A new history of Civil War–era West Virginia: Scott MacKenzie talks about The Fifth Border State

West Virginia University Press will publish Scott MacKenzie’s book The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872 on January 1. Here MacKenzie talks with William Hal Gorby, author of our book Wheeling’s Polonia: Reconstructing Polish Community in a West Virginia Steel Town.

Gorby: West Virginia Statehood is such an intriguing story. What new perspectives do you hope to bring to this popular narrative?

MacKenzie: My goal was to un-intrigue the history of West Virginia’s formation. For 160 years, every book on the subject has explained the event in only one way. Inherent cultural, economic, social, and political differences, it goes, led the free labor-oriented counties of northwestern Virginia to separate from the slave plantation-based east at the start of the Civil War. This thesis has two flaws. First, it underestimates how much the region’s white population supported slavery. Given that the ‘peculiar institution’ caused the conflict, it is impossible that it played little or no role in the state’s genesis. Second, it focuses too closely on intra-state relations while neglecting possible broader contexts. Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware also believed that the remaining within the Union better protected slavery than seceding from it. I think that West Virginia formed for the same reason, differing from the others only in not being a state yet. My approach should prompt serious rethinking about the subject within the state and in the wider academic field.

Most people think slavery did not play much of a role in Western Virginia before the Civil War, but your book shows this general assumption is not correct. What role did the institution of slavery play here?

The “peculiar institution,” I believe, held Virginia together throughout the antebellum period. Whites in each of its regions supported the enslavement of Africans. The relatively low numbers of slaves in the northwest, between two and six percent of the population depending how one defined the future state’s borders, mattered not. Whites there still protected slavery from internal and external threats. Preventing escapes required constant surveillance of the enslaved. The east’s unwillingness to entrust westerners with slavery formed the state’s major internal dividing line. Westerners chafed at the property requirements for voting that privileged the more populous, due to slavery, eastern counties. Yet, despite using pro-slavery arguments, they failed to overturn them in the 1829-30 constitutional debates. Their frustration did not, however, lead to separationist sentiments. Indeed, when they employed the same tactic in 1851, the new constitution healed the state’s divisions. The charter not only granted suffrage to the state’s white men but placed not one but two northwesterners on the governor’s ballot that year. White unity, therefore, came on the backs of the enslaved.

External threats to slavery arose in the 1850s. I discovered that the northwest’s white citizens chose to protect their state and the institution amidst the rising sectional tensions in that decade. Previous studies relied too much on the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, long the main source for West Virginia’s early history. This Republican-oriented anti-slavery newspaper in fact represented only a tiny minority of the population. The more conservative Democratic majority expressed a strong commitment towards enslavement. Subsequently, northwestern whites used their votes against anti-slavery threats such as the Ceredo Colony in Wayne County, the Know-Nothing Party, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the pivotal 1860 presidential election. So, I concluded that instead of opposing its state, the northwest leapt to its defense. Few could have predicted that the region would separate only months after Abraham Lincoln became president. And yet it happened.

We often think of the statehood figures as a unified group of like-minded, principled men. But your book shows how diverse and complex the group was in terms of their views on politics, economic development, and slavery. What stands out to you the most about the people who helped create West Virginia?

My biggest realization came when I restructured the statehood movement into two distinct phases. Previous historians saw it as one process as Unionists resisting secession in 1861, drafting a state constitution in 1862, the congressional debates later that year, and finally achieving statehood in June 1863. The examples of the Border States allowed me to bifurcate the timing. The first phase occurred between April 1861 and March 1862, when President Lincoln kept the borderlands in the Union by pledging to protect slavery. The enslaved of course had other ideas. The West Virginia statemakers, guided by Governor Francis Pierpont and Senator John S. Carlile, used Lincoln’s graces to form a new slave state out of the Union-occupied northwestern counties. Some spirited debates may have emerged in the constitutional convention, but they made rapid progress by keeping slavery off the agenda.  Whenever the topic emerged, the delegates immediately moved on to other topics. Yet, when they held a poll on one such motion in February 1862, it failed by a single vote. The whole statehood movement could have collapsed at this point. Fortunately, a compromise that forbade Blacks from entering the state allowed the constitution to go forth. Had the matter ended there, then Carlile would be known today as the father of West Virginia.

Lincoln’s plan to end slavery in the Border States started the second phase. In March 1862, he announced a scheme for compensated emancipation in those areas. Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and even tiny Delaware famously rejected his idea. West Virginia, contrary to its proslavery history, supported it. Why? I argue that the near-miss vote exposed a division among the statemakers.  The radicals rose to power after seeing conservative Unionists associate with secessionist kin or otherwise fail to support federal and state policies. The West Virginians in Congress responded by backing Lincoln’s plan.  Contrary to popular belief, the Republicans did not force emancipation on the new state. Instead, Senator Waitman Willey and other radicals encouraged Lincoln to make their state end slavery. Carlile tried to stop them, but the movement abandoned him to infamy. In December 1862, the President happily signed the statehood bill to reward the radicals for supporting his otherwise failed plan. West Virginia thus became a free state on June 20, 1863. The story does not end there, of course. The radicals spent the next decade battling their conservative enemies over their support for emancipation.  Their ultimate victory explains why the moderate Pierpont and not the radical Willey became known as the father of the state

One of my big takeaways is that we all need to pay more attention to the role of Reconstruction in the Mountain State, which was a very divisive time period after the war. Issues related to the voting process and fears of political violence were rampant. What lessons should we take away from West Virginia’s experience during Reconstruction? And how did it influence our history moving forward?

I call the post-war period redemption instead of Reconstruction. The federal government exempted the five border states from its postwar policy since loyal Unionists already ruled them. Still, West Virginia endured massive divisions during its first decade. Governor Arthur Boreman’s radicals faced a coalition of conservative Unionists and returning Confederates eager to purge the new state of those who upset the racial hierarchy. Boreman, however, kept them at bay by limiting suffrage and other public activities to loyal citizens. Yet, he also kept his radical base intact by avoiding the race issue.  For example, he off-loaded Black education on to the federal Freedman’s Bureau. It worked. Boreman and his party retained power from 1863 to 1869 amidst sometimes violent opposition. To my surprise, their demise came from external and not internal forces. The passage of the 14th and 15th amendments in 1867 and 1869, respectively, weakened the radical party. My Border State comparisons revealed how this process worked. While conservatives ruled Kentucky and Delaware, Maryland and Missouri remained radical. The mere threat of the 14th Amendment, which granted Black citizenship, caused the overthrow of Maryland’s radicals. Two years later, the 15th Amendment on Black suffrage split Missouri’s Unionists into mainstream and “let-up” factions who favored relaxing bans on the former rebels. West Virginia managed to avoid Maryland’s fate but underwent that same process as Missouri. The subsequent conservative redemption brought about the 1872 Constitution that still governs the Mountain State today. One cannot, therefore, understand how West Virginia became a state by stopping on June 20, 1863. The post-war redemption shaped its future is equally important.

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