W.Va. Inches Toward Statehood

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

The Fourth of July in 1862 was celebrated as never before in the history of Wheeling.

The Intelligencer described the scene in the city: “The businesses were all closed, and the whole population turned its attention to being patriotic. The city looked as if it were wrapped in millions of star spangled banners and little American flags. According to the program the bells of the city rung at an early hour in the morning, the cannon boomed from all quarters, waking the echoes and the people and bringing the world hereabouts to a sudden sense of its duty on the great and glorious occasion.”

The cannon the newspaper mentioned “booming from all quarters” was a spoil of war. Captured by Gen. Kelley at Romney, it was sent to Wheeling posthaste in order to aid in the celebrations.

A Soldier’s Aid Society was organized in Wheeling with Gov. Francis Pierpont on the board of directors.

The society beseeched local residents to help their cause, “Let us then do our part – let all, old and young, male and female, unite in this work of grateful love. Other states and cities are awake to this object and are sending contributions to their relief – still much more is needed and shall we be behind all the others?”

Fifty sick soldiers arrived in Wheeling on July 11 and were housed in the Sprigg House Hospital, bringing the total sick and wounded men to 166 in that hospital alone.

For those soldiers who were more intent to forget themselves and the role they played in the national conflict, a “gentle” reminder was sent out from Camp Carlile on July 21, 1862: “Notice is hereby given to all persons wearing the insignia of officers or soldiers of the United States Army and not entitled to do so, to immediately remove the same, else they will be publicly stripped of them and placed under arrest. All soldiers absent ‘furlough’ or otherwise, are again ordered to report immediately to avoid arrest as deserters.”

Charles Ellet Jr., the engineer of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, was also responsible for the creation of a Union Ram Fleet on the western rivers. While commanding his fleet, he took a bullet in the leg in the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862. At first, his injury was considered not life threatening, but he died two weeks later on June 21, 1862. Ellet’s body was taken to Philadelphia where it laid in state in Independence Hall until he was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Things were generally quiet in Wheeling, but the fate of the proposed new state was brought up several times at the U.S. Senate meeting in Washington. Sen. Waitman T. Willey moved to take up the West Virginia statehood bill on both July 1 and July 7, and finally, on July 14, 1862, the issue came to the table for some serious debate.

Throughout the summer of 1862, when the Senate began considering admission of West Virginia to the Union, the debate on how to make West Virginia a “free state” was entwined with the issue of statehood itself.

On July 1, 1862, senators debated a provision in West Virginia’s proposed statehood bill that would free all children born of slaves after July 3, 1863. Willey pushed for gradual emancipation. Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio thought to free all slaves at a certain age, while Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts argued for the immediate emancipation of all slaves.

Sen. John S. Carlile, a strong proponent of statehood up to this point, took a controversial stance. He wanted a statewide election on the issue of slavery instead of the proposed gradual emancipation amendment. Given the Confederate sympathies in several counties of western Virginia, this very well could have stalled statehood, irrevocably. His stance was unexpected and created animosity and some confusion among those who had been working with Carlile in the Senate on the statehood issue.

These early debates continued to end without consensus.

The newspaper told of the exchanges between Wade and Carlile after he spoke out against the statehood bill, “We notice in the debates on the new State in the U.S. Senate, on Monday, that Mr. Wade became very indignant at the course of Mr. Carlile, and openly charged him with endeavoring to defeat the new state, while pretending to be its friend.”

Wade’s exact words in the Senate debate were as follows: “He has gone back of their appointment; he has not only undertaken to find fault with what they have done, but he has undertaken to say that they were not really organized to do anything; and it is the first I have heard of any such thing. We have sat in committee with that gentleman; we have heard his arguments and illustrations on this subject; we have had many men of the proposed State before us, in council with us upon it; and here for the first time today we hear that the convention who framed this constitution really did not represent the people whom they professed to represent!”

A few weeks after Carlile’s divisive vote, he gave a speech at the Athenaeum in Wheeling. The theater was crowded with spectators. He treated the subject of statehood lightly. He told the crowd that the “abolition appendages” to the statehood bill were his reason for voting against it. His umbrage was with the bill as the Senate amended it, not the bill that the Wheeling Convention created.

The Intelligencer negated this, using Carlile’s arguments in Senate against him, “… by proceeding to show that the Convention that formed it was a mere bogus Convention, the members of which represented scarcely any constituents, and whose constitution received only 19,000 of 47,000 votes. It was a blow at the whole new State project – by trying to show that there was no new State feeling among our people, and that the whole thing was unworthy of the attention of the Senate.”

Carlile’s vote against West Virginia statehood made him a traitor in the eyes of all who worked with him. He served the remainder of his term in the U.S. Senate until March 3, 1865, and was never again elected to political office.

Ultimately, the amendment written by Willey, which required only the gradual emancipation clause be approved by a constitutional convention and not a statewide election, was attached to the bill. That amendment would be known as the “Willey Amendment.”

On July 14, 1862, the Senate approved the statehood bill with a vote of 23-17.