The Civil War in West Virginia

The Civil War in West Virginia

In the early days of the war, Union troops under George McClellan drove off Confederate defenders, essentially freeing Unionists in the northwestern counties of Virginia to form their own government as a result of the Wheeling Convention. West Virginia became the 35th state of the Union on June 20, 1863.

On May 30, 1861, Gen. George B. McClellan in Cincinnati wrote to President Lincoln- "I am confidently assured that very considerable numbers of volunteers can be raised in Western Virginia...". After nearly two months in the field in West Virginia he was less optimistic. He wrote to Gov. Francis Harrison Pierpoint of the Restored Government of Virginia in Wheeling that he and his army were anxious to assist the new government, but that eventually they would be needed elsewhere, and that he urged that troops be raised "among the population". "Before I left Grafton I made requisitions for arms clothing etc for 10,000 Virginia troops--I fear that my estimate was much too large." On August 3, 1861 the Wellsburg "Herald" editorialized "A pretty condition Northwestern Virginia is in to establish herself as a separate state...after all the drumming and all the gas about a separate state she has actually organized in the field four not entire regiments of soldiers and one of these hails almost entirely from the Panhandle."

Similar difficulties were experienced by Confederate authorities at the beginning of the war. On May 14, 1861 Col. George A. Porterfield arrived in Grafton to secure volunteers, and reported slow enlistment. Col. Porterfield's difficulty ultimately, however, was lack of support by the Richmond government, which did not send enough guns, tents and other supplies. He eventually turned away hundreds of volunteers due to lack of equipment. General Henry A. Wise also complained of recruitment in the Kanawha valley, though he eventually assembled 2500 infantry, 700 cavalry, 3 battalions of artillery for a total of 4,000 men which became known as "Wise's Legion". These men were later sent to defend South Carolina.

A curious anomaly occurred in the recruitment of Union soldiers in West Virginia, the presence of Secessionist or Secessionist sympathizers within the ranks. A series of letters to Gen. Samuels and Gov. Pierpoint in the Dept. of Archives and History in Charleston, most dated 1862, reveal the concern of Union officers. Col. Harris, 10th Company, March 27, 1862, to Gov. Pierpoint-"The election of officers in the Gilmer County Company was a farce. The men elected were rebels and bushwhackers. The election of these men was intended, no doubt, as a burlesque on the reorganization of the militia."