Western Virginians Meet to Form a New State; War Against Missouri

Tuesday, June 11, 1861

Following the defeat of the Rebels at Philippi, the movers and shakers in western Virginia politics met to decide the fate of their counties. They had met previously in May and resolved to hold a secession convention of their own, should Virginia leave the Union. Over 400 delegates met on May 13, many desirous for a state of their own. A contingent from Wood County flew a banner that read, “New Virginia, Now or Never!” Others, however, thought it best to wait, fearing they would be committing “triple treason” first against the United States, then Virginia and then the Confederate States.

At the First Wheeling Convention, a compromise was agreed upon. They would adjourn, wait for Virginia’s secession and, if it came, they would elect delegates to meet again on June 11.1

The thirty-nine counties of western Virginia were represented by seventy-seven representatives. Of the 44,000 western Virginia citizens who voted on June 4 May 23, 40,000 were against secession. In some counties along the Ohio River, the ratio was 22:1 against. Since Virginia had already left the Union, the only thing to do would be for western Virginia to form a new state and rejoin it.

On this date, they met in Washington Hall. While they officially met on June 11, no business, not even that of electing a Convention President, was decided. That would come the next day. For the time being, however, it was enough that they were in Wheeling, ready to secede from secession.2

__________________

This Means War!

While those in western Virginia wanted their part of Virginia as their own state, in Missouri, Union General Nathaniel Lyon wanted the whole state. After he wrangled General Harney out of his position as Commander of the Department of the West, Washington decided that Missouri would fair better as part of the Department of the Ohio, under General McClellan.

Though Lyon was still the new commander of the Department of the West, in Missouri, he was under the command of General McClellan. On this date, however, he was unaware of such a change.

After Missouri secessionist General Sterling Price learned of Harney’s removal, he sought a meeting with General Lyon to learn what his opinion upon the established truce between Union and Missouri forces.

Missouri’s Governor Jackson, an open secessionist, and General Price met with Lyon and Col. Francis Blair, brother of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, on this date in St. Louis at the Planter’s House hotel. The conference lasted for four hours.

Governor Jackson stated that he wanted a disarmament on both sides, for Missouri to be neutral and for Union troops to leave the state. However, General Price had already requested the Governor to seek Confederate help. The secessionist Missouri State Guard, at this point, was no match for the 11,000 Union troops under Lyon. The only way to avoid defeat was to avoid conflict.

Lyon countered Jackson’s proposal, saying that if the United States forces were removed, the secessionists would take over Missouri, and the rebellion would go unopposed in a supposedly “neutral” state. He then proposed that the only way to truly have peace was for both the State and Federal governments to join together to put down the insurrection. He, of course, knew that would never happen.

The Governor proposed that the meeting should adjourn and they should continue this discussion through written correspondence. Lyon, however, refused and stood up to leave.

As he was walking out, he turned around and said to Jackson and Price:

Rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter however important, I would see you, and you, and you and you, and every man, woman and child in the State, dead and buried! This means War!

Lyon stormed out. The Governor and General Price returned to Jefferson City.3

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Don’t Forget Lew Wallace

Meanwhile, back east, Union Col. Lew Wallace (later author of Ben Hur) and his 11th Indiana Zouave Regiment, over 800 strong, arrived in Cumberland, Maryland from Grafton, western Virgina. Though there was a secessionist militia rumored to be near, he found his regiment to be “kindly and hospitably received.”

Because he was well in advance of the rest of General McClellan’s command, he wrote to General Patterson in Chambersburg, southern Pennsylvania, informing him of his whereabouts and plans. His men, said Wallace, were “keen for the contest.”

Worried that since his Zouaves were not under Patterson’s direct command, Wallace wrote “with an earnest expression of the hope that you will not forget me when you advance upon Harpers Ferry and Richmond, if such be your aim.”4



  1. Semi-Centennial History of West Virginia by James Morton Callahan, 1913. []
  2. History of West Virginia by Virgil Anson Lewis, Hubbard Bros., 1887. []
  3. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, and Missouri in 1861 by James Peckham, 1866. This book is very pro-Lyon to the point of worship. However, the report from the meeting can probably be trusted. The quote at the end, however, comes from Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p676. []
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Western Virginians Meet to Form a New State; War Against Missouri by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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3 thoughts on “Western Virginians Meet to Form a New State; War Against Missouri

  1. I’m afraid the statistic you quoted on the West Virginia vote on secession is incorrect. The vote was approximately 32-34,000 against and 19-20,000 in favor. See Richard O. Curry’s “A House Divided”, 1964, Univ. Pittsburgh Press.

    1. I believe those figures tally the vote of 50 counties that formed the western portion of Virginia, right? There are 55 counties today in West Virginia, but only 25 that were represented in the first Convention and 32 in the second. At any rate, the figures I gave were for 39 counties and were not exact (obviously).

      Besides, weren’t many of the election returns lost and/or covered up by Gov. Letcher? Additionally, the method of voting was by voice, which allowed for intimidation (on both sides). Unfortunately, while we can bend figures and stats all we like, we’ll never know the true number of the vote or feelings of the western Virginians.

      Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I originally had the date of June 4 for the vote. It was, of course, May 23. I probably got turned around over the election in Ohio county on that date.

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