West Virginia in the American Civil War

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The U.S. state of West Virginia was formed out of western Virginia and added to the Union as a direct result of the American Civil War (see History of West Virginia). In the summer of 1861, Union troops under General George McClellan drove off Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee. This essentially freed Unionists in the northwestern counties of Virginia to form their own government as a result of the Wheeling Convention. After Lee's departure, western Virginia continued to be a target of Confederate raids, even after the creation of the new state in 1863. These actions focused both on supplying the Confederate Army with provisions as well as attacking the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that linked the northeast with the midwest, as exemplified in the Jones-Imboden Raid. Guerrilla warfare also gripped the new state, especially in the Allegheny Mountain counties to the east, where loyalties were much more divided than in the Unionist northwest part of the state.


Political events

On 17 April 1861, the state convention in Richmond declared secession. Nearly all delegates from counties west of the Allegheny Mountains voted against secession, and most people and officials in that area refused any directions from the secessionist state government.

On 15 May, western Virginia Unionists convened the first session of the Wheeling Convention. Many of the delegates were informally or self-appointed, so the Convention only denounced secession and called for formal election of delegates. The elected delegates met in the second session on 11 June. On 20 June the Convention declared that by acceding to secession, the officials of the state government in Richmond had forfeited their offices, which were now vacant. The Convention then elected replacements for these state offices, creating the Restored Government of Virginia.[1]

The "Restored" government was generally supported in areas where secession was opposed. Union troops also held the three northernmost counties in the Shenandoah Valley, and despite the pro-secession views of most residents, these counties were also subjected to the "Restored" government.

At the Wheeling Convention, some delegates proposed the immediate establishment of a separate state. However, other delegates pointed out that the creation of a new state would require the consent of Virginia, under Article IV of the Constitution. Thus it was necessary to establish the Restored Government of Virginia to give that consent, which was granted 20 August 1861.

A referendum in October 1861 approved statehood; a constitutional convention met, and its work was approved by referendum in April 1862. Congress approved statehood that December, with the condition that slavery must be abolished in the new state. This condition required a new constitutional convention and referendum. The revised constitution provided for the future abolition of slavery, which took effect on 3 February 1865.

On 20 June 1863, the newly proclaimed state of West Virginia was admitted to the Union, including all the western counties and the lower (northern) Shenandoah "panhandle".

All the northern states had free public school systems before the war, but not the border states. West Virginia set up its system in 1863. Over bitter opposition it established an almost-equal education for black children, most of whom were ex-slaves.[2]

When Union troops occupied parts of eastern Virginia such as Alexandria and Norfolk, these areas came under the jurisdiction of the Restored Government. They were not included in West Virginia. With West Virginia statehood, the Restored government relocated to Alexandria.

Military events

In April 1861, Virginia troops under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson occupied Harpers Ferry and part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad leading into western Virginia. They seized many B&O locomotives and railcars on 23 May.

In May and June 1861, Confederate forces advanced into western Virginia to impose control by the Richmond government and the Confederacy. They got no further than Philippi, due to bad roads and no local support. Then Union troops under McClellan drove them back in July.

There was additional campaigning further south, where Greenbrier County was pro-Confederate, enabling Confederate troops to enter Nicholas County to the west. In September 1861, Union troops drove the Confederates out of Nicholas County and defeated their counterattack at Cheat Mountain.

Thereafter all of the trans-Allegheny region was under firm Union control except for some of the easternmost counties. Greenbrier County was occupied in May 1862. Pro-Confederate guerrillas burned and plundered in some sections, and were not entirely suppressed until after the war was ended.

There were two minor Confederate expeditions against the northeastern corner of the west later on: Jackson's Romney Expedition in January 1862; and the Jones-Imboden Raid in May–June 1863.

Union strategy for the region was to protect the vital B&O Railroad and also attack eastward into the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia. This latter goal proved impossible, due to the poor roads across mountainous terrain.

The B&O passed across the lower (northern) end of the Shenandoah, east of the Alleghenies. This area was therefore occupied by Union troops for nearly all of the war, and was a scene of frequent combat.

