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  • Voting with Their ArmsCivil War Military Enlistments and the Formation of West Virginia, 1861–1865
  • Scott A. MacKenzie (bio)

Few today associate West Virginia with slavery. Dating back to the state's formation in 1863, historians have asserted that the loyal mountaineer population rejected Virginia's secession because the western part of the state had virtually no connection to the "peculiar institution." On his inauguration day, the new state's first governor affirmed a thesis about West Virginia's formation that persists to this day. Arthur I. Boreman opined in his inaugural address that eastern neglect led to the state's formation. Representatives from eastern Virginia exercised disproportionate influence at the state capitol in Richmond and, he argued, used tax revenue to support improvements in their part of the state at the expense of the western counties. The region, he concluded, had more in common with neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania than Virginia. Western resistance to secession was, therefore, preordained. Boreman mentioned slavery only twice, and downplayed its importance on both occasions. Secessionists claimed, he said, that adherence to the Union would reduce men "to a state of degradation worse than slavery itself." He then asked loyal unionists, "Shall we object that slavery is destroyed as the result of the acts of those in rebellion, if the Union is thereby saved?" West Virginia's independence and free status disproved both sentiments. His words have influenced views of the Mountain State's history ever since.1

If what Boreman said was true, then West Virginia was the only part of the United States unaffected by the leading cause of the Civil War. His fellow citizens viewed the matter differently. He presided over a divided population; secessionists believed his administration to be the illegitimate product of collaboration with the abolitionist Lincoln administration. Many unionists felt the same way. One issue drove those who sided with the Confederacy: slavery. Contrary to Boreman's claims, slavery influenced West Virginia's history disproportionately to its numbers. With only 5 percent of its population enslaved, its white population lived comfortably with the presence of bondsmen and women. Being proud Virginians gave them no reason to oppose the institution and good ones to support it. In 1861, secession forced whites to choose between siding with Lincoln and following their state into the Confederacy. The examples of six West Virginia counties that had both Union and Confederate enlistees demonstrate the powerful influences of slavery and slaveholding on choosing sides. These factors disprove Boreman's statements and suggest new questions about the Mountain State's formation. [End Page 25]

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Map of the Proposed State of New Virginia. New York Herald, May 18, 1861.


In West Virginia's history, slavery always mattered. The first bondsmen and women, though in limited numbers, came with the earliest white settlers in the 1780s. Masters tended to rank among the region's more prominent citizens. The first federal census, in 1790, recorded between 3 and 5 percent of the populations as enslaved of the only counties in the region at the time, Ohio, Monongalia, and Harrison. In 1850, the then thirty-five counties contained seven thousand enslaved persons (4 percent); the numbers had declined to six thousand (or 3 percent) a decade later. The geographic distribution, however, varied widely. Table 1, below, indicates the proportion of slaves in each of the six counties in my sample. Jefferson and Hampshire each had above the average numbers with one-quarter and one-tenth of their respective populations enslaved. Wayne and Cabell had roughly the average ratios with between 2 and 6 percent. Ohio and Monongalia each had less than 1 percent, a nearly imperceptible number. Moreover, each sampled county, save Ohio, had negligible numbers of foreign-born persons. Non-southerners, especially foreigners, possessed less familiarity with slavery. More outsiders could, native-born Virginians feared, fail to support the institution. The low numbers of each meant that they need not have worried.2

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Table 1.

Total, enslaved, and foreign-born populations in sampled counties, 1850 and 1860.

[End Page 26]

Eastern Virginians did worry about their western neighbors. Tidewater...


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