Local author speaks to Elkins Rotary
ELKINS – Local author and historian Hunter Lesser shared how the state of West Virginia was created during Monday’s Elkins Rotary meeting. Lesser invited members to learn about ‘Lincoln’s Odd Trick: Heroes, Rascals & Rogues of West Virginia Statehood.”
“It is a really strange tale and if you are a little bit familiar with it, this is going to be a different version than what you heard in school,” Lesser said. “What I am going to share today is not necessarily the policy of the state of West Virginia. This is my take on West Virginia statehood.”
Lesser said West Virginia is the strangest state in America.
“You already knew it,” Lesser said. “The creation of our state is unparalleled in American history. There is not another state like us – West Virginia’s bazaar borders – not one but two panhandles – are the result of a very strange mix of politics and Civil War. I am not afraid to expose the warts of her creation.”
Lesser took Rotary members back 150-plus years to 1861.
“West Virginia was still part of Virginia,” Lesser said. “It was still part of the Old Dominion. The two Virginias were divided by the Allegheny Mountain chain and also divided by culture and economics.”
Lesser said the issues that divided the North and South in 1861 were the same issues that divided Eastern and Western Virginia.
“It should be no surprise that a new state would be created out of the Civil War,” Lesser said. “On April 17, ex-governor Henry Wise strode to the podium at a convention in Richmond and made a fiery speech. Within the hour, delegates voted to leave the Union. Henry Wise played a really important role that has been overlooked today.”
Lesser said more than 1,200 people gathered in Clarksburg at the Clarksburg Convention to listen to John Carlile, an attorney, talk about the fact that if Eastern Virginia could leave the Union, why couldn’t Western Virginia leave Virginia.
“He called a convention in Wheeling to do that very thing,” Lesser said. “This is considered to be the beginning of the state of movement. Six days after that convention, another convention was held in Clarksburg. About 800 Southern sympathizers gathered to support the Confederates. This gives you the idea that things were not that unified even in Western Virginia. Carlile wanted a new state he called New Virginia, now or never.”
Lesser said there was a statewide vote on May 23 where citizens decided to either leave Virginia and join the Confederacy or remain in the Union.
“They voted overwhelmingly to leave, which was no surprise,” Lesser said.
Lesser described many more key people and ideas that led to West Virginia becoming a new state. He said in the end, Carlile got the honor of drafting the statehood bill. The bill passed in December 1962.
“All that stood between West Virginians and their cherished dream of a new state was the signature of the president,” Lesser said. “Passage of the statehood bill was more unwelcome news for President Lincoln. Lincoln feared the bill was unconstitutional. He sent it to his six-member cabinet with two questions – is it constitutional and is it expedient?”
Lesser said the cabinet came back split.
“Lincoln said the president is better off without a cabinet at all,” Lesser said. “The signing deadline was Dec. 31, 1962. On New Year’s Eve at 7 p.m., Lincoln was visited by three statehood advocates. The president told them he would have to give them the odd trick.”
Lesser said Lincoln signed the bill.
“For Lincoln, it was an expedient act in wartime,” Lesser noted. “The government has been fighting for nearly two years for its existence. The friends of the bill say it will strengthen the Union cause and will weaken the cause of the rebels. It is a step, and it is political. But we scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle. For brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. The division of a state is dreaded as a president, but a measure made expedient by war is no measure for times of peace.”
Lesser said on June 20, 1863, West Virginia officially became the 35th state in the Union. Lesser offered copies of his book, “Rebels At the Gate” for sale following the meeting.