Harpers Ferry was the site of a major U.S. Army arsenal, and was taken by Confederates in the opening days of the war, and again during the Maryland Campaign of 1862. During the Maryland Campaign it was a route of invasion and retreat for the Army of Northern Virginia; the campaign concluded there with the Battle of Shepherdstown.

Many soldiers from West Virginia served on both sides in the war.

Those in Confederate service were in "Virginia" regiments.

Those in Union service were in "West Virginia" regiments. (Several Union "Virginia" regiments were redesignated at statehood.) Among these were the 7th West Virginia Infantry, famed for actions at Antietam and Gettysburg, and the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, which also fought at Gettysburg.

On the Confederate side, Albert G. Jenkins, a former U.S. Representative, recruited a brigade of cavalry in western Virginia, which he led until his death in May 1864. Other western Virginians served under Brig. Gen. John Imboden and in the Stonewall Brigade under Brig. Gen. James A. Walker.[3]

Guerrilla war

On May 28, 1861 one of the first trials of the Civil War for sabotage took place in Parkersburg, Virginia. A group of men were found playing cards under a B&O railroad bridge and arrested by Federal authorities. The trial was conducted by Judge William Lowther Jackson (later, Gen. W.L. Jackson, C.S.A.). The men were acquitted, since no actual crime had taken place, but Parkersburg was split over the verdict, and Judge Jackson left to join Col. Porterfield at Philippi.[4]

With the defeat of Confederate forces at the Battle of Philippi and the Battle of Cheat Mountain only occasionally would they occupy parts of western Virginia. Local supporters of Richmond were left to their own devices. Many guerrilla units originated in the pre-war militia, and these were designated Virginia State Rangers and starting in June, 1862, these were incorporated into Virginia State Line regiments. By March, 1863, however, many were enlisted in the regular Confederate army.[5]

Counties of West Virginia still held by the Confederacy as of Feb. 1863

There were others though who operated without sanction of the Richmond government, some fighting on behalf of the Confederacy, while others were nothing more than bandits who preyed on Union and Confederate alike. Early in the war captured guerrillas were sent to Camp Chase or Johnson Island in Ohio, Fort Delaware in Delaware and also the Atheneum in Wheeling. Some were paroled after taking an oath, but many returned to their guerrilla activities. The Union authorities began to organize their own guerrilla bands, the most famous of which was the "Snake Hunters", headed by Capt. Baggs. They patrolled Wirt and Calhoun counties through the winter of 1861-62 and captured scores of Moccasin Rangers, which they sent as prisoners to Wheeling.

The fight against the rebel guerrillas took a new turn under Gen. John C. Fremont and Col. George Crook, who had spent his pre-war career as an "Indian fighter" in the Pacific Northwest. Col. Crook took command of the 36th Ohio Infantry, centered around Summersville, Nicholas County. He trained them in guerrilla tactics and adopted a "no prisoners" policy.[6]

"The Secessionist Army-Irregular Riflemen of the Alleghanies, Virginia", Harper's Weekly, July 20, 1861

On January 1, 1862, Crook led his men on an expedition north to Sutton, Braxton County, where he believed Confederate forces were located. None were found, but his troops encountered heavy guerrilla resistance and responded by burning houses and towns along the line of march.[7] But by August, 1862, Unionist efforts were severely hampered with the withdrawal of troops to eastern Virginia.

In this vacuum Gen. William W. Loring, C.S.A, recaptured the Kanawha valley, Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins, C.S.A., moved his forces through central West Virginia, capturing many supplies and prisoners.[8] Confederate recruitment increased, Gen. Loring opening recruitment offices as far north as Ripley.

In response to rebel raids, Gen. Robert H. Milroy issued a command demanding reparations to be paid in cash and proceeded to assess fines against Tucker county citizens, guilty or not, and threatened them with the gallows or house-burning. Jefferson Davis and Confederate authorities lodged formal complaints with Gen. Henry Wager Halleck in Washington, who censured Gen. Milroy. However, Milroy argued in defense of his policy and was allowed to proceed.

