and bodies of men may meet similar emergencies; and if they are right, no injustice will result. But the emergency had not come to the state of Virginia which justified the dragging of that state into the Southern Confederacy without the knowledge or consent of the people.

Before the people knew that an ordinance of secession had passed, the convention began to levy war upon the United States. Before the seal of secrecy had been removed from the proceedings of that body, large appropriations for military purposes had been made. Officers were appointed, troops were armed; forts and arsenals belonging to the general government had been seized. The arsenal at Harper's Ferry and that at Norfolk had fallen before attacks of Virginia troops before the people of that state knew that they were no longer regarded as citizens of the United States. Nor was this all. The convention, still in secret session, without the knowledge or consent of the people of Virginia, had annexed that state to the Southern Confederacy. It was all done with the presumption that the people of the state would sustain the ordinance of secession when they had learned of its existence and when they were given an opportunity to vote upon it. In fact, it was a part of the conspiracy that the convention should see to it that the' ordinance was sustained at the polls. Every precaution was taken to that end. The election came May 24, 1861; and before that day there were thirty thousand soldiers in the state east of the Alleghanies, and troops had been pushed across the mountains into Western Virginia. The majority of votes cast in the state were in favor of ratifying the ordinance of secession; but West Virginia voted against it. Eastern Virginia was carried by storm. The excitement was intense. The cry was for war, if any attempt should be made to hinder Virginia's going into the Southern Confederacy. Many men whose sober judgment was opposed to secession, were swept into it by their surroundings. That portion of the state of Virginia lying east of the Alleghanies would probably have voted for secession had no troops come up from the south to assist by their presence the spread of disloyalty. As it was, few men cared to vote against that measure while confederate bayonets were gleaming around the polls. Before the day of election the general government had taken steps to invade Virginia. The President had called for seventy-five thousand volunteers. Federal troops had crossed, or were preparing to cross, the Potomac to seize Arlington heights and Alexandria; and when the time came for voting, the war had begun, and Virginia became one of the states of the Southern Confederacy.

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