- Mountaineers Becoming Free:Emancipation and Statehood in West Virginia
In December 1862, newly minted colonel Joseph Warren Keifer led the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry into the mountains of northwestern Virginia. It was a lonesome post. The Ohioans kept busy with drills and patrols along the South Branch of the Potomac River, but mainly they struggled to keep warm. Their frozen corner of the Civil War seemed as strategically removed from the carnage of Fredericksburg and Murfreesboro as it was socially remote from the plantations of the sunny South. But even in Appalachian hills and hollows, slavery’s collapse unfolded with as much complexity and poignancy as in any province of the Cotton Kingdom. Keifer glimpsed this drama on December 30 when a runaway slave named Andrew Jackson arrived, befriended the colonel, and signed on as his aide-de-camp. Keifer’s brumal encounters with slavery and liberation continued over the next two days—red-letter days for West Virginia statehood and antislavery activism. By early 1863, the nascent state seemed poised to fulfill its motto: “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”
New Year’s Eve found Keifer’s regiment slogging over a snowy mountain pass. After resuming the frigid march on January 1, the dispirited colonel heard shouts from the tail of the column. Fearing an attack, he rode back to investigate and found an unforgettable scene. Through the falling snow, Keifer watched his fiercely abolitionist commanding officer, General Robert H. Milroy,
riding along the line of troops and halting at intervals as though to briefly address the men. . . . He had his hat and sword in his right hand, and with the other guided his horse at a reckless gallop through the snow, his tall form, shocky white hair fluttering in the storm, and evident agitation making a figure most picturesque and striking. . . . A natural impediment in his speech, affecting him most when excited, caused some delay in his first vehement utterance. He said: “Colonel, don’t you know that this is Emancipation Day, when all slaves will be made free?” He then turned to the [End Page 37] halted troops and again broke forth: “This day President Lincoln will proclaim the freedom of four millions of human slaves, the most important event in the history of the world since Christ was born. . . . Hereafter we shall prosecute the war to establish and perpetuate liberty for all mankind beneath the flag; and the Lord God Almighty will fight on our side, and he is a host, and the Union armies will triumph.”
Inspired, the weary Ohioans responded with “voiceful demonstrations” upon that “summit of the Appalachian chain on this cold and stormy mid-winter morning.”1 They were unaware that Lincoln had signed a statehood bill the previous day. But as they celebrated, the rocky soil beneath their feet was fast becoming West Virginia.
Would the Buckeyes have cheered if they had known that the proclamation excluded large swaths of slave territory, including “the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia”?2 Did these infamous exemptions belie Milroy’s eloquence? Since 1863, diverse critics have cited them to gainsay the proclamation’s significance. They echo William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, who griped about “emancipating the slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”3 From this angle, the content and context of Milroy’s oratory might seem perverse. But consider another of Seward’s remarks: “the emancipation proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Sumter and we [in Washington] have been the last to hear it.”4 Seward knew that emancipation was a process, not an event. He recognized that it commenced in the field in 1861, not in Washington in 1863. These insights are essential for rethinking how emancipation unfolded on exempted terrain.
Precisely because of their exemption from the proclamation, West Virginia mountaintops offer an enlightening perspective on slavery, war, and liberation. This article braids themes of emancipation, statehood, and regional identity to make three interrelated arguments. First, the demise of US slavery cannot be understood through official documents alone. Slavery’s downfall began within weeks of Fort Sumter, and its death throes continued long...