By early 1863 Union efforts in West Virginia were going badly. Unionists were losing confidence in the Wheeling government to protect them, and with the approaching dismemberment of Virginia into two states guerrilla activity increased in an effort to prevent organization of county governments. By 1864 some stability had been achieved in some central counties, but guerrilla activity was never effectively countered.[9] Union forces that were needed elsewhere were tied down in what many soldiers considered a backwater of the war. But Federal forces could not afford to ignore any rebel territory, particularly one so close to the Ohio River.[10]

As late as January, 1865, Gov. Arthur I. Boreman complained of large scale guerrilla activity as far north as Harrison and Marion counties.[11] In one last, brazen act of the guerrilla war, McNeill's Rangers of Hardy County kidnapped Generals George Crook and Benjamin F. Kelley from behind Union lines and delivered them as prisoners of war to Richmond. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox finally brought an end to guerrilla war in West Virginia.[12]


On May 30, 1861, Brig. 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...".[13] After nearly two months in the field in West Virginia he was less optimistic. He wrote to Gov. Francis Harrison Pierpont 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."[14] 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."[15]

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.[16] Gen. Henry A. Wise also complained of recruitment in the Kanawha valley, though he eventually assembled 2,500 infantry, 700 cavalry, three battalions of artillery for a total of 4,000 men which became known as "Wise's Legion".[17] One regiment from the Wise legion, the 3rd Infantry (later reorganized as the 60th Virginia Infantry) was sent to South Carolina in 1862, and it was from Maj. Thomas Broun of the 3rd Infantry that Gen. Robert E. Lee bought his famous horse Traveller.

In April 1862 the Confederate government instituted a military draft,[18] and nearly a year later the U.S. government did the same. The Confederate draft was not generally effective in West Virginia due to the breakdown of Virginia state government in the western counties and Union occupation of the northern counties, although conscription did occur in the southern counties. In the southern and eastern counties of West Virginia Confederate recruitment continued at least until the beginning of 1865.[19]

The Wheeling government asked for an exemption to the Federal draft, saying that they had exceeded their quota under previous calls.[20] An exemption was granted for 1864, but in 1865 a new demand was made for troops, which Gov. Boreman struggled to fill. In some counties, ex-Confederates suddenly found themselves enrolled in the U.S. Army.[21]

The loyalty of some Federal troops had been questioned early in the war. The rapid conquest of northern West Virginia had caught a number of Southern sympathizers behind Union lines. 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."[22]

There has never been an official count of Confederate service in West Virginia. Early estimates were very low, in 1901 historians Fast & Maxwell placed the figure at about 7,000.[23] An exception to the low estimates is found in Why The Solid South?, whose authors believed the Confederate numbers exceeded Union numbers.[24] In subsequent histories the estimates rose, Otis K. Rice placed the number at 10,000-12,000.[25] Richard O. Curry in 1964 placed the figure at 15,000.[26] The first detailed study of Confederate soldiery estimates the number at 18,000,[27] which is close to the 18,642 figure stated by the Confederate Dept. of Western Virginia in 1864.[28] In 1989 a study by James Carter Linger estimated the number at nearly 22,000.[29]

The official number of Union soldiers from West Virginia is 31,884 as stated by the Provost Marshal General of the United States.[30] These numbers include, however, re-enlistment figures[31] as well as out-of-state soldiers who enlisted in West Virginia regiments. In 1905 Charles H. Ambler estimated the number of native Union soldiers to be about 20,000.[32]

Richard Current estimated native Union numbers at 29,000.[33] In his calculations, however, he only allowed for a deduction of 2,000 out-of-state soldiers in West Virginia regiments. Ohio contributed nearly 5,000,[34] and with the deduction of Pennsylvania and other state's volunteers that estimate is reduced considerably.

