Virginia Ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment

February 9, 1865 (Thursday)

On this date in 1865, the state of Virginia ratified the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, outlawing slavery. This might seem strange since Richmond, Virginia was where the Confederates made their capitol. This was, however, not the Confederate government of Virginia helmed by Governor John Letcher, but the “Restored Government of Virginia” headed by Francis Harrison Pierpont, seen by many as the “Father of West Virginia.” But neither was this the West Virginia government, based out of Wheeling.

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Governor Pierpont was from what is now Morgantown, West Virginia. When Governor Letcher led the state of Virginia (which, at that time, included all of what would later be known as West Virginia) out of the Union, Pierpont was just coming up in politics. He was an ardent Lincoln supporter and became the provisional Governor of the Restored Government of Virginia in 1861.

At that point, with a few exceptions, it included most of the western counties of old Virginia. They met in Wheeling until 1863, when West Virginia became a state, electing Arthur Boreman as governor, even though it was Pierpont who established it. But this did not put Pierpont out of a job.

The original Restored Government was actually supposed to cover the entier state of old Virginia. When West Virginia was formed, Pierpont, who had been elected Governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, remained governor of Virginia, and was re-elected to that position. The capital was moved from Wheeling to Alexandria, a city that had always been controled by the Federals.

This new Restored Government controled any of the area held by Union troops, which included not only Alexandria, but about ten counties around Norfolk and the coast. Some counties themsevles were divided, sending representatives to both Alexandria and Richmond.

In early 1864, Pierpont called a Constitutional Convention. Among other things, they debated whether to emancipate the slave immediately or gradually, and whether slave owners would be compensated for their loss. Four of the delegates, as well as the Convention President, were slave owners. Yet, all voted to abolish slavery immediately. The lone vote against was cast by a farmer who apparently did not own slaves.

It read: “Slavery or involuntary servitude (except for crime) is hereby abolished and prohibited in the State forever. … The General Assembly shall make no law established slavery or recognizing property in human beings.”

Loyal Virginia’s incredibly small assembly was in session when the United States Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. On February 8, all five of the present State Senators voted in its favor (with one member absent). On this date, the House of Delegates voted the same, nine to two in favor.

Though few counted Virginia’s Unionist government as any more than pretend, they were good enough for Secretary of State William Seward, who marked them down as ratifying the amendment on this date. With that, Virginia joined Illinois, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, Maine, Kansas, and Massachusetts. Five more states would jump on this wagon before the month was out.1



  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Plan of Reconstruction by Charles McCarthy; Constitution of Virginia, 1864; “Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Encyclopedia Virginia; Statue of Governor Francis Harrison Pierpont published by the United States Congress. []

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