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  • “Like a Dark Cloud”: Loyalty, Virtue, and War in Western Virginia, 1861–1863
  • Charles R. Welsko

In January 1861, a printed circular from Samuel Woods announcing his candidacy to represent Barbour County at the Virginia Secession Convention made its way through the local community. The lawyer, an emigrant to Barbour County twelve years earlier from Maine, had a simple message. The Constitution, that sacred document “made by the patriots and sages of the revolution, to secure equal rights to all the States,” had been “trampled under foot by most of the nonslaveholding States.” From that abuse, predominately stemming from the North’s reluctance to return escaped slaves and prohibiting the extension of slavery from expanding westward, western Virginians, along with the rest of Virginia, had a choice to make. Civil war, he argued, loomed over the nation “like a dark cloud of desolation and national ruin,” compelling Virginia to demand the preservation of her rights. If the federal government failed to maintain those rights through a compromise including amendments to the Constitution preserving states’ rights, Woods asserted it would be necessary for all Virginians to prioritize their “allegiance” to the state of Virginia, abandon the Union, and join the Southern Confederacy. Through this circular, Woods affirmed that his primary loyalty rested with the state of Virginia, over that of the Federal Union. By mid-April 1861, Woods and eighty-seven other Virginians confirmed that interpretation of allegiance by voting to support secession, which pushed the Old Dominion into the Confederacy.1

Woods was not alone in his use of the term loyalty, as competing notions of allegiance dominated the discourses of western Virginians from Lincoln’s election through the creation of West Virginia as the thirty-fifth state in the Union.2 Secessionists and Unionists alike used the idea of loyalty as a means of referencing their relationship to the conflict, as well as a lens through which they viewed their friends, family, allies, enemies, communities, and nation. As Woods foretold, the dark clouds that hovered over America’s future [End Page 45] in the winter and spring of 1861 brought forth a bitter spell of civil war and destruction. For western Virginians, that war brought its own foreboding portents in the form of conflicting allegiances that generated intense and derisive sentiments that hung over the region throughout the war.3

A wide and impressive breadth of scholarship already chronicles much of the interconnected history of secession, unionism, and West Virginia statehood.4 This article seeks not to supplant those narratives but rather to flesh out newer understandings of how, during those events, individuals conceptualized the meaning and nature of loyalty. In any civil war, competing notions of loyalty and treason are common. As William Blair has recently acknowledged, it is difficult not to find mention of treason (and inversely, loyalty) in newspapers or personal correspondences during the war years.5 It should come as no surprise then that examinations of loyalty are nothing new among historians, and regional studies have produced varied approaches to this subject. For scholars of the Civil War North, defending a specific socioeconomic, political, or ethnic subgroup of the population has been a common trend. They argue that such groups (often Northern Democrats or “Copperheads”) were in fact loyal elements of society intentionally misrepresented for political or economic gain.6 Comparatively, in examinations of loyalty in Southern or border states, historians place the focus more on categorizing and explaining the complex factors that drove individuals to support unionism or secessionism.7 Historians of Appalachia and the divided communities in eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, and western Virginia have similarly stressed the complexity of factors that drove men and women into Unionist or Secessionist camps. For these Appalachian historians, everything from place of birth to partisan background, economic orientation, kinship, and religion have helped explain the loyalty of their subjects.8 Collectively these historians have offered us broad and insightful interpretations of loyalty, astutely explaining how specific parts of the American public experienced or divided along the lines of competing allegiances. Yet, as Blair’s recent study of Northerners’ conceptualizations of treason demonstrates, our discussion of loyalty has room to expand. For western Virginians...


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