The West Virginia Dept. of Archives and History believes that Confederate and Union numbers were about equal[35][36] though they give no specific numbers. The George Tyler Moore Center in Shepherdstown estimates the Union numbers to be 22,000-25,000.George Tyler Moore Center

Nursing during the Civil War

The Sisters of St. Joseph, who operated Wheeling Hospital in that city, were nurses during the war. They treated soldiers brought to the hospital and prisoners at the Athenaeum in downtown Wheeling. In 1864, the Union army took control of the hospital, and the sisters went on the federal payroll as matrons and nurses, beginning that summer. Several of them later received pensions in recognition of their service.

Civil War battles in West Virginia

Civil War Battles Fought in West Virginia

The Manassas Campaign:

The Western Virginia Campaign:

Later actions:

West Virginians in the Civil War


26 Medals of Honor were credited to West Virginians for actions during the war. Another 6 medals were awarded to born West Virginias who relocated and were credited to other states.[37]
A total of 14 medals were awarded to soldiers of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry; making it the highest decorated regiment of the Union Army.


See also


  1. http://www.wvculture.org/history/statehood/statehood07.html
  2. F. Talbott, "Some Legislative and Legal Aspects of the Negro Question in West Virginia during the Civil War and Reconstruction," West Virginia History, Jan 1963, Vol. 24 Issue 2, pp 110-133
  3. Snell, Mark A., West Virginia and the Civil War, History Press, 2011, pg. 194
  4. Hardway, Ronald V., "On Our Own Soil. William Lowther Jackson and the Civil War in West Virginia's Mountains". Quarrier Press, 2003, pgs. 39-40
  5. James Carter Linger, "Confederate Military Units from West Virginia", 2002 ed., pg. 20.
  6. Kenneth W. Noe, "Exterminating Savages" essay in "The Civil War in Appalachia", Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1997, pg. 115
  7. Noe, pg. 116
  8. Richard O. Curry and F. Gerald Ham, "The Bushwhacker's War: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in West Virginia", Civil War History, December 1964, pgs. 428-29
  9. Curry & Ham, pgs. 430-33
  10. Noe, "Exterminating Savages", pg. 120-121
  11. Curry, Richard O., "A House Divided", Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1964, pgs. 77-78
  12. Jones, Virgil Carrington "Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders", Galahad Books, 1995 ed., pgs. 350-362
  13. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, p. 28
  14. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, pp. 63-4
  15. McGregor, "The Disruption of Virginia", p. 245, note 2.
  16. White, Robert, Col. "Confederate Military History, Maryland and West Virginia", part 2, p. 15
  17. Horn, "The Robert E. Lee Reader", p. 118
  18. Ayers, Edward L. In the Presence of Mine Enemies, W.W. Norton, 2003, pg. 241
  19. Nov. 15, 1864, Lt. Col. V.A. Witcher reported to Maj. Gen. J.C. Breckenridge from Logan County Court House that he had 400 new recruits with him, 200 more waiting for him in Wyoming County, as well as 4-5 partially recruited companies. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 43, pgs. 651-52.
  20. Current, Richard N. Lincoln's Loyalists, Oxford Univ. Press, 1994, pgs. 21-22
  21. Shaffer, John W. Clash of Loyalties, A Border County in the Civil War", West Virginia Univ. Press, 2003, pg. 78
  22. McGregor, "The Disruption of Virginia", pp. 246-7, note 1. Letter to Governor Pierpoint from Fairmount, March 10, 1862, signed John Coogle, Company I, 18th Regiment. They had elected "a most vile Secessionist as Captain. A majority are rebels and would like nothing better than to hand over the organization to the South."
  23. Fast, Richard E. & Hu Maxwell The History and Government of West Virginia, Morgantown, 1901, pg. 135
  24. Herbert, Hilary A. (ed.), Why The Solid South?, Baltimore, 1890, pg. 259
  25. Rice, Otis K. West Virginia: A History, Lexington, KY, 1985, pg. 125
  26. Curry, Richard O. A House Divided, Pittsburgh, 1964, pgs. 167-68
  27. Dickinson, Jack L. Tattered Uniforms and Bright Bayonets: West Virginia's Confederate Soldiers, Huntington, WV, 1995
  28. Headley, John W. Confederate Operations in Canada and New York, New York, 1906, pg. 471
  29. Linger, James Carter Confederate Military Units of West Virginia, Tulsa, OK, 2002 revised ed.
  30. Biennial Report of the Department of Archives and History of the State of West Virginia, Charleston, 1906, pg. 62
  31. "...it was shown that on April 30. 1865, the State of West Virginia had furnished, of all arms and for different terms of service, 31,884 men, for service in the United States Army. These figures, however, include all re-enlistments of which there were quite a large number. Of these there were two regiments of Veteran Infantry, and one of Cavalry. They were composed of three years men who re-enlisted for the war. In addition to the men composing these regiments, numbers of others re-enlisted, so that it is believed that the actual number of troops from West Virginia in the United States service during the war was about 28,000."Biennial report of the Department of Archives and History of the State of West Virginia, 1911, pg. 206.
  32. Ambler, Charles H. Disfranchisement in West Virginia, Yale Review, New Haven, 1905, pg. 38.
  33. Current, Richard Lincoln's Loyalists, Union Soldiers from the Confederacy, New York, 1992, pg. 216
  34. Reid, Whitelaw Ohio in the War, Vol. II, pg. 3
  35. see Conclusion: The Civil War in West Virginia
  36. "Although early estimates noted that Union soldiers from the region outnumbered Confederates by more than three to one, more recent and detailed studies have concluded that there were nearly equal numbers of Union and Confederate soldiers." http://www.wvculture.org/history/civwaran.html
  37. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.


  • Ambler, Charles H. Sectionalism in Virginia from 1776 to 1861 (1910)
  • Curry, Richard Orr. "A Reappraisal of Statehood Politics in West Virginia", Journal of Southern History 28 (November 1962): 403-21. in JSTOR
  • Curry, Richard Orr. "Crisis Politics in West Virginia, 1861-1870," in Richard O. Curry ed., Radicalism, Racism, and Party Realignment: The Border States During Reconstruction (1969)
  • Curry, Richard Orr. A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and Copperhead Movement in West Virginia (1964)
  • Fredette, Allison. "The View from the Border: West Virginia Republicans and Women's Rights in the Age of Emancipation," West Virginia History, Spring2009, Vol. 3 Issue 1, pp 57–80, 1861-70 era
  • Graham, Michael B. The Coal River Valley in the Civil War: West Virginia Mountains, 1861. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-62619-660-5.
  • Link, William A. "'This Bastard New Virginia': Slavery, West Virginia Exceptionalism, and the Secession Crisis," West Virginia History, Spring 2009, Vol. 3 Issue 1, pp 37–56
  • MacKenzie, Scott A. "The Slaveholders' War: The Secession Crisis in Kanawha County, Western Virginia, 1860-1861," West Virginia History, Spring 2010, Vol. 4 Issue 1, pp 33–57
  • McGregor, James C. The Disruption of Virginia. (1922) full text online
  • Noe, Kenneth W. "Exterminating Savages: The Union Army and Mountain Guerrillas in Southern West Virginia, 1861–1865." In Noe and Shannon H. Wilson, Civil War in Appalachia (1997), pp 104–30.
  • Riccards, Michael P. "Lincoln and the Political Question: The Creation of the State of West Virginia" Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 27, 1997 online edition
  • Rice, Otis K. West Virginia: A History (1985)
  • Stealey, III, John Edmund. "West Virginia's Constitutional Critique of Virginia: The Revolution of 1861-1863," Civil War History, March 2011, Vol. 57 Issue 1, pp 9–47
  • Talbott, F. "Some Legislative and Legal Aspects of the Negro Question in West Virginia during the Civil War and Reconstruction," West Virginia History, Jan 1963, Vol. 24 Issue 2, pp 110–133
  • Zimring, David R. "'Secession in Favor of the Constitution': How West Virginia Justified Separate Statehood during the Civil War," West Virginia History, Fall 2009, Vol. 3 Issue 2, pp 23–51